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February 2011 Archives

Think Canada

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By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

The temperatures have been mild here at in Washington DC for the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. But according to the latest forecast the snow is on it way just as delegates are heading off home.

The AAAS was jampacked with interesting talks. We had sessions on the search for exoplanets, storing antimatter, first physics at the Large Hadron Collider, an outline of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, detecting traces of nuclear materials, the effect a nuclear war could have on the climate, and talks on adaptive optics. Even this breathless list only represents a tiny fraction of the complete programme of the 2011 AAAS conference.

The thing that caught my attention when I first entered the Washington Convention Center, which held the 2011 AAAS, was the big red “Think Canada” badges some people were wearing. I was slightly confused in the beginning, but their purpose quickly became apparent that it was to publicise the next AAAS conference.

That meeting will be in Vancouver, Canada, from 16 to 20 February 2012, so see you there (together with my pair of big red mittens).

Chris Llewellyn Smith speaking to delegates

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

The 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC had a slight winding-down feel to it today as the placards were being removed and the exhibitors packed their stalls.

But there was still a morning of talks to be had. So I headed to a session entitled “Can global science solve global challenges?” where Chris Llewellyn Smith spoke about past and future global science projects. He is an ideal speaker for the topic, given that he has been director-general of the CERN particle-physics lab and also served as chairman of the ITER council – the experimental fusion facility currently being constructed in Cadarache, France.

Llewellyn Smith went through some of the successes of global collaboration and consensus such as the eradication of smallpox in 1979 and the banning of CFCs in 1987, which successfully reduced the ozone hole.

The particle physicist also named a few examples of global collaborations that he felt had failed. This included scientists who were warning that a tsunami could occur in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami happened in 2004 killing 230,000 people and Llewellyn Smith says that lives could have been saved if warnings from scientists around the world had been heeded. He also adds communicating climate change as a challenging area that was damaged by scientists “not keeping objectivity and turning to advocacy”;.

Llewellyn Smith now calls for a global endeavour to be set up for the application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to coal power stations that would include working out if the technique is at all possible and, if so, then the best way to store carbon dioxide underground. “CCS is going to be crucial if we don’t stop burning coal,” he says.

Indeed, Llewellyn Smith is involved with a Royal Society report into global science, which will be released on 29 March. He didn’t want to give the report’s conclusions away but says the report will concern “where science is happening and who is working with who”. There will be no specific recommendations made in the report but “we hope that it will start a debate” he says.

Freebies galore

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Conference collectables

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

No conference trip is complete without hoarding freebies from exhibitor stands.

So above is the result of my 30-minute sweep through the exhibition hall at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting here in Washington, DC.

Kudos to the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who were providing USB hubs to conference goers (bottom left item in the image above). No expense spared there.

The AAAS yo-yo was a particular hit with delegates, with many people walking through the exhibition doing yo-yo tricks. The strangest item has to be the EurekAlert! sticky brain – not sure what I am going to do with that.

My favourite freebie has to be the big red “Canada” mittens. Next year’s AAAS conference is in Vancouver, Canada, so they just might come in handy then.

Gateway to conference freebies

Carbon concerns

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How much carbon is coming out?

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

“Carbon is the most important element, but we are deeply ignorant of its effect on the Earth,” says Robert Hazen from the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Hazen is the principal investigator of the deep carbon observatory – a 10-year programme funded by the Alfred Sloan Foundation to better understand the Earth’s carbon cycle.

It’s a wide-ranging study and speaking at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC, Hazen spelled out the many questions that remain unanswered about carbon. These include how much of the element is stored in the Earth, especially in the core, and how much of the material is released when a volcano erupts.

In the case of a volcanic eruption, Hazen says some scientists conclude carbon makes up around 2% of the material ejected, while others say it is more like 75% – a big discrepancy that the programme will hope to reduce.

The programme only started in 2009 so Hazen is issuing a call to arms for scientists of different backgrounds to come together and join the project.

You will have to be quick as proposals for research activities must be submitted by 11 March.

Read more about the programme here.

Eye-catching exhibits

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Science on a sphere

By Margaret Harris in Washington, DC

No trip to the AAAS meeting would be complete without a tour of the exhibit hall, which for the past two days has been buzzing with visitors to “Family Science Days”, a public outreach-oriented event running in parallel with the more technical seminars.

One of the most eye-catching exhibits was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Science on a Sphere, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. The Sphere is the brainchild of Alexander McDonald, director of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory, and there are now over 250 datasets that can be displayed on it. In this photo, it’s illustrating the shock waves that spread around the globe after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, but I also saw depictions of ocean currents, aeroplane flight paths, global temperatures and the past week’s weather. According to exhibitor Jana Goldman, there’s even one in a science fiction museum in Seattle, Washington that displays the (hypothetical) features of a (fictional) alien planet – so it’s definitely a versatile beast!

Another exhibit that got a lot of traffic was the US Department of Energy’s set of bicycle-powered light bulbs, which is designed to teach kids (and maybe some adults) about the differences between voltage and current, and to demonstrate in a very physical way how much power it takes to light up an incandescent 50 W bulb compared with fluorescent and LED bulbs. The young gentleman in this photo, for example, was having real trouble getting the incandescent bulb to give off any light, but despite being a little too short for the pedals, he managed the LED bulb just fine.

Bicycle-powered light bulbs

For the bigger kids, exhibitor Steve Eckstrand keeps a 12 V, 300 W hairdryer on hand. “They can usually get the 50 W bulb working just fine, and one girl did manage to pedal hard enough to get a faint glow out of the 100 W bulb,” he says. “But nobody can do more than get the hairdryer sort of gently warm.”

LHC ready for new physics

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By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

If you are reading this blog in the hope that physicists at CERN have announced the discovery of new physics at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) then you may be a little disappointed.

At a session this morning at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, CERN researchers reflected on the past year of LHC data.

The bottom line is that the LHC has taken enough measurements to verify the Standard Model of particle physics and is now on the verge of searching for new physics.

“We are opening a door to a new landscape, starting an exploration in physics for the next 20 years.” was one of the take-home soundbites from the opening talk given by Felicitas Pauss, head of international relations at CERN.

One area of research at CERN is whether quarks – the building blocks of particles such as protons and neutrons – have any substructure.

Thomas LeCompte, from Argonne National Laboratory, told delegates that the ATLAS detector at the LHC had so far not yet spotted any evidence for quark substructure. But the emphasis is on the “yet”. CERN researchers are continously narrowing down the search.

LeCompte used a nice analogy to describe the LHC’s current limit. “If an atom is the size of an Earth, then we have not seen any evidence of substructure down to the relative size of a pea,” he says.

Indeed, LeCompte says that over the next few years, the search will narrow down to the order of a “single hundreds and thousands sprinkle”. Quite a feat.

Likewise, CERN researcher Joe Incandela noted that the CMS detector has not yet found any evidence for supersymmetry, which predicts that each fermion has a partner boson and each boson has a partner fermion – that are all known as “sparticles”. Again the emphasis is on the yet: “In 2011 we will have more than 50 times the data we have now,” he says.

Monica Pepe Altarelli from the LHCb experiment told delegates about the hunt for the a rare B-meson decay (into a muon and antimuon), which other experiments such as CDF and D0 detectors at Fermilab have searched for but not yet seen.

Altarelli notes that even with the LHC’s limited run, the collider will have recorded the production of more B-mesons than the Fermilab accelerator has managed in its whole lifetime. Altarelli also says the collaboration will publish some results in the coming days but by the end of this year they should have enough statistics to probably see glimpses of the event.

The final slide Pauss flashed up on the screen in her summary talk was an image of the Particle Physics Booklet that is published by the Institute of Physics Publishing, which owns

Pauss wondered if by the end of 2011 we will need to publish another separate book – the “sparticle physics booklet”. CERN physicists will certainly be hoping so.


By Margaret Harris

As a veteran of many stupendously boring – but mandatory – safety training sessions, I was initially tempted to give a wide berth to a booth in the AAAS exhibit hall on lab safety.

However, two things persuaded me to linger at this particular kiosk, which had been set up by the National Institute of Health (NIH) Division of Occupational Health and Safety. One was a statistic related to me by Kersten Haskell, a science communicator at the NIH. “We have a lot of students who come into NIH labs as interns in the summer, and what we found was that of all the injuries that were happening during that time, around 75% were to students,” she said. “So we figured we had to find a way to train them better.”

The NIH’s solution to this problem was to put essential elements of safety training into a video game. This brings me to my second reason for stopping: the row of monitors displaying scenes from the Safe Techniques Advance Research – Laboratory Interactive Training Environment (STAR-LITE). This visually appealing, easy-to-use game allows students (and visiting journalists) to guide avatars through typical lab-safety situations, solving problems and receiving points (or injuries) in the process – and I couldn’t resist giving it a quick test.

The game is clearly designed with health research in mind. In fact, it’s dedicated to the memory of a biology student, Beth Griffin, who died after contracting the rare macaque-borne B virus in a laboratory. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the hazards addressed in the game could apply equally well to physics. For example, my avatar spent a happy five minutes securing gas bottles and labelling hazardous chemicals (something I did many times while working in real-life physics labs) before I reluctantly turned the game back over to Haskell and her colleagues.

STAR-LITE is principally aimed at secondary-school students and new undergraduates, but if anyone wants to have a go, it’s free to download – and it’s a heck of an improvement over the grainy videos from the 1980s that made up the backbone of my own safety training.

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

Last week a hiccup from the Sun resulted in travel misery. Flights that were due to travel over the poles had to be rerouted when material from a solar flare was expected to impact on the Earth’s magnetosphere.

The result would be a geomagnetic storm and the airlines couldn’t risk their craft suffering electrical interference that the storm – the strongest for four years – would bring. It resulted in frustrated passengers and added costs for airlines.

You probably do not think that space weather would affect your daily life, but a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun would have untold consequences on Earth, potentially damaging electrical transmission lines that would result in power outages.

A CME releases a plasma of electrons and protons into space and the shock wave of the traveling plasma causes a geomagnetic storm.

Today at the 2011 annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC a panel of distinguished scientists spoke about the effects of space weather and what to do to mitigate its effects.

Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, told delegates that space weather is a “serious concern”. “We are going to be seeing more space weather”, says Lubchenco. “10 years ago the world was a different place, fewer aircraft were flying, now space weather is everyone’s business.”

John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said that countries need to invest in “predication facilities” and learn how to characterize space weather better so when it does arrives we know how to deal with it.

Unfortunately, mitigation at the moment mostly means turning off transformers until the storm passes. This would mean a temporary blackout. However, the alternative is the possible destruction of infrastructure that would take years to replace.

As Lubchenco noted about future solar storms: “it’s not a matter of if, but when and by how much.”

Hunting for exomoons

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Planet hunter Alan Boss from the Carnegie Institution in Washington (courtesy: the University of Virginia)

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

Could NASA’s Kepler mission be able to spot the first moon outside our solar system? Astronomer Alan Boss from the Carnegie Institution in Washington thinks so.

Sitting down for a chat today at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, Boss told me that evidence of an exomoon could be buried in Kepler data.

Kepler is designed to study exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – and in particular planets that have a similar size to Earth. It has so far found around 1235 planet candidates since its launch in March 2009.

Boss says finding a moon would be difficult but not impossible. “If a large enough gas planet is found it may have an Earth-sized moon and that could be potentially seen in the Kepler data,” says Boss. “I am sure folks are combing through the data looking for signs.”

I also asked Boss about naming planets. Currently they are named after the craft that found them, such as Kepler 9b, CoRoT-7b etc, so is the time right to start a more robust classification for naming them?

“I think astronomers are quite comfortable naming them Kepler b, Kepler c etc,” says Boss. “But that doesn’t mean that a creative astronomer who wants to call a planet Cleopatra shouldn’t do that.”

Look out for an upcoming audio interview with Boss on about the search for exoplanets with Kepler.

The atomic detectives

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By Margaret Harris in Washington DC

One July day not so long ago, a shipment of scrap metal entered an EU seaport from somewhere outside the EU. No-one who watched the shipment being unloaded saw anything out of the ordinary. But when it went through the port’s radiation detector, alarm bells began to ring – and they rang again the next month with another shipment, and for a third time in October the same year. What was going on?

This is the story of “Find 33,” a case study from the emerging science of nuclear forensics that formed the basis of Klaus Mayer’s talk at an AAAS session on combating nuclear terrorism. Mayer, a scientist at the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) in Karlsruhe, Germany, was called to investigate Find 33 after national authorities had isolated which particular bits of scrap were setting off the detectors.

The initial data were puzzling. The amount of enriched uranium in the four pieces of suspicious scrap ranged from a few percent to over 90% – values that suggested a mixture of commercial-grade and weapons- or research-reactor grade contamination. Could they have a common origin? Or were Mayer and his team dealing with multiple uncontrolled sources of radioactive and nuclear material?

After more detailed tests, a clearer picture began to emerge. A sample from the first piece of scrap – an extremely dirty funnel-shaped object – was found to contain 0.33% uranium by weight, of which the fraction of enriched uranium (U-235, the isotope used in both nuclear weapons and reactor fuel) was 9%. This was unusual: 9% is too high for a commercial reactor, which typically uses fuel that is <5% enriched, but too low for fast-breeder reactors (20%), submarine fuel (20-45%) or weapons (>90%). However, after grinding the sample into powder, Mayer and his team were able to show that it was actually a mixture of 3.6%-enriched and 20%-enriched particles. Radiochemical tests also showed that the uranium in it was old – it hadn’t been chemically purified since 1962.

ITU_Find33pic.jpgA piece of contaminated scrap from Find 33. (Courtesy: VROM-Inspectorate)

The other three scraps were analysed in a similar fashion, turning up a mixture of ages (June 1959, June 1972, October 1983) and enrichment fractions that ranged from a few percent for the second scrap to a sobering 89% for the fourth. This indicated that wherever these scraps had come from, it had to be someplace that had been producing a mixture of light-water reactor fuel, fast-breeder reactor fuel, submarine fuel and material for research reactors or weapons for at least 30 years, between the late 1950s and early 1980s.

And there were only two sites that fit the bill.

Sadly for this story’s narrative arc, Mayer declined to provide any further information on the two candidate facilities, citing an ongoing investigation. One thing, however, is certain: with 207 illicit trafficking incidents recorded in 2010 alone, the atomic detectives are keeping busy.

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

It was all things exoplanets this morning at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here in Washington, DC.

It’s quite amazing what NASA’s planet hunter – the Kepler mission – has managed to find. So far, in data released in February, the Kepler probe has discovered 1235 planet candidates. 68 of them are Earth-sized planets with 54 thought to be in the habitable zone of a star – an orbit that is not too close or far away from the star so the conditions are ideal for life.

Maybe one of the most interesting potential planets is “KOI 326.01”. It is actually smaller than Earth and is in the habitable zone of its star. However, like most of the planets Kepler has so far spotted, the planet has yet to be confirmed.

When asked further about the planet, William Borucki, from the NASA Ames Research Centre, who gave an overview of the mission, would not single it out for special attention.

The next speaker in the session was Matthew Holman from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, who told delegates that Kepler has found 45 three-planet systems, eight systems with four planets in them, one with five and one with six planets.

Even though Kepler will be studying exoplanets for another three years, astronomers are also thinking about what comes next.

Sara Seager from MIT is planning to send a host of Cubesats into orbit in the next few years to study exoplanets. These small-sized satellites – each around 20 × 20 × 20 cm – would each study a single star to look for planets orbiting them.

Only a few years ago, exoplanet science was thought of as a “cottage industry” according to Seager. “No-one thought how dominating the field of exoplanet research would now be,”she says. As the planets found by Kepler are confirmed and studied further over the coming years, that dominance is likely to continue.

Talking particle physics

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By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

Today I met up with Harvard University theorist Lisa Randall to speak to her about all things particle physics.

Randall was speaking about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in a plenary lecture here at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC. She is definitely a physicist in demand with a crowd of no fewer than 20 people wanting to ask her a question after the talk.


Randall is looking forward to the next few years now that the LHC is finally starting to deliver data but would not single out one particular area of LHC research for special attention. “It’s all exciting,”says Randall.

Randall has been vocal about the decision to close the Tevatron at Fermilab later this year. It was proposed that the accelerator continue for another three years in search for the Higgs boson but it will now close by October 2011 to make way for experiments in neutrino and muon physics. “I was trying to push them to keep it running,” says Randall. “[Researchers at Fermilab] would have something significant to say about the search for the Higgs boson [if it was allowed to continue].”

Will the prospect of no leading high-energy accelerator now hit US particle physics? “Physics is universal so it doesn’t matter where the experiments are performed,”says Randall. “But it does impact on the training of young physicists. It would be nice for Americans to be a part of it more.”

Randall is also busy putting the finishes touches to a new book called Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which is about the LHC and other topics such as dark matter as well as covering the “nature of what science is and what scientific creativity is”. The theorist will publish the book in the autumn and will no doubt be hoping it has a similar success to her 2005 hit book Warped Passages.

Make sure you catch the full interview with Randall on in the coming weeks.

AAAS by the numbers

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By Margaret Harris

As a physicist, I’m a big fan of numbers, so here are a few outstanding ones I collected from today’s sessions at the AAAS meeting:

NASA’s Space Shuttle can carry up to 16,000 tonnes of cargo back to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS). After the shuttle is retired later this year, any cargo that needs to be shipped from the ISS will have to fit inside a Russian Soyuz capsule, which has a cargo capacity of 50 kg. (Source: NASA astronaut Sunita Williams)

Of the estimated 60 million tonnes of krill in the ocean around Antarctica, up to 5 million tonnes can be harvested each year without harming the long-term sustainability of the population. (Source: George Watters, US Antarctic and Marine Living Resources Program)

2.1% of the 2900 employees of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have a disability – one of the highest percentages of any US government employer. (Source: Dan Krieger, program manager, NASA/Goddard)

Once it’s up and running in the early 2020s, the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope will produce 400 terabytes of compressed data every second. Without compression, it is estimated that the amount of data generated by SKA would exceed the current traffic of the entire World Wide Web. (Source: Bernie Fanaroff, project director, SKA South Africa)

And finally…

A 10 stone person would have to expel bodily gases at a rate of 17 million m/s in order to achieve lift-off by farting. (Source: Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists)

Hotting up: Michael Mills from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, shows how a nuclear war could affect the ozone

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

“It’s a real bummer – quite depressing.” That is the summary of the first session I attended at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference here in Washington, DC. Well at least according to Alan Robock from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The session was about nuclear conflict and its effect on the climate, or more specifically what would happen to it if India and Pakistan had a nuclear war. Rather depressing stuff to hear at 8.30 a.m.

Luke Oman from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center studied what effects 100 nuclear bombs – each 15 kilotonne of TNT equivalent in explosive force – would have if detonated in the area. The number of bombs represents around 70% of the total number of warheads the two countries have.

Oman says such a concoction of explosions would create around 5 terragrams of black carbon – or soot – in the atmosphere. This would quickly rise towards the troposphere causing it to increase in temperature by around 30 degrees. The result of the soot would also lead to a global surface temperature drop of around 1.25 degrees and a 10% decrease in global precipitation.

All gloomy stuff, but the next speaker had even more bad news. Michael Mills from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, used similar models and found that around 30% of the ozone layer would be obliterated only two years after the event.

This would have untold consequences on ultraviolet (UV) levels all over the world. Indeed, Mills calculates UV radiation would increase so much so that in London the level would be around 13 (anything above 11 is considered extreme and with the recommendation to stay indoors) while Washington would be around level 16. This, Mills concluded, would all have a major effect on agriculture leading to a “nuclear famine”

A bummer indeed, and Robock summed up the ultimate aim of all this work. “We hope that people in this city will hear [the conclusions of these talks] and rid the world of nuclear weapons for good.”

LHC comes back to life

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lhc dash.jpg

By Hamish Johnston

Every day I look at the LHC Dashboard website, and for several months it has been very quiet.

But today the site – which gives LHC beam parameters in nearly real time – has a few red spikes (above) suggesting that one of the proton beams has been on, if just momentarily.

Indeed, today is the day that CERN plans to switch on the accelerator after its winter hibernation. However, I believe that we will have to wait until March before there are any collisions.

In the meantime, I’ll keep checking the dashboard.

By Margaret Harris in Washington, DC

Greetings from Washington, DC, where the 2011 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is getting off to a gentle start this afternoon before the firehose of information switches on tomorrow.

Between today and Monday (17–21 February) there will be more scientific symposia, plenary talks, career workshops and poster sessions here in America’s capital city than you can shake a very large stick at. In fact, there’s so much going on that I’m not the only one from attending this year: my colleague Michael Banks is navigating DC’s excellent Metro system as I type this, and between the two of us we’ll try to bring you as much of the conference’s physics news as possible.

One of the themes of this year’s conference is interdisciplinary science, and that was certainly on display at this afternoon’s press briefing on adaptive optics. Regular readers of Physics World will already know that adaptive optics is not just for astronomers anymore – we published a feature by Alan Greenaway on adaptive optics in cell biology just a few months ago, in August 2010 – but it was still surprising to find an astronomer (Norbert Hubin of the European Southern Observatory) sharing the stage with a biophysicist (Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute) and an opthalmologist (Joseph Carroll, Medical College of Wisconsin).

Hubin, of course, is interested in adaptive optics on a grand scale – tools like laser guide stars, and systems of actuators that can make 100 adjustments to a telescope mirror every milisecond, producing images up to three times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope despite Earth’s turbulent atmosphere.

Betzig, for his part, uses genetic engineering to label clumps of mouse neurons with a fluorescent marker. Once the mouse matures, these glowing clumps become his “guide star” when he images processes that take place up to 500 microns below the surface of a live mouse’s brain.

And Carroll is using adaptive optics to image the human retina on a cellular level, with the goal of diagnosing diseases like glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy at earlier stages, before they cause irreversible damage. “We hope to be able to tell people 10 years before they would have known otherwise that they have this disease, and then treat them,” he told me.

Both Carroll and Betzig emphasized that their adaptive-optics work is still in its early stages – “We are neophytes compared to astronomers,” Betzig admits – but there’s a clear sense of excitement about where this technology could go in the future, as more and more scientists pick up on these astronomy-inspired “tricks of the light” and adapt them for their own needs.

How to trigger lightning

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Rocket-triggered lightning strikes a control tower

By James Dacey

In the same spirit as Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite experiments, Joseph Dwyer is a scientist willing to brave electrical storms to understand more about how lightning works. He carries out his work at Florida’s International Center for Lightning Research and Testing where he fires rockets into thunderclouds to trigger lightning.

DACEY dwyer blog.jpg

I recently caught up with Dwyer to find out a bit more about his work in this exclusive interview for He is adamant that despite our familiarity with these spectacular natural lightshows, we really don’t know all that much about what is going on. He highlights three big outstanding questions:

How lightning initiates;
How it propagates, sometimes through miles of air;
And what happens when it smashes into the ground.

At the Florida centre, Dwyer and his colleagues are trying to get a handle on these questions by creating lightning in semi-controlled conditions. “When a thunderstorm comes overhead – and that’s fairly common here in Florida since we’re the lightning capital of the US – we measure the electric fields and we can tell when conditions are good for lightning,” he says. “The lightning is going to strike anyway some place, so why don’t we make it strike here and now?”

You can read the full interview here.

Pulling power

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By Louise Mayor

Love moves in mysterious ways, and try as we might to find one, there is no formula that will unlock the secrets of how to find and sustain romantic love.

So if you’re looking for foolproof tips on your love life this Valentine’s Day, I’m afraid they don’t exist. But you’ve come to the right place if you fancy watching three physicists from the University of Nottingham explain something even deeper – the four fundamental forces of attraction.

In some introductory comments to this new video, nanoscientist Philip Moriarty explains, “Generally, forces of attraction, when we’re talking about Valentine’s Day, mean people falling in love and what holds them together…Of course, I’m a physicist so I have to look into it a little bit more deeply than that.”

Ed Copeland, who is a particle cosmologist by trade, explains how three of the forces – the strong, weak and electromagnetic – can be beautifully described by quantum chromodynamics, or QCD. But he adds that gravity’s proving most difficult: “That remains the goal – to try and also bring gravity into this big picture.”

While the video might not explain the forces of love, it’s quite instructional if you fancy your chances at impressing the object of your affections with some good old-fashioned geek chic. Moriarty and Copeland, as well as Roger Bowley, are charmingly enthusiastic.

You can find plenty more videos from them, as well as other Nottingham University scientists, on the website Sixty Symbols.

Waltzing exoplanets

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Kepler exoplanet candidates from blprnt on Vimeo.

By Hamish Johnston

This visualization of exoplanet candidates is currently all the rage on the physics blogs. Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars other than the Sun, and those illustrated above are 1236 candidates that have been identified by NASA’s Kepler mission, which launched in 2009.

Further observations are required to confirm that all of these are actually exoplanets, but that hasn’t stopped Jer Thorp from creating a beautiful way of visualizing the Kepler data. Thorp is a Canadian artist and educator who describes himself as “a former geneticist, [whose] digital art practice explores the many-folded boundaries between science and art”.

To illustrate the relative size, temperature and orbit of the candidates, Thorp has all the exoplanets orbiting a single star – something they don’t really do.

Earth an Mercury are also included, making it crystal clear that astronomers have thus far only managed to discover planets larger than Earth. All of the candidates save one are in orbits tighter than Earth’s. The bias towards large planets in tight orbits probably doesn’t reflect all exoplanets in the universe, but occurs because such “hot Jupiters” are easier to spot using existing telescopes than are Earth-like planets.

Unfortunately there is little commentary to go along with the visualization, but it looks like Thorp explores several different ways of displaying the planets according to their size, orbit, orbital period and temperature. Not surprisingly, red is used to identify the hottest planets and blue is the relatively cool temperature of the Earth.

One thing Thorp does say is, “Two candidates are highlighted: KOI 326.01 and KOI 314.02. Out of all the candidates, those two may have the best chances of satisfying some of the ‘habitability’ criteria astronomers tend to use.”

While orbitals are a natural way to illustrate exoplanets, the concept can also be used to visualize other data – including the agricultural economics. Above is the “World Bank Orbital Comparison” of agriculture in the nations of the world. This work was done by James Grant, who is a digital art and design student in Tempe, Arizona.

Both visualizations were made using Processing, which is an open-source programming language.

The secret navigational powers of birds

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Eric Gauger studies the European robin and its “compass”

By James Dacey

Clearly, birds have the right idea by migrating to warmer climes when the winter starts to bite at high latitudes, but scientists are starting to suspect that our feathered friends may be even smarter than we first thought.

Oxford University physicist Erik Gauger told me during a recent interview for that birds may possess tiny internal compasses that allow them to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. Remarkably, some birds – including the European robin – may even be able to “see” the magnetic field lines using light-activated molecules situated in their eyes.

Gauger became interested in the avian compass after discovering that these clever devices may rely on quantum mechanics for their operation. In a recent paper in Physical Review Letters, Gauger and his colleagues argued that molecules in the eyes of European robins become excited into states with quantum coherence.

He told me that one day researchers may be able to mimic the avian compass to develop quantum computing devices that can hold delicate quantum information over relatively long periods of time.

You can read the full interview here.

You can also view a free preprint of the Physical Review Letter paper, on arXiv.

Science Valentine’s Day cards (Courtesy: Stephanie Burrows-Fox)

By Michael Banks

When shopping for a Valentine’s Day card in the next few days, one with flowers or hearts on the front with a nice poem inside might just be about right.

Yet that may not be enough for the more nerdy shopper out there. So thanks to Stephanie Burrows-Fox it is now possible to get hold of Valentine’s card featuring your favourite scientists.

Burrows-Fox is selling the cards in packs of 16 on the retail website Etsy with each card containing a cartoon of a scientist together with a cheesy one-liner.

So how about a Valentine’s card with a cartoon Stephen Hawking together with the line “you make space-time stand still”? If that doesn’t quite appeal then maybe the “when hearts collide” card with Brian Cox or the Werner Heisenberg card with “I’m certain about you” on it?


The cards cost £10 for 16 (excluding postage) but as they are “printed on quality business card stock” it apparently shouldn’t feel like a rip-off.

If you want to get your hands on the cards in time for 14 February, you will have to get in quick.

In the meantime, how about thinking up your own science-based Valentine’s cards with cheesy one-liners?

How about Thomas Edison: “you light up my life” or Christiaan Huygens: “let’s make waves”.

So readers, can you do any better?

Stephen Hawking meets his “heartthrob” Jane Fonda. (Courtesy: Jane Fonda)

By Michael Banks

Stephen Hawking’s annual pilgrimage to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) seems to be turning into quite a celebrity tour.

Only last month the Los Angeles Times reported that “hundreds” turned out to hear the cosmologist speak at Caltech. Before his talk, 13-year-old “physics fan” Evan Hetland raved “It’s like seeing the nerd pope!” While another devotee said they wouldn’t “stand in line this long for our favourite rock star”.

Now Hawking is living up to his status and hanging out with the great and the good from Hollywood.

On Tuesday, Hawking met the actress Jane Fonda – known for her starring role in the science fiction film Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy. He got together with the 73-year-old backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles after watching the Academy-Award-winning star in the play 33 Variations, which is about how Beethoven created the piano composition Diabelli Variations.

Fonda, who was presented with a large bouquet of flowers by Hawking, has written all about the encounter in her blog (including that Hawking described her as his “heartthrob”).

Apparently the cast and crew of 33 Variations were very excited about Hawking’s visit. “Michael, the head of the costume department, was shaking with emotion as we waited,” Fonda wrote. “He has read all of Hawking’s books and Stephen is his hero.”

Fonda asked Hawking whether his illness has enabled him to go deeper in his research. “We all waited with bated breath [for his answer]… and all I could think about was that this man, imprisoned in a wasted body, was able to comprehend matters that are presumed to lie far outside the realm of human understanding,” penned Fonda. Hawking’s only reply was that it had “freed” him from teaching.

The meeting ended with Fonda giving Hawking’s colleague – who she described as a “very nice British man” – her e-mail address so that when Hawking next visits Caltech she can “watch them work”. For more of Fonda’s innermost thoughts see here.


By Hamish Johnston

The Institute of Physics has just published a brochure extolling the virtues of graphene – sheets of carbon just one atom thick.

The pamphlet begins with a description of graphene, how it was first isolated by Manchester’s Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, and a discussion of its amazing properties.

“Graphene offers the seductive prospect of fast, nanoscale electronic devices,” it says. However, the brochure also rightly points out that “making and manipulating graphene is a daunting task, and the techniques are not yet in place to fabricate devices commercially”.

The publication goes on to discuss a number of different potential applications for graphene ranging from flexible electronic displays to DNA sequencing. Also covered are the challenges of mass-producing graphene.

The brochure also provides an overview of graphene research in the UK and short biographies of Geim and Novoselov – who shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their graphene work.

You can download the brochure here.

LOFAR, so good

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A close-up of quasar 3C196. The image on the right shows the locations where two jets from the massive black hole are hitting other material in the galaxy that hosts the quasar (Courtesy: ASTRON and LOFAR)

By Michael Banks

The €100m Low Frequency Radio Array (LOFAR) telescope, which was officially opened in June, has released its first radio image showing a close up of a quasar – a star-like object that is thought to be fuelled by a supermassive black hole.

Built by a consortium under the leadership of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, LOFAR consists of some 36 antenna stations throughout the Netherlands and nearby countries such as Germany, France and the UK.

Connecting the stations together means LOFAR can boast to be the world’s largest telescope with a baseline around 1000 km wide. This gives it a high enough resolution so that radio sources at the lowest frequencies can be identified.

The image above shows the image of quasar 3C196 as taken by LOFAR. Astronomer Philip Best, deputy leader of LOFAR UK, says that even when viewed by the Hubble Space Telecope the quasar would only appear as a single point.

“This shows how LOFAR will help us learn about distant objects in much more detail,” says Best.

LOFAR will use low-band antennas operating at 10–90 MHz and high-band devices operating between 110 and 250 MHz will allow scientists to look back to the formation of the first stars in the universe and study high-energy cosmic rays.

Scientists will be hoping this image is just the start of a deluge of results from LOFAR. Indeed, one of LOFAR’s specific aims will be to study “reionization” – the period that began a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang when the neutral hydrogen filling the universe at that time began forming into stars and galaxies. These stars and galaxies then ionized their environment, destroying neutral hydrogen in the process and leaving a marker for the evolution of the universe.


By Hamish Johnston

In June 1959 the Scientific Advisory Committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommended that the agency publish a new journal on plasma physics and controlled nuclear fusion.

The next year, the journal Nuclear Fusion was launched. Now, 50 years after its debut, you can browse the entire archive of the journal and read any article you like free of charge – at least for the next 30 days.

I wasn’t around at the time, but I’m guessing that physicists – and even the public at large – were very keen on the idea of fusion-generated electricity.


I was therefore surprised at the cautious tone of Sterling Cole’s foreword to the first ever issue of the journal. Cole (right) was the first director general of the IAEA and in 1960 he wrote:

“We believe this new journal will contribute to the improvement of cooperation between nations in the difficult task of finding ways to extract energy from controlled nuclear fusion. Even if the earnest and concerted efforts devoted to this task do not lead immediately to practical energy sources, the endeavor will greatly expand the knowledge of plasma physics besides broadening basic scientific knowledge. The effort will also undoubtedly lead to the invention of new and important peacetime devices.”

Those are wise words indeed.

While the first paper in the journal has the rather dull title “Plasma oscillations”, its authors I B Bernstein and S K Trehan are identified as members of the intriguing Project Matterhorn at Princeton University.

True to the theme of international co-operation, two of the five articles in the first issue are from the US, two from the UK and one from France (the latter published in French). Abstracts for all papers are available in English, Spanish, French and Russian – those were the days!

You can access the archive here.

And don’t forget that has produced a series of videos on fusion including an interview with Chris Llewellyn Smith about why ITER is a fusion facility worth building.