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Physics on film

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September 2010 Archives

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By Hamish Johnston

The UK’s premier scientific organization, the Royal Society, has released a “new short guide to the science of climate change”.

Entitled Climate Change: a Summary of the Science, the 19-page document can be downloaded here.

The guide was produced in part because of pressure from 43 members of the society, who had complained that a 2007 report from the organization did not acknowledge fully areas of uncertainty in climate science.

As a result, the report has a more measured tone, but still asserts “There is strong evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been caused largely by human activity.”

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By Hamish Johnston

Back in April, Scott Dallimore of the Geological Survey of Canada did what most scientists can only dream of – he published a paper in the journal Nature.

The work describes a massive flood that occurred about 13,000 years ago when water from an immense glacial lake broke out and hurled towards the Arctic Ocean.

The work was covered in media outlets around the world and Dallimore’s co-authors were quoted widely. Sadly, Dallimore was denied his moment in the Sun because he was effectively prevented from speaking to reporters by his employer, the Canadian Government.

This apparent censorship in Canada is described in a comment piece in today’s edition of Nature by Kathryn O’Hara (pictured above), president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

I say “effectively prevented”, because Dallimore could have spoken if the journalist’s questions and his answers were first vetted by the government. However, this can take several days or even months according to science writer Glen Blouin. When combined with Nature’s embargo policy (which gives journalists only a few days to write their articles), it is unlikely that Dallimore could have been quoted when the story broke.

A quick survey of blogs and comments on this topic suggests that muzzling is not new. What seems to have changed is that scientists are now a target of the government’s information machine.

Why? It could have something to do with the fact that the current prime minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party have strong connections to the province of Alberta – a major oil producer and home to the controversial oil sands.

Years ago when I was in high school we were taught that Alberta is sitting on top of the world’s largest oil reserve – and we only had to wait until the price of oil was high enough to make extraction from the oil sands viable.

30 years on and we have reached that price point, but concerns about vast carbon dioxide emissions and other environmental issues have made the oil sands a political hot potato.

I’m guessing that there are some in Alberta and in Ottawa who want to make sure that government scientists don’t spoil the long-awaited bonanza.

By Matin Durrani
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I’ve never done any astronomy but I imagine that looking for extrasolar planets must be fun. Given that researchers have so far discovered more than 400 of these distant beasts, tracking them down them can’t be all that hard, making the “reward/effort ratio” pretty high.

Of course, what we all want to know – from our puny, self-absorbed human perspective – is when will we spot the first truly Earth-like planet.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I was intrigued by a paper on arXiv by Samuel Arbesman from Harvard University and Gregory Laughlin from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who looked at the rate at which the first 370 extrasolar planets were discovered, did some jiggery-pokery in the form of a “bootstrap analysis”, and then worked out exactly when “the first potentially habitable planet with a mass similar to Earth” will be found.

The pair weren’t talking about vague dates in the future but had a very specific time in mind – with the likeliest date being, wait for it, “early May 2011”. Now that’s what I call having confidence in your data.

Today, though, astronomers in the US, who are part of the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey, report finding a new – and what they say is “potentially habitable” – Earth-sized planet, which may prove that Arbesman and Laughlin were, if anything, a bit too pessimistic.

The new planet, dubbed Gliese 581g, is one of two new planets discovered around the star Gliese 581 – the red object pictured above. Gliese 581 lies some 20 light years away from Earth and is now known to have at least six planets around it, one of which is the grey object above.

The newly observed planet has got a mass of between 3.1 and 4.3 that of the Earth. Its radius is between 1.2 and 1.5 that of the Earth, while its surface gravity is 1.1 to 1.7 times that of the Earth.

The results were obtained by tracking 11 years of data on the star’s radial velocity and looking for tiny movements in response to the gravitational tug from orbiting objects.

The temperature’s a bit on the chilly side though – between about –31 °C and –12 °C. Still, the authors say Gliese 581g is in the “habitable zone” – defined as being far enough from the system’s star so that a planet gets just enough energy to keep water on the surface in liquid form.

You can read more about the finding in the original paper, which is due to be published in The Astrophysical Journal

So is this finding a big deal? Or just yet another, slightly dull exoplanet to add to the mix?

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By Hamish Johnston

Over the last week or so we have been scratching our heads trying to come up with a new and exciting way of hyping up the impending physics Nobel prize announcement (one of the few things that we do hype here at Physics World).

In the past we have published our (ultimately wrong) predictions and invited readers to share their views on who will win the prize.

This year, I’m going to defer to the cartoon residents of Springfield, who have come up with predictions of their own.

There could be a distinguished physicist called Oliver Williamson, but I think Martin may have recycled his economics pick for 2009.

By Matin Durrani

Here at Physics World HQ we’re more than happy with the concept of energy conservation.

So we have nothing against energy company E.ON’s attempt to get the public to reduce the amount of electricity they use by giving certain of their customers “energy monitors”.

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These are small electronic gadgets that measure electricity consumption around the home in real time, allowing homeowners to keep close tabs on how much they are using.

But I was shocked to get an e-mail today from physicist Steve Bolter, alerting me to the fact that E.ON’s “Energy Fit” energy monitors indicate “Energy Now” measured in – wait for it – kilowatts.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the picture on the right.

Even worse, click on the video above, which shows a smiling Kevin Bryant from E.ON showing the Fiddis family how the unit works. At about 3.27 minutes, you’ll see our Kev tell the unsuspecting Fiddises that “you are using 580 watts of energy at the moment”.

It’s enough to make you scream – particularly from a company that should know better.

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By Hamish Johnston

On 7 August five of the world’s leading accelerator labs opened their doors to amateur photographers in an event called the Particle Physics Photowalk.

The participating labs were CERN in Switzerland, DESY in Germany (pictured top right), Fermilab in the US, KEK in Japan and TRIUMF in Canada (bottom right).

The photographers were then invited to submit their best photographs and each lab selected three works to submit to the public.

You can vote for your favourite photos here.
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The winner will be announced after the voting closes on 8 October.

Which photo is my favourite?

I’m torn between Ali Lambert’s arrangement of paper clips standing up on what must be a very powerful magnet, and Hans-Peter Hildebrandt’s study of…well, I’m not sure what it is but it looks very nice!

rees.jpgBy Hamish Johnston

“I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know he has read very little philosophy.”

So says Martin Rees (pictured right), who as president of the Royal Society is seen by many as the voice of British science.

Rees – who like Hawking is a cosmologist – was speaking to the Independent’s Steve Connor about politics, the fate of mankind and Hawking’s views on the existence of God.

You can read Connor’s piece here.

By Hamish Johnston

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The BBC has a wealth of archive material at its disposal – everything from Led Zeppelin performances to television programmes featuring the late physicist Richard Feynman.

The latter was featured earlier this week on the BBC Radio 4 show The Archive Hour, presented by particle physicist and media darling Brian Cox.

“As curious as he was clever”, is how Cox describes Feynman. In an archive recording, Hans Bethe calls Feynman “a magician”.

Feynman (1919–1988) is widely celebrated as the greatest physicist of his generation – the first generation after the founding of quantum mechanics.

Heisenberg, Shrödinger and Dirac were a tough act to follow, but Feynman did so with remarkable flair. He developed the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, shared the 1965 Nobel prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, and brought us Feynman diagrams.

Feynman was also a keen teacher and populizer of physics, which is what much of the BBC programme focuses on. It includes contributions from Steven Weinberg, Freeman Dyson and the filmmaker Christopher Sykes. In the 1980s, Sykes made a series of television programmes with Feynman called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and Fun to Imagine, which you can also watch on the BBC website .

A fascinating insight into how Feynman explains science can be had from an exchange in which Sykes asks Feynman a simple question about why magnets repel each other. Feynman admits that there is no simple way of explaining why and trying to simplify the problem would do the questioner no service.

But the highlight of the programme is listening to Feynman speaking enthusiastically in his “Noo Yawk” accent about why he is curious about science – sounding more like a Borscht Belt comedian than one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers.

There were no mother-in-law jokes, but Feynman did tell a funny story about his childhood summers in the Catskills.

Nano pioneers give food for thought

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By Louise Mayor

This week I was at the scientific opening of the Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information (NSQI) at the University of Bristol. The event coincided with the Bristol Nanoscience Symposium 2010, and featured great talks from some of the pioneers of nanoscience and nanotechnology.

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(Left) Nobel Laureate Heinrich Rohrer declared the centre officially open. Photo credit: Jesse Karjalainen. (Right) The NSQI centre itself – the labs are out of sight and sound in the basement. Can you spot the nano-inspired architectural feature?

At the opening event on Monday evening, IBM Fellow Charles Bennett talked about how to make quantum information “more fun and less strange”. His educational analogies included the idea of monogamy in quantum information – that the more entangled two systems are with each other, the less entangled they are with any others. “The lesson is this: two is a couple, three is a crowd”, he said. He also talked about how information doesn’t get lost in quantum systems but does in classical ones – how it’s like there are eavesdroppers, and it’s harder to factorize when someone’s looking over your shoulder.

The stage was then passed over to Heinrich Rohrer (pictured), a figure revered by many in the audience. It was Rohrer, along with Gerd Binnig, who invented the scanning tunnelling microscope – an instrument that can image and manipulate single atoms – for which they were co-recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Rohrer was at the time at IBM’s Zurich lab.

Rohrer commented about the “nano” revolution – that some say it’s hype, while others are more relaxed about it. “Let us not make a discipline out of ‘nano’ ”, he warned. He also said that the new trend is for people to operate using claims and catchphrases rather than careful explanations; he noted that in all his reading of Einstein’s papers he never once found words such as “new” or “unique”.

In his closing comments, Rohrer proposed a litmus test for the centre’s success. He said that if the NSQI can attract a good number of female nanoengineers and nanomechanics then it is a good sign of interesting research being done at the centre – and then you’re on the right track for the future. He then declared the centre officially open, and we all piled in to the centre for champagne and a tour of the labs, which are described in a previous blog entry: Visiting the quietest building in the world.

But for me, the most exciting talk was given the following day by Stanley Williams of Hewlett-Packard (HP)…

By Margaret Harris in Rome

The European Planetary Science Congress is taking place this year just a stone’s throw from Rome’s Imperial Forum, so it’s appropriate that the scientific programme is speckled with Roman gods and goddesses – specifically Mercury, Venus, Mars, Titan and Saturn. With missions to all these heavenly bodies dominating the agenda, picking a session to attend wasn’t easy, but in the end I plumped for Mercury, hoping to learn more about the smallest, hottest planet in our solar system.

I wasn’t disappointed. It turns out that NASA’s Messenger mission is already reshaping our understanding of Mercury, even though the spacecraft isn’t due to enter Mercury’s orbit until 18 March 2011. Prior to that momentous date, however, the spacecraft performed three flybys, and the data collected during those intentional near-misses have revealed – among other things – a planet that was far more volcanically active, for far longer, than scientists had previously thought.

An earlier mission, Mariner 10, had helped define the image of Mercury as a dead, cratered lump of rock, more like the Earth’s Moon than a “proper” planet. Now that the Messenger flybys have mapped over 90% of its surface (compared to Mariner 10’s 50%), a more complex picture is emerging. Mercury did, in fact, have active volcanoes early in its history; indeed, volcanic activity was so extensive that the top 5 km of the planet’s crust is mostly the remains of pyroclastic flows, with some impact ejecta (stuff kicked up when meteors and so on hit) thrown in. And some of these flows are quite recent, at least by Mercury’s standards – less than 1 bn years old, which makes it younger than some rock formations on Earth.

Later talks in the same session added to the impression of a surprisingly complex planet, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the surprises keep coming once Messenger gets into its stride next year.

Glowing review

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By Louise Mayor, Grenoble

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(Left) Suited and booted and (right) Cherenkov radiation from an old reactor core

When I awoke last Thursday morning I didn’t expect that by the end of the day I’d have seen a nuclear reactor. And I don’t just mean looking at a big concrete building from the outside – I saw stuff glowing and had to wear a funny-looking suit and booties.

I was visiting the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France, where atoms are split not to generate electricity but to use the neutrons in experiments. In fact, that’s the whole purpose of the ILL reactor, known as a “neutron source”.

But why neutrons? Being electrically neutral, neutrons can penetrate deep into matter, right to the nuclei of atoms. Charged particles, in contrast, get scattered by atomic electrons. Neutrons can be thought of as a particle or wave, and with a wavelength on the order of Angstroms like those produced at the ILL, they interact with crystal structures to form a diffraction pattern as described by Bragg’s law. This pattern can be used to find out the positions of atoms in a sample, as well as how they move.

One application of neutron scattering I heard about was to look inside a turbine blade that’s been subjected to a projectile frozen chicken – the experimental version of a real-life, unlucky stray pigeon or seagull. Neutrons have been used to probe inside the turbine blade without having to interfere with it further by cutting it apart.

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(Left) Neutron goings-on and (right) leaving via the air lock

Upon leaving the reactor hall I went back out through an air lock; there is a lower pressure inside the building so that if there is some leak, gas goes in and not out. Not quite the end of it, I then had to put my hands in a hole each and watch a progress bar slowly fill the screen ahead before I got the reassuring confirmation: “NOT CONTAMINATED”.

Another way to generate neutrons is “spallation”, where protons are accelerated towards a heavy metal target and knock neutrons off atomic nuclei. This method will be used in the European Spallation Source (ESS), which Sweden and Denmark won the bid last year to co-host in Lund, Sweden. To find out more, you can watch this video where the ESS is introduced by none other than Sir Patrick Stewart.

Pope’s astronomer hits the bar

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By James Dacey, Birmingham

This is the Pope’s astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno. And yep, those are the Maxwell equations printed on his t-shirt with the punchline: “and there was light”.

Consolmagno was answering questions tonight in the informal setting of a student union bar as part of the British Science Festival, which is currently taking place in Birmingham.

He was a lot more candid than I expected, describing the Pope as “a really great guy” who reminded him of Ludvig von Drake, the Walt Disney cartoon duck that is fascinated by knowledge.

On the customary question of how he squares his religious belief with the pursuit of rational scientific facts, Consolmagno jokingly compared it to separating his nationality from his favourite football team.

On a more serious note later in the evening, Consolmagno said that he sees no reason for conflict between science and Catholic teachings, which interpret the Bible rather than taking it literally. He was keen to distance the Catholic church from creationist views, which he described as a “much more modern idea”.

Consolmagno is one of 12 scientists working within the Vatican observatory where he also has the task of curating the Vatican’s meteorite collection. His own research involves studying the physical properties of meterorites, in particular how they form from dust in the absence of water and significant pressures.

When asked whether he thought there could be life on other planets he said is comfortable with the idea. He says the notion that liquid water beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa could offer habitable conditions for life is one of the most fascinating questions in physics.

On the question of whether he would baptize an alien, Consolmagno says “yes, but only if they asked”.

Consolmagno says it is coincidence that his appearance in Britain is at the same time as the ongoing papal tour, which will also be visiting Birmingham this Sunday.

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Computer simulation showing a time sequence of the water-enhanced effect
By Hamish Johnston

First there was the “Brazil nut effect”, then the “reverse Brazil nut effect” – and now physicists in the UK have cracked the “water-enhanced Brazil nut effect”.

For those of you not familiar with these phenomena, grab a can of mixed nuts and give it a good shake – but make sure the top of the can is always pointing upwards.

When you open the can, you’ll be amazed to find that most of the Brazil nuts have risen to the top – and the smaller peanuts and hazel nuts will be hiding at the bottom.

That’s great if, like me, Brazil nuts are your favourite.

If not, you might prefer the reverse Brazil nut effect, whereby the larger bodies sink to the bottom.

Physicists have been puzzled by this effect for at least 35 years and now they have one more variant to worry about thanks to Michael Swift and team at the UK’s University of Nottingham.

The researchers placed a steel “Brazil nut” (radius 3.5 mm) in a water-filled box and then topped it up with a thick layer of glass beads (radius 1 mm). The box is then vibrated vertically under the watchful eye of a high-speed camera. The experiment is then repeated in a dry box.

They found that the water makes the Brazil nut rise much faster that in the dry situation. To understand why, the team did a series of computer simulations.

The simulations suggest that when the beads are thrown upwards during the vibration cycle, the Brazil nut travels further because its motion is less affected by fluid drag. But when the beads fall back, the Brazil nut cannot drop to its former height because beads have filled the space beneath it.

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You can read all about it in this paper in Europhysics Letters.

That brings me to another food-related effect that I first spotted years ago – the “anomalous curry paste effect”.

Take a jar of Patak’s curry paste (other brands are available), scoop out a few spoonfuls, replace the lid tightly and then place in a cupboard at room temperature for a few weeks. You will find that oil from the paste somehow escapes through the lid, and flows down the sides of the jar to make a messy red ring on the shelf.

Repeat the experiment with the paste in the refrigerator and the oil stays in the jar.

If you can explain why, there’s an IgNobel prize waiting for you at Harvard!

By Hamish Johnston

How do you convert a major particle physics lab into a leading centre for materials science, chemistry and biology? That was the leading question confronting Helmut Dosch when he was appointed director of DESY in 2009 – the first condensed-matter physicist ever to hold that post.

In this exclusive video interview, Dosch explains why DESY, which is located in Hamburg, Germany, is making the transition from colliding particles to developing world-class “photon science” facilities that are used by scientists across a wide range of disciplines.

Dosch talks about the key role that the lab is playing in building the €1.2 billion European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL), which Dosch describes as “a high-speed camera for the nanoworld”. At the heart of the laser is an electron accelerator that will run 3.4 km from DESY to an experimental hall on the outskirts of Hamburg.

The European XFEL uses superconducting cavity technology that was developed at DESY – and the same technology is now being used in preliminary designs for the International Linear Collider (ILC). The ILC will be the next big thing in particle physics after CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and Dosch explains how DESY’s involvement in the project will keep the lab at the cutting edge of accelerator technology.

While he admits that it’s unlikely that the ILC will be built in Hamburg, there are plenty of options for boosting DESY’s photon-science capability. One discussed by Dosch is the possible conversion of the dormant HERA accelerator ring into a light source.

In a separate interview filmed in the experimental hall of the FLASH free electron laser, DESY’s director of photon science, Edgar Weckert, explains how that facility is informing the development of the European XFEL.

Weckert explains how FLASH was used to make aluminium momentarily transparent to light and other photon-science highlights at the facility. Indeed, FLASH is so popular that DESY has to turn down most of the requests it gets from scientists for time on the instrument. An enviable problem that soon could be relieved with the building of FLASH II, according to Weckert.

If you want to know more about the research at DESY, Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics has just published a special issue entitled Intense X-ray Science: the First Five Years of FLASH. All papers in the issue are free to download until March 2011.

Digesting Stephen Hawking’s new book

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By James Dacey

I’m a big fan of the Guardian’s Digested Read in which columnist John Crace takes a newly released book and condenses it into short humorous parody of the original work, often relying on our intimate knowledge of the celebrity author in question. This week, it was the turn of Stephen Hawking and his recent release The Grand Design, which was making headlines across the globe before it was even released last week.

I have picked out a couple of bits that really made me chortle:

“Quantum theories can be formulated in many ways, but the most intuitive is the description of it as a system that has not just one history but every possible history. Let me explain. This book may look unique. But really it’s almost identical to at least three other books in which I have tried and failed to explain cutting-edge astrophysics to the scientifically illiterate…

“But I suppose we should start with Democritus’s theory of the atom, God, scientific determinism and effective theory because that’s pretty much what I’ve done in the past, but I can’t help feeling I’m wasting my time. Though that feeling may not be correct, as there are many different pictures of reality. In other words, there is no theory-independent concept of reality; rather there is only model-dependent realism, where our four-dimensional world may be shadows on the boundaries of 11-dimensional space–time. Sod it. I was right first time. I have lost you already. So there’s probably no point you reading the next bit about quarks and pi mesons.”

The parody is written in good spirit, but I couldn’t help but smile in recognition when I read Crace’s closing footnote: “Er…thanks Stephen, that’s lovely. If you could just end with something you haven’t written before to create a few headlines, then we’re done. How about God doesn’t exist? Lovely job. Let’s do it all again in a couple of years.”

Read the full digested read on the Guardian website.

By Hamish Johnston

UPDATE: Chu and colleagues have uploaded a second preprint related to the gravitational redshift debate.

Steven Chu and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji shared the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics (along with William Phillips) for their work on the laser cooling and trapping of atoms.

Now the two Nobel Laureates find themselves on opposing sides of a “preprint battle” over the re-interpretation of an experiment done in 1998. The experiment involved using vertical laser pulses to bounce atoms up and down in order to study the interference patterns that occur when different atomic trajectories meet.

In February 2010, Chu (who is now US energy secretary) along with Holger Mueller and Achim Peters published new calculations showing that the experiment confirms gravitational redshift to a few parts in a billion.

A result of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravitational redshift is the stretching of the wavelength of a particle as it moves away from a massive object such as the Earth. Other experiments have confirmed this aspect of general relativity to much greater precision, but these involved macroscopic objects. Any deviation in redshift for a quantum particle such as an atom could point towards a unified theory of gravity and quantum mechanics – the Holy Grail of physics.

But about 10 days ago, Cohen-Tannoudji and colleagues uploaded a paper to the arXiv preprint sever in which they argue that Chu and colleagues have not measured gravitational redshift after all.

As far as I can tell, Cohen-Tannoudji and colleagues argue that Chu and company made a mistake in their calculation of the expected interference caused by a deviation from gravitational redshift. When the correct calculation is done, they say, a deviation from gravitational redshift has zero effect on what was measured in 1998.

Now, Chu and colleagues have hit back with their own preprint. It argues that Cohen-Tannoudji and team made their calculations using mathematics that assumes gravitational redshift cannot be violated – essentially precluding its violation!

Stay tuned for round three.

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The winning image of the 2010 astronomy photographer of the year award (Courtesy: Tom Lowe)

By Michael Banks

US photographer Tom Lowe has beaten hundreds of amateur and professional photographers from around the globe to win the 2010 astronomy photographer of the year award run by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and Sky at Night Magazine.

Lowe’s winning shot, “Blazing Bristlecone”, which secured him the top prize of £1000, was taken on 14 August 2009 and shows the star-riddled Milky Way arching over an ancient bristlecone pine tree, which can live as long as 5000 years.

The photo was taken in White Mountains, California, with a Canon 5D Mark II camera and an exposure time of 32 seconds. “I like the way the tree follows the Milky Way and the definition is very good,” says astronomer Patrick Moore, one of the 10 panellists who judged the images.

The competition received over 400 entries from more than 25 countries and was split into three categories – Earth and space, our solar system, and deep space – together with young photographer award of the year, which was won by Dhruv Arvind Paranjpye, aged 14, from India. The winners of each category are here.

Selected images will be shown in a free exhibition at the Royal Observatory, which begins today and runs until February.

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Vince Cable believes in cuts, but what about God and M-theory?

By Hamish Johnston

This morning there was lots of talk about science on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – but I think it left many British scientists cringing under their duvets.

Stephen Hawking was on the show explaining why M-theory – an 11-dimensional structure that underlies and unifies various string theories – is our best bet for understanding the origin of the universe.

Hawking explained that M-theory allows the existence of a “multiverse” of different universes, each with different values of the physical constants. We exist in our universe not by the grace of God, according to Hawking, but simply because the physics in this particular universe is just right for stars, planets and humans to form.

There is just one tiny problem with all this – there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory.

This, and other recent pronouncements from Hawking in his new book The Grand Design were debated in a separate piece on Today by brain scientist Susan Greenfield and philosopher AC Grayling. Neither seemed too impressed with many of Hawking’s recent statements and Greenfield cautioned scientists against making “Taliban-like” statements about the existence of God.

That brings me to another bit of news making the headlines in the UK – huge and looming cuts in science funding.

The cuts will be implemented by Vince Cable who is the UK’s secretary of state for business, innovation and skills.

He was interviewed in a third piece on Today and made the remarkable claim that “45% of research grants [in the UK] go to research that is not of an excellent standard”.

Ouch…and to save money, the government will soon be “rationing funds by quality”.

So what does this have to do with Stephen Hawking and M-theory?

Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

The challenge, of course, is how to make the public aware of all the fantastic work done by other British physicists.

By Hamish Johnston

UPDATE: A tentative agreement has been reached by CAP and PEO on the natural sciences exemption.

Professional engineering is a closed shop and rightly so – you wouldn’t want to fly in an aeroplane designed and built by someone with no knowledge of aeronautical engineering principles. As a result, many jurisdictions use laws to define a set of tasks that can only be done by professional engineers.

But could this prevent physicists from doing their jobs? Yes, according to the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP), which is trying to stop changes to the Ontario Engineering Act in Canada’s most populous province.

The offending revision ensures that only a professional engineer can apply engineering principles to an activity that “concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment”.

The problem is that many engineering principles are also principles of physics (or chemistry, biology etc.). Here’s an example…

F = ma is an engineering principle and it makes perfect sense that only a professional engineer should be allowed to approve a bridge design based on such principles.

However, F = ma could also be used by a physicist to design an ion-trap-on-a-chip for a commercial quantum computer. Because economic interests are involved, the new act would require that an engineer “sign off” on the physicist’s design before it is implemented – even if the engineer knows little or nothing about quantum computing.

CAP president Henry van Driel says that such restrictions “could make it impossible for many, if not most, natural scientists to practice their professions in industry, government and universities”.

In the past, CAP and other scientific societies have negotiated with lawmakers and provincial engineering bodies to win exemptions for natural scientists. Indeed, these are spelled out in guidelines that can be downloaded from the website of Engineering Canada, Canada’s national engineering association

But now in a letter to its members, CAP is claiming that the professional body of Ontario engineers (PEO) is intent on removing the exemption and did not consult with Canada’s scientific societies while the new legislation was being drafted.

As a result, CAP had been in the dark about the changes until the bill had made significant progress through the Ontario legislature.

Now, van Driel has called on the Ontario government to make a last minute amendment to the bill that exempts natural scientists. You can read his letter here.

Each of Canada’s 10 provinces has its own engineering laws and professional bodies, so the PEO is probably in its right to ignore the Engineering Canada guidelines. However the affair doesn’t reflect well on relations between the nation’s engineers and physicists.

I’m also surprised that CAP seems to have been caught out by the revisions. The organization has been fighting this battle for nearly 30 years, so it should have seen this coming.

Talking Hawking and God

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By James Dacey

It hasn’t even been released yet but the media is awash with commentaries about Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design. People are jumping on the astrophysicist’s assertion that we no longer need a God to explain our existence because M-theory – a unified version of string theory – can now explain how the universe emerged from the vacuum.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going,” writes Hawking in an extract from The Grand Design, published yesterday in The Times.

“M-theory is the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity. For these reasons, M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite – and this is yet to be proved – it will be a model of the universe that creates itself. We must be part of this universe, because there is no other consistent model.”

But the backlash from certain religious spokespeople has already begun, including the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, who wrote an accompanying opinion piece in the The Times warning of the dangers of overvaluing scientific knowledge. “There is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science,” he writes.

The story was also covered in detail last night by the UK’s Channel 4 News (see video above) who hosted a discussion between Jon Butterworth, a particle physicist at University College London, and Alister McGrath, the chair of theology, religion and culture at King’s College London.

McGrath, a Christian theologian who previously studied physics at the University of Oxford, unsurprisingly points out that M-theory may hold all the answers to all fundamental questions. “All [Hawking] has done really is to simply move things one step into the distance…where do all these laws come from given they are of such importance?” he asks.

Butterworth, a self-professed atheist, agrees that M-theory is far from a grand unified theory of everything, but questions the need for a deity to fill in the gaps to reveal the origin rules of physics. “Whether you find it helpful to label the primary cause as God or some form of ‘pre M-theory quantum vacuum’ doesn’t really have much impact on our understanding of the universe to me, and it doesn’t really have much impact on my life as far as I can see.”

The Grand Design is published on 7 September.


By James Dacey

By many fans it is considered to be one of the most brilliant (soccer) goals ever scored, but by others it is dismissed as a bizarre fluke probably caused by rare atmospheric conditions.

The free kick scored by Brazilian fullback Roberto Carlos against France in 1997 is said to have “defied physics” on account of its wicked late swerve that stunned both the French goalkeeper and thousands of fans.

Now, 13 years on, physicists in France say that they can finally explain what happened and they believe that the wonder strike was no fluke.

On that early summer night in Lyon, Carlos struck the ball at around 35 m from the French goal. It was heading so far to the right that it initially cleared the wall of defenders by at least a metre and made a ballboy, who stood metres from the goal, duck his head. Then, almost magically, the ball curved to the left and entered the top right-hand corner of the goal.

In all the talk over the years, pundits and the occasional scientist have suggested a number of possible causes. They range from a gust of wind, to a materials effect in the ball, to unusually dry localized conditions as explained in this Physics World feature article from 1998. But the case has never been closed.

Guillaume Dupeux and his colleagues at the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau have taken a more practical approach by modelling the flight of the football in a more controlled environment, firing tiny polymer spheres through water using a slingshot.

The lightness of the balls and the density of water enabled them to track the tiny spheres as they moved through a spiral which rotates in progressively smaller orbits. The researchers dub this the “spinning ball spiral effect” and explain that we only see this when friction allows the spin effects to become comparable with the forwards trajectory.

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Tracking the trajectory of plastic spheres in water

Dupeux’s group argues that, before it smashed into the back of the net, Carlos’ free kick had also begun to follow a spinning ball spiral, which accounts for the fact that it seemed to bend significantly more at the end of its flight. The Brazilian skill came in because Carlos had kicked the ball with enough power and spin, from far enough out, for the spiral to take effect.

It’s a shame Carlos never quite managed to repeat the trick, but at least now we know it was worth him trying!

The research is published today in New Journal of Physics.

By Hamish Johnston

“Can we see the reflection of God in the laws of physics?”

That was one of the questions put to three physicists and a comedian by Ernie Rea in his radio programme Beyond Belief, which aired earlier this week on BBC Radio 4.

Rea gathered Middlesex University physicist and imam Usama Hasan; Durham University theologian, Methodist minister and former astrophysicist David Wilkinson; and University of Manchester Higgs hunter Jeff Forshaw.

Representing atheists is the comedian Robin Ince, who has presented several programmes about science.

Rea himself is a Presbyterian minister from Belfast – but definitely not of the fire-and-brimstone variety. Indeed, his soothing brogue and gentle interviewing style are perfect for getting to the bottom of the subtle religious topics he covers every week.

“Does the Big Bang origin of the universe leave room for a religious view of creation?” asks Rea, who also wonders if physics has replaced God in some people’s lives?

Rea’s final question is “What is the one discovery that [the Large Hadron Collider] might make that would alter your perception of the universe?”.

You can listen to the programme here – the editing isn’t the greatest so you have to wait about a minute or so for the previous show to end.

In other religious news, Stephen Hawking has declared in his new book “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going”.

The book is called The Grand Design and is co-written by Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow.

The book will be published next week and you can read an excerpt in The Times – but you will have to pay.

Would Einstein be ruined by Twitter?

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By James Dacey

I must admit that after long days spent in front of the computer screen researching stories, jumping from website to website, checking e-mails, etc, etc, I do sometimes find it hard to settle down in the evening and become fully absorbed in a good book. A real shame because this has always been one of my favourite pastimes and a great way to relax.

This was part of my motivation for going along to a talk last night about how the internet may be changing the way we read and think. The speaker was US writer Nicholas Carr, a long time critic of technological utopianism who caused a stir in 2008 with his article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr has since developed the arguments into his new book “The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”, which he was describing last night at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol.

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Nicholas Carr web sceptic

Carr’s main argument is that with the ever-increasing presence of the Internet in our daily lives we are losing the ability to think deeply and creatively, and to store things in our long-term memory. He believes that the control imposed by search engines and the constant availability of hyperlinks to whisk us away to other websites mean that the internet is starting to rewire our brains. “We have become obsessed with the medium, and the net is remaking people in its own image,” he argued.

It was certainly a fascinating talk and Carr argued his case well, particularly concerning the “plastic not elastic” nature of the brain and how the Internet lies in a rich history of “tools of the mind” including maps, the clock and the printing press. But too often he simply glossed over the positive aspects of the Web, such as the opportunities for online collaboration and the liberation of media now that anyone can comment or blog about their opinions. Then, of course, there is the obvious irony in the fact that many of us found out about his gig through the Festival of Ideas website.

Carr seemed to be harking back to a golden age when all of the great thinkers worked in isolation to formulate their brilliant ideas, aided only by their prolific reading of books. And it got me thinking about whether this was really true for the great scientific thinkers of the last century. Naturally my mind went to the greatest of them all, Albert Einstein, leading me to the question of whether Einstein would have let himself become distracted by the fruits of Web 2.0 such as Facebook and Twitter, and whether this would have had a negative effect on his brilliant mind.