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October 2010 Archives

By James Dacey

After studying physics at university and then moving into the computer hardware business, Nairobi inhabitant Gabriel Nderitu has now set his eyes truly skywards. He has cobbled together a 2-seater aircraft after reading about the principles of aeronautics on the internet.

In this special video report for Citizen TV Kenya, Nderitu describes his inspiration for the mission. “My boyhood interest was in aviation, so maybe it was a missed career that I’m trying to recreate or something,” he says.

The Kenyan aviator is currently applying the finishing touches to his craft, which will weigh in at 800 kg and is built around the engine of a Toyota NZE. Its wings are made from sheets of aluminium and attached to its nose is a 74 inch propeller that turns at 4000 rotations per minute. Construction began one year ago, with the help of 5 assistants, and it has cost just shy of $8000.

Nderitu tells the Guardian that in designing the craft he has downloaded roughly 5 GB of data, with Wikipedia serving as the main source of information. “It was a bit of a re-inventing the wheel – not really looking and trying to copy…it’s a matter of reading the science of it,” Nderitu tells Citizen TV Kenya.

However, despite all Nderitu’s hard work, the tale is not yet guaranteed its cheery Hollywood ending. It seems that all the media coverage surrounding the mission has also attracted the attention of the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority, which has advised that Nderitu cease working on his plane. You can hear about this latest spanner in the works in this follow-up video report.

Courtesy: Bas van Schaik

By James Dacey

When faced with the need to cut energy usage, those who favour the business-as-usual approach often argue that improvements in energy efficiency will enable us to continue consuming as before. But in the world of communications, at least, it seems that gains in energy efficiency are not keeping pace with the unrelenting growth of traffic.

That is according to a team of scientists at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs that has examined the energy consumption trends of communications equipment as compared with the related efficiency savings. On the one hand, they find that the current traffic growth rate of 40–60% will remain as high as 25–50% in 2020 even as traffic growth begins to slow as it approaches saturation. Efficiency savings, on the other hand, are currently falling 20% to roughly 10%.

The consequence, they say, is that energy is going to become an increasingly important problem for communication networks with the threat of a bottleneck situation. The findings will be presented this week at the annual meeting of the Optical Society, which is taking place in Rochester, NY.

These findings also chime with a study published recently in Journal of Physics D, which examined lighting usage over the past 300 years, finding that as lighting becomes more energy efficient, and thus cheaper, we use ever more of it. Interpretations of this study caused quite a stir in the blogosphere, leading one of the authors, Harry Saunders, to clarify the issues in this article.


By Edwin Cartlidge in Rome

Last week Italy’s energy agency ENEA put on a conference to celebrate the 50th birthday of its Casaccia research centre outside Rome. The occasion also marked the official restart of two veteran research reactors at the site, which, said the agency, represented the symbolic return of nuclear power to the country. A referendum held in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 led to all of Italy’s power reactors being shut down, but the current government announced two years ago that it was to return to the nuclear fold and start construction of a number of modern plants by the end of 2013.

There are still many people in Italy who oppose nuclear power, notwithstanding its newfound green credentials. And there are also plenty who believe that the government’s ambitious plans, ultimately to generate 25% of the country’s electricity from nuclear, are destined to become an expensive flop. Certainly, the meeting at Casaccia did not instill confidence.

Being a 50th birthday party, it was natural that scientists and engineers should take a look back at the early days of Italy’s nuclear programme, entertaining us with film clips that re-enacted some of the crucial events leading to Italian physicist Enrico Fermi’s operation of the world’s first nuclear reactor in 1942. But in all the various talks there seemed precious little to indicate that concrete steps are being taken to revive nuclear. Indeed, the politician in charge of Italy’s energy policy, Stefano Saglia, was supposed to come and tell us about the new nuclear programme, but he failed to show up.

Although Casaccia focused predominantly on renewable energies and the environment throughout the 1990s it never entirely left behind its nuclear roots. In particular, it continued to operate two research reactors, the 1 megawatt thermal reactor TRIGA and the 5 kilowatt fast reactor TAPIRO. And it is the restart of these devices, following a two-year period of maintenance, that ENEA boss Giovanni Lelli declared on Wednesday marks the symbolic return to nuclear. But in fact it seems more of a case of business as usual.

TAPIRO will carry out tests that should help in the design of future generation-IV reactors and could also provide useful data in the construction and operation of the generation-III plants that Italy wants to start building in the next few years. But by and large the two reactors seem set to carry on doing what they have done for many years – developing nuclear medicine, providing isotopes to hospitals and industry, and analysing a range of materials. All laudable activities, but nothing to do with building new power stations. While being shown around a 50-year-old reactor, particularly one that gives off an eye-catching blue glow (see above), is fun, it does not provide convincing evidence that in a few years’ time Italians will once again enjoy the benefits of homegrown nuclear energy.

life ascending.jpg

By James Dacey

Yesterday, the biochemist Nick Lane was crowned as this year’s winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books. But he may well be the last recipient of this award because the Royal Society has announced that it can no longer afford to finance the prize. It’s a sad state of affairs and could serve to reduce public interest in science in the UK at a time when science budgets are being squeezed.

Lane took the £10,000 prize for his book Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which charts the history of life on Earth through 10 of its most wondrous features, such as sex, photosynthesis and consciousness. Upon winning the award Lane said, “I’ve been following the prize since its inception and I know it’s the highlight of the year for many scientists.”

Among the six books shortlisted for the prize were Why Does E = mc2, co-written by particle physicist Brian Cox, and We Need To Talk About Kelvin by established science writer Marcus Chown.

The prize was created in 1988 as the science writing equivalent of the Booker prize for literature. It was the same year that Stephen Hawking published A Brief History of Time, although interestingly Hawking did not win the 1989 prize, which instead went to Roger Lewin for Bones of Contention, a book about controversies in the search for human origins

Over the years physics-related books have fared well, with winners including David Bodanis in 2006 for Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World and Philip Ball in 2005 for Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another.

But in recent years the prize has been struggling to attract media attention after the pharmaceutical company Aventis withdrew its sponsorship in 1997. Now, the Royal Society has said that it will terminate the awards unless they can get financial support from an external sponsor.

By James Dacey

Scientific outreach is a noble activity and if done well it can be equally exhilarating for both scientists and their audiences. One young physicist with a natural flair for communication is Melanie Windridge, a nuclear fusion researcher who recently worked at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxfordshire, UK.

Melanie has been chosen as the 2010 schools lecturer by the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World), a role that sees her travelling the UK, delivering talks to more than 13,000 students between the ages of 14 and 16.

In this special video report, I caught up with Melanie at a school in Derbyshire, a recent stop on the school lecture tour. Melanie talks passionately about why she chooses to devote her time and energy to scientific outreach and the people that have inspired her along the way.

Describing her experiences of being on the road giving the 2010 IOP lecture tour, Melanie believes that she is lucky with her area of expertise. “Fusion is inherently very interesting and energy is a very emotive subject, so it’s relevant to people’s lives,” she says

Melanie then talks me through one of her favourite plasma demonstrations, and provides some practical advice for other researchers who want to engage in outreach activities. “The first thing – people always mention it, but it is really important – is to think about your audience. To think about what age group they are and so what they will understand…but also think about their attention spans.”

Music for the video was kindly supplied by my brother’s up-and-coming electro-rock band, the Spires.

And if the video has whetted your appetite for nuclear energy, you can also download a free PDF of October’s Physics World magazine, a special issue on nuclear power.

Calendar geeks

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By Hamish Johnston

Just a very quick blog to point you towards images from a photo-shoot for a “geek calendar” that’s being sold to raise money for the Libel Reform Campaign.

Models include particle physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox and science journalist Simon Singh – who has been involved in a high-profile libel case.

Brian seems to own the same toaster that we have at home – c’mon Brian, my five-year-old daughter can make perfectly good toast with that make and model!

The Libel Reform Campaign believes that England’s libel laws must be changed because they are skewed towards rich plaintiffs and this is stifling science journalism.

I happen to agree and donated a tenner to their cause, and now they seem to have put it towards making this calendar!

Learning and networking at the COMSOL
short courses.

By Joe McEntee, group editor, Boston

Earlier this month, I spent a day at the sixth annual COMSOL User Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. For those who don’t know, COMSOL is the company behind the COMSOL Multiphysics software platform for the modelling and simulation of all manner of physics-based systems.

The conference, like COMSOL’s customer base, isn’t short on variety. With more than 350 attendees, 150 user presentations and 20 short courses, the programme ranges across many areas of academic and industrial research, among them acoustics, bioengineering, heat transfer, electromagnetic fields, microfluidics, fuel cells and photonics.

The keynote presentations reinforced the multidisciplinary feel. Thomas Dreeben of US lighting company OSRAM SYLVANIA, for example, explained how his team is using multiphysics modelling to study energy-efficiency improvements in high-intensity discharge lamps that exploit “acoustic streaming”.

Dreeben and his colleagues hope that one day their endeavours will yield an “increase in lamp efficiency over current technology”, and in turn put a significant dent in global electricity consumption – 20% of which is currently used to keep the lights on.

Meanwhile, fellow keynote speaker Mihan McKenna of the US Army Engineer R&D Center put the focus on the here and now – and specifically the use of COMSOL in a disaster-prevention context for civil and military geophysics applications ranging from modelling of water intrusion in levees to evaluating the structural integrity of bridges.

Lest anyone forget, COMSOL is in business to shift product and the wide-ranging scientific programme is ultimately a means to that end. To oil the wheels of commerce, each conference delegate got to play with the pre-release of COMSOL Multiphysics version 4.1, with “enhanced productivity” billed as the headline selling point.

For Bernt Nilsson, COMSOL’s senior vice-president of marketing, the User Conference works on a number of levels, but most important is the “deeper engagement” it provides with scientific and industrial researchers. “This is a cross-disciplinary melting pot where high-end users can come together to network and learn from each other,” he explained.

“We’re seeing more users wanting to present too. It’s become a notable career event because we promote the content so widely. Your presentation in the conference proceedings alone means that it reaches more than 100,000 engineers and scientists worldwide.”

• The proceedings of the COMSOL User Conference will be available in December. Readers interested in ordering a free copy can register here.

By Matthew Chalmers

Flowers presentation
Credit: BARC

If you’re wondering who that is second from right, holding a bunch of flowers while desperately trying to smile naturally in front of a camera, right in the hub of India’s nuclear power programme, it’s me. I was in the subcontinent after being sent by Physics World magazine to write about India’s audacious “three-stage” nuclear programme that seeks to exploit the country’s vast reserves of thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium. (You can read my final article “Enter the thorium tiger” in the October issue of the magazine, which can be downloaded free of charge via this link.)

The bouquet, along with a large leather wallet, was presented to me as a gift from directors of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) near Mumbai. My fellow flower holders – all from the British High Commission in Delhi – were there to build links between UK and Indian nuclear scientists, while I was present to unearth what I could about India’s nuclear plans. The flowers came from BARC’s extensive flowerbeds, which were laid at the request of the late physicist Homi Bhabha.

BARC, near Mumbai. Credit: BARC

There’s a certain romanticism to the way Bhabha, who established India’s nuclear programme 60 years ago, is revered among Indian nuclear physicists. He not only provided a vision of energy security that thrives 44 years after his untimely death in an air crash above the Alps, but used his connections to set in place an infrastructure that ensured his vision became reality.

Initially perplexed at why other countries weren’t exploiting thorium – a fuel that has many benefits over uranium – I asked one senior BARC physicist why the UK doesn’t have a nuclear roadmap like India’s. “Ah!,” he said, waving a finger at me, “it’s because you don’t have a Bhabha!”

Indian nuclear physicists take great pride in having developed most of their technology indigenously, owing to India’s being a nuclear-armed nation outside the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). But writing my article for Physics World. was not without its challenges.

Professional hierarchy is more apparent than in, say, a UK physics laboratory, and at times the atmosphere while I was at BARC was hugely formal, particularly when the new lab director was present. Plans to meet a few students and postdocs working at BARC were soon dashed, and recording equipment in India’s heavily guarded government labs is none too popular either.

Access to India’s nuclear programme would have been difficult were it not for the diplomatic context of my visit – and even then there were issues when it came to dealing with India’s top nuclear officials.

Changing geopolitical relations, particularly since 2008, when the US and India signed an agreement that led to India being brought into the nuclear fold, have led several countries to line up to co-operate with India on civil nuclear trade and technology. The UK is one of them.

During my trip the new UK prime minister was also visiting India, along with a trade delegation. Shortly afterwards, a bunch of joint research grants between physicists in the UK and India were funded – selected from a dozen fully costed proposals drawn up in just two days in the basement of a central London hotel back in March amid a flurry of sticky notes and chirpy facilitators from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It was an impressive feat to witness, although not without a few bemused faces. Most of the nine Indian and 20 UK delegates had never met nor had much idea about each other’s research interests.

The Mumbai streets. Credit: M Chalmers

One thing that most surprised me in India is how few people on the street, so to speak, seem to know anything about India’s nuclear programme. Those who did know about thorium (whom I found while sipping cold beer in Chennai’s Madras Club, having visited India’s other big nuclear lab – the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) on the other side of the country to Mumbai) all thought the programme was nowhere near on track, which is not what the physicists involved will tell you. Most people I got chatting to also assumed that I was interested in their views on weapons, rather than on civil nuclear power, with one or two asserting India’s right to develop them.

There is a degree of sensitivity to civil-nuclear collaboration between India and countries that are signatories of the NPT, which includes pretty much every other country. While having lunch at BARC with the lab’s new director, he made no mention of India’s weapons research as he listed the many basic science and other non-nuclear research taking place there.

Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor. Credit: IGCAR

Yet, gazing out of the window as we enjoyed a local interpretation of fish and chips, I could see – against a background of jungle and well-tended gardens leading out to the Arabian Sea – two large ageing nuclear reactors, one of which is to be shut at the end of this year as part of India’s commitment to separate its strategic and civilian nuclear programmes (a requirement of the US–India deal). I couldn’t help thinking how apt was the phrase “the elephant in the room”, as one UK nuclear physicist described the military dimension of nuclear technology to me.

But the thing that struck me overall while touring BARC and IGCAR was the sheer amount of effort involved to harness a new nuclear fuel cycle – an effort most deem too great at this time given the availability of and experience with uranium. I left IGCAR after being hurried past a blur of laboratories each piecing together a tiny aspect of Bhabha’s plan, from advanced welding joints to material irradiation tests.

In the back seat of the car bound for Chennai airport, I tore open some gift wrap to find that I was the proud new owner of a blue velvet box containing an ornament in the form of a large gold-coloured metal leaf. Lovely.

To read more, check out “Enter the thorium tiger” in the October issue of Physics World magazine, which can be downloaded free of charge via this link.

Matthew Chalmers is a freelance science writer in Bristol, UK

An interview with Anton Zeilinger

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By James Dacey


It’s a rare thing to meet a scientist who appears to have a truly open mind about the future of their field. But when I recently caught up with Anton Zeilinger, the Vienna-based quantum information scientist, his enthusiasm for an overthrow of accepted quantum theory left me in no doubt that Zeilinger is a researcher relishing the future.

Zeilinger firmly believes that human emotions play a key role in the progress of science and researchers are often unwilling to accept brave new ideas, perhaps due to a fear of the unknown. “We can see that too often scientists are conservative and sometimes even emotionally against what they perceive as speculation,” he told me.

The physicist also believes that children should be exposed to the concepts of quantum mechanics from an early age, perhaps by incorporating the laws of quantum mechanics into computer games. “It could be a game that works according to the rules of quantum mechanics, not according to the rules of classical mechanics. And we could see if the children are able to play with it, not knowing what is behind it,” he explained.

You can now read my full interview with Anton Zeilinger, which has just been published here on

Data from ATLAS are the black dots that follow a relatively smooth curve. Excited quarks would appear as bumps that are illustrated by the three coloured curves. (Courtesy: PRL)

By Hamish Johnston

Unlike most people, particle physicists can get very excited about seeing absolutely nothing.

Indeed, one of the world’s most prestigious journals has published a letter from the ATLAS collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) about how the multibillion-euro facility has found no evidence for an “excited quark” or any other unexpected particles.

And furthermore, it’s done a much better job at not finding an excited quark than its less energetic competitor, Tevatron at Fermilab in the US.

In the Standard Model of particle physics, quarks are fundamental particles. This means that they have no internal structure and therefore no excited states. By failing to find excited quarks (or other surprise particles) at masses up to 1.26 TeV, the ATLAS team have provided invaluable guidance to physicists who are developing theories beyond the Standard Model.

Tevatron had previously excluded excited quarks to about 0.87 TeV, which required 3500 times more data than the ATLAS measurement. This performance bodes well, and we can look forward to the LHC not finding many more particles – and who knows, it might even manage to find a new particle or two.

But what’s really incredible about this paper in Physical Review Letters is the author list, which begins with G Aad and ends with V Zutshi. Normally, letters are restricted to four pages, but this one stretches to 19 pages to include all the authors and their organizations. I gave up counting authors (I think there are about 3000), but there are 177 organizations listed.

Sadly, 19 authors passed away before seeing ATLAS’s first publication of results in PRL.

The letter is published at Phys. Rev. Lett. 105 161801.

By Hamish Johnston

I know there’s nothing sadder than a middle-aged man rocking out with an electric guitar – especially if he’s singing about condensed-matter physics.

I tried to resist, but I was strangely compelled to watch this reworking of that classic-rock anthem “Cocaine” by a bunch of physicists at Georgia Tech in honour of this year’s physics Nobel.

Fortunately the viewer is spared the Jeremy Clarkson jeans and other dad-fashion faux pas that the band members are no doubt making; instead the tune plays over what looks like a selection of Andre Geim’s PowerPoint slides.

Highlights include the verses:

“If you got bad gates and need quantum states…graphene”


“Don’t forget Dirac, straight bands are a fact…graphene”

and the chorus:

“She goes fast, she goes fast…graphene”

Actually, it’s not a bad version with some smoking riffs by Mike Duffee on guitar and a smoky vocal by engineering professor Paul Neitzel.

Makes me think I should dust off my axe, slip into a pair of M&S ComfortFit jeans, and pen a little ditty. Or maybe an entire concept album called “Tales from Topological Insulators”.

Scientists protest against impending cuts to the UK science budget

By Leila Sattary

On Saturday I joined more than 2000 scientists who gathered outside the UK Treasury in Westminster to attend the Science is Vital rally to protest against the expected cuts to the UK science budget.

I was one of the thousands of lab-coat-wearing protesters cheering and chanting below UK chancellor George Osborne’s window as he worked on the figures for the impending Comprehensive Spending Review, which is due to be published next week and set department budgets for the next four years.

It is unnatural for scientists to gather to talk about money, of all things, but that just shows the worry they feel about the likely spending cuts to the UK science budget. Politicians should recognize how very unusual it is for scientists to come out of the lab and on to the street to protest.

While many of the protesters who attended the rally were young scientists, obviously worried about their future careers in science in the UK, it was clear to me that most people were there because they are fundamentally concerned about the future wellbeing of our country and how the UK could fall without sustained funding for science.

Science is Vital was started by cell biologist Jenny Rohn. In a few short weeks, with the help of Facebook and Twitter, word had spread that scientists were mobilizing to support the future of science funding in the UK. In addition to the rally, Science is Vital has also organized a petition, which now has more than 25,000 signatures and will be presented to Parliament on Tuesday.

Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat and science supporter, acted as coordinator and rustled the group of geeks into something that almost resembled a protest mob chanting “Hey, Osbourne, leave our labs alone.” He might not be much of a singer, but Evan certainly understands what makes politicians tick. Despite our attempts at chanting and being an angry horde the atmosphere was good spirited and festival-like with just as much laughing at nerd jokes as protesting.

Speakers at the rally included Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science.

Mark Miodownik, head of the Material Research Group at Kings College London, who is giving this year’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures also spoke and reminded scientists to stick together. He told us that in our fight against funding cuts we should avoid being divided by scientific faction by the desire to protect our own subject area, and instead work together to give a strong and unified message to government.

Overall, scientists were not whining and not threatening; in typical scientific style, they were stating the facts – science is vital.

Leila Sattary is a projects officer at the University of Oxford and a freelance writer


Evan Harris rallies the troops

Credit: Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

By Matin Durrani

The Times newspaper has today drawn up a list of the UK’s “100 most important scientists”.

If you haven’t seen the list, which appears in the paper’s excellent Eureka! monthly science magazine, I can reveal that the list is topped by the Nobel-prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, who discovered the genes that control cell division. The Times dubs him the UK’s “superman of science”.

Second up is Sir Mark Walport, director of the biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust, which doles out a tidy £600m a year on research. According to the paper, Walport “sports a moustache to rival the legendary handlebars” of the trust’s founder Sir Henry Wellcome.

And if you’re wondering if there are any physicists on the list, don’t worry: there are plenty. In third place is Stephen Hawking, who needs no introduction to readers, although in case you’re wondering, he’s the “cosmologist and best-selling author”.

The other physicists on the list are the president of the Royal Society Martin Rees (8th), who took part in a video interview last February, Andre Geim, who only two days ago won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of graphene (9th) and Philip Campbell, editor of Nature and founding editor of Physics World magazine (13th). (Eureka! obviously went to press before Geim scooped the Nobel gong as the entry on him doesn’t mention the award. Still it shows the list can’t be totally unreliable.)

Next up, in 15th, is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who last week completed her two-year term as the first female president of the Institute of Physics, which publishes

In 17th you’ve got Cambridge University physicist Richard Friend, the “plastic electronics pioneer” whose work on light-emitting polymers has “contributed more to our enjoyment of life than almost any living physicist”. Apparently.

Popping up in 18th is another Cambridge physicist – David Mackay, chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. In case you missed it, check out our review of Mackay’s excellent book on the energy challenge.

Next on the list is Brian Cox – Manchester University particle physicist and TV presenter – who is in the 25th spot. Cox is so well known he even featured in’s own April fool earlier this year.

Still in the top 30, we find “alien hunter” Paul Davies (27th), who wrote a great feature for us and presented a superb webinar on the search for extraterrestrial life earlier this year, followed by the Nobel-prize-winning Sir Peter Mansfield (28th), who co-invented MRI.

Further down is the science writer and libel-reform campaigner Simon Singh (33rd), Peter Higgs (34th), climate scientist Sir John Houghton (42nd) and the Imperial College London invisibility-cloak inventor Sir John Pendry (48th).

In 51st is entrepreneur and founder of Acorn Computers Hermann Hauser, followed by Tim Berners-Lee (52nd), optical-fibre expert David Payne (56th) and Steven Cowley (58th) – the head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and author of an excellent article in the October issue of Physics World on the prospects for fusion.

I hope you’re not nodding off by now, but in 62nd is Imperial College’s Jim Virdee – spokesperson for the Large Hadron Collider’s massive CMS experiment and who features in this video. In 67th is Virdee’s Imperial colleague and all-round optics nice-guy Sir Peter Knight.

In 68th we find Lord John Browne – the former boss of oil giant BP turned “super adviser”, who wrote for us on the challenges of climate change. Cambridge University dark-matter expert George Efstathiou, meanwhile, is 69th, one place ahead of Robin Millar from the University of York in 70th, who is also the only science educator on the list and a winner of the Bragg medal of the Institute of Physics two years back.

Next up is Mark Welland, who makes an appearance in 85th as chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Bringing up the rear in 99th is Steve Bramwell, “inventor of magnetricity” at the London Centre for Nanotechnology.

Right, and if you’re wondering who is responsible for this list, which no doubt you either strongly agree or disagree with, step forward The Times’ four-strong panel. It is made up of Cambridge University physicist Athene Donald (and my former PhD supervisor), ex-UK science minister William Waldegrave, Imperial College science-communication lecturer Alice Bell and former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris.

They ranked a list of top scientists from a long-list drawn up by The Times’ staff based on recommendations by the great and good in academia, business and public life.

So what do you think of the top 100? Comment below if you think the placings are all wrong, or if you think there is someone else from the physics community who should have made it onto the list. No doubt you’ll have your views.


By Hamish Johnston

In 2008, Nobel laureate Andre Geim gave a lecture about graphene at the annual conference of the Condensed Matter and Materials Physics division of the Institute of Physics.

The lecture is called “Graphene: exploring carbon flatland” and you can watch it here.


By Hamish Johnston

It used to be called the Manchester Guardian, so you would think the newspaper would be keen to feature two University of Manchester physicists who have just won the Nobel prize for discovering graphene.

This morning there is a Manchester physicist on the top slot of the Guardian’s science webpage, but it’s not laureates Andre Geim or Konstantin Novoselov.

And the Nobel news has been relegated to the third slot.

I suppose I should be heartened by the fact that the Nobel story has far more comments than the piece on particle physics – and I know that Brian Cox does a great job at communicating science to the public.

Maybe I’m asking too much for the rest of the UK to get excited about this Nobel prize. And perhaps here at we give too much coverage to graphene – 82 articles and counting.

Of course it’s not the Guardian’s job to promote UK science, but I can’t help thinking that this editorial decision is a reflection of how science is seen in the UK (and elsewhere).

We tend to be interested in a few flashy projects like the LHC and indifferent to scientists like Geim or Novoselov, who toil away in tiny labs making big discoveries with the potential of changing all our lives.

Credit: Detlav van Ravenswaay, Science Photo Library

By Margaret Harris

Like many physicists, I understand quantum mechanics only if I don’t actually think about it. Once I dig a bit deeper, I soon find myself scrabbling at the edges of some very big questions. Like, what does it actually mean for a wavefunction to “collapse”? And what role does the “observer” really play?

The so-called “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics offers an intriguing answer to such questions. As postulated by the American physicist Hugh Everett III back in 1957, this theory suggests (among other things) that whenever we perform a quantum-mechanical experiment, the world splits into many alternative futures – as many futures, in fact, as there are possible outcomes of the experiment.

One advantage to this interpretation is that it bids a tidy goodbye to paradoxes like Schrodinger’s cat. Under many-worlds theory, there exists one universe in which the mind-boggling moggy is dead, and another in which it’s mewing its head off for supper. Simple. But given that the theory also suggests a riotous proliferation of probably-unobservable alternate universes, it is perhaps unsurprising that Everett initially struggled to get it taken seriously.

If this were a Hollywood movie, Everett’s life post-1957 would have been a noble (and ultimately successful) battle for recognition. In one of his possible worlds, perhaps that’s exactly what happened. In this one, however, Everett quit physics in disgust; took a job in military research; became an alcoholic; and died of a heart attack in 1982 – just when his theory was beginning to gain traction in the physics community.

To learn a bit more about Everett and his theory, I’d urge you to sign up for the latest in’s lecture series. In “Many Worlds: How Hugh Everett III Changed Quantum Mechanics”, Everett biographer Peter Byrne will describe the ways in which many-worlds theory evolved over the course of its inventor’s often-troubled life.

The lecture is free and will take place on Thursday 14 October at 4.00 p.m. BST. You’ll also be able to view the lecture afterwards. For more details, please see the registration page.


By Hamish Johnston

As you might imagine we’re all rather chuffed here in the UK after two physicists at the University of Manchester won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

To celebrate, IOP Publishing (which brings you has made all papers published in its journals by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov free to download.

You can dig into the papers here.

By Hamish Johnston

There’s just 18 hours and 21 minutes until the physics Nobel is announced – or so says the tacky countdown on the Nobel Foundation website.

So there’s time for just one more Nobel-related blog entry.

Yesterday’s Observer had an interesting article about the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who famously didn’t share the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics with Willy Fowler and Subramanyan Chandrasekhar.

Fowler bagged his half for his work on nucleosynthesis – the process by which stars create heavy elements out of hydrogen. He was apparently shocked to learn that his long-time collaborator Hoyle was snubbed by the Nobel committee.

Why? According to the science writer Robin McKie, it’s because Hoyle believed, among other things, that outbreaks of flu are sometimes caused by microbes from outer space.

Should you win a Nobel if your views aren’t always conventional? The answer is apparently no.

You can read more here.

By Hamish Johnston

The grass is always greener on the other side of the street.

That old proverb applies to physics research as much as anything else – especially in many European countries where austerity measures are ravaging research budgets.

The UK is no exception and today the Guardian is running a two-page spread about an impending brain drain. The piece caught my eye because it profiles two physicists at opposite ends of the career ladder – Brian Foster and Tom Whyntie. You can read their stories here.

The main article describes an “insidious grinding down of the UK research community” and suggests that UK universities may soon have to shed as many as 30 departments. Individual universities such as Newcastle and Liverpool can look forward to losing research funds totalling £4m and £3.5m per year respectively, claims the article. Less prestigious institutions could be cut off completely.

It sounds like many British scientists will be looking abroad for funds – but if you take another country’s money, they usually expect you to live there.

Not a problem if you luck out and get a job at the University of California at Santa Barbara or the University of Western Australia.

But you will have to be made of tough stuff if you opt for the sweltering humidity of a university in booming South-East Asia or the freezing six-month winters of a campus on the resource-rich Canadian prairies. Or you could find yourself in a prosperous but tiny “college town” in the US, hundreds of miles from the nearest big city.

I suppose if all you want to do is physics, then you don’t care about your surroundings. Indeed, you probably don’t even notice the gentle climate, lovely countryside and vibrant cities surrounding most UK universities.

And I’m not saying that because I am British. I’d like to think that I am part of the Canadian brain drain, although I’m probably flattering myself!

Nuclear power – the road ahead

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By Louise Mayor


Until recently, the phrase “nuclear power” conjured for me a hazy and somewhat ignorant vision, comprising images of cooling towers, diagrams of fission and a sense of subdued controversy, in which proponents from neither the pro- nor anti-nuclear lobbies seem to know more about the subject that I do from high-school days.

But for the past few months I have been immersed in the landscape of modern nuclear power in preparation for a special issue of Physics World, which should land on readers’ doorsteps any day now. It is also available as a free PDF download.

Something I really wanted to get to grips with, when it comes to nuclear power, is who has what, and where? Well, if you do too, check out our colour-coded nuclear power world map, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency. It’s on pages 38 and 39 of the “special issue”.

But where do we go from here? In the long term, newly built reactors could be based on the six designs that the Generation-IV International Forum – consisting of 13 Members including the Russian Federation, the US, China and the UK – identified to meet its goals. Physics World’s Rome correspondent Edwin Cartlidge writes about these in the feature “Nuclear’s new generation”.

We also review four concepts for radically different reactor designs, including the travelling-wave reactor endorsed by Bill Gates; and accelerator-driven sub-critical reactors, which we quiz Nobel-prize-winning physicist Carlo Rubbia about in a Q&A.

Not only are there new designs, but new fuel. Elsewhere in the special issue, award-winning science writer Matthew Chalmers looks at how India is seeking to exploit its vast reserves of thorium as an alternative to uranium.

As well as fission, nuclear power also covers the realm of fusion. In the feature “Hot fusion”, Steve Cowley, chief executive of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, looks at the challenges facing the ITER facility being built in southern France. He says that with predictions of net power gain at ITER, we should act now to reduce the time to commercial fusion.

Attitudes are key in an energy future with nuclear power in the mix – a future that is only feasible if it has support. With that in mind, check out the debate between climate scientists who go head to head on the merits of nuclear power. You’ll find this, and much more, in the October issue of Physics World.

nobeltime.jpg By Hamish Johnston

Forgive me for being a grumpy old man, but there is something on the Nobel Foundation website that is driving me crazy (see right).

The foundation seems to be saying that the physics prize will be announced at 11.45 CET and 9.45 GMT.

But how can this be? There is only one hour difference between CET (Central European Time) and GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

Furthermore, Stockholm will still be on Central European Summer Time (CEST) next Tuesday.

So did they mean to say that the announcement will be made at 11.45 CEST, which is 9.45 GMT?

I sent an e-mail to the foundation asking as much, I’ll keep you posted.