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May 2011 Archives

Mapping forest carbon stocks

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biomass map.jpg

By James Dacey

The distribution of stored carbon across the globe is considered to be a major uncertainty in greenhouse gas emissions calculations. But this map could help to improve the situation by detailing the spread of biomass carbon stocks over 2.5 billion hectares of forests across three continents – encompassing all tropical forests.

The map was created by researchers in the US, the UK and Gabon, who combined satellite data and ground-based observations to calculate above- and below-ground biomass quantities to a resolution of 1 km. To calculate forest heights, the researchers collected more than 3 million lidar shots using an instrument aboard NASA’s Ice, Cloud,and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat).

Presenting their map in a paper published online yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say that forests in the study region contained 247 GT of carbon. Forests in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and south-east Asia accounted for 49%, 25% and 26% of the total carbon stock respectively.

The regions with the largest carbon biomasses are highlighted in deep red, while the zones with the least carbon are coloured in violet.

The researchers say that the new data and accompanying map could help developing countries in the study area to implement climate change mitigation policies relating to deforestation and degradation (REDD).

The “Spirit” comic strip on the webcomic (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

The long and tumultuous journey for NASA’s Mars rover Spirit has finally come to an end, as the space agency’s engineers have ended attempts to regain contact with the vehicle, which has been out of touch since 22 March 2010. Now, Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, will explore the red sands solo until the arrival of younger brother Curiosity – NASA’s third rover, set to be launched in November.

The end of the road for Spirit came yesterday, when NASA engineers made a final and unsuccessful attempt to contact the rover. They had hoped that Spirit might rejuvenate as the solar energy became available once more, after a rather cold and dreary Martian winter without much sunlight. But without enough energy to run its survival heaters, the rover likely experienced colder internal temperatures last year than in any of its previous six years on Mars, possibly causing critical internal damage.

“Our job was to wear these rovers out exploring, to leave no unutilized capability on the surface of Mars, and for Spirit, we have done that,” says Mars Exploration Rover Project manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Spirit landed on Mars on 3 January 2004 for what was planned as a three-month mission. After accomplishing its primary objectives, Spirit went on to explore a distance of 7.7 km, almost 12 times its initial goal. Spirit became the first robot to climb to the summit of a hill on another planet; and covered more than half a mile after its right-front wheel became immobile in 2006. Over time, it sent home more than 124,000 images, looked at 92 samples of soil and rock and unexpectedly discovered silica deposits in the Martian soil when it upturned soil due to a dragging back wheel. This was, ironically, one of the biggest discoveries made by a rover to date.

“What’s most remarkable to me about Spirit’s mission is just how extensive her accomplishments became,” enthuses Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, a principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. “What we initially conceived as a fairly simple geologic experiment on Mars ultimately turned into humanity’s first real overland expedition across another planet. Spirit explored just as we would have, seeing a distant hill, climbing it and showing us the vista from the summit. And she did it in a way that allowed everyone on Earth to be part of the adventure.”

Just in case you are about to shed a tear, you might enjoy the above image that Randall Munroe, a former physicist who is now behind the popular webcomic, drew sometime last year when contact was lost with the rover. A rather touching and prophetic image, he brings out the human side of our robot geologist.

By Margaret Harris

Do we have too many PhD students? Should we be training them differently? What can we do to improve prospects for early-career researchers? Should the government get involved, or is this something the scientific community should handle on its own?

These were just some of the questions debated on Tuesday evening at London’s Royal Institution, where a crowd of about 50 gathered to air concerns about scientific careers before a panel that included UK science minister David Willetts and the Cambridge physicist Athene Donald. Organized by the pressure group Science is Vital, whose founder Jenny Rohn also appeared on the panel, the event aimed to move beyond the perennial debate about science funding to highlight other problems in science careers.

Panel moderator Evan Harris – himself a former MP and one-time science spokesman for the Liberal Democrats – began by asking everyone to “concentrate on the negative”, and audience members obliged. Short-term contracts for postdocs make career planning hard and family life impossible, said one. The constant need to get recommendations for the next short-term job discourages us from reporting bullying, added another. Janet Metcalfe of the career-development group Vitae argued that there is “not enough honesty” when senior scientists discuss job prospects with junior colleagues. One audience member even compared the current system – in which many PhD students and postdocs chase a tiny number of permanent jobs – to a pyramid scheme.

Some partial solutions did crop up in the discussion, including the idea of creating permanent “senior postdoc” roles for researchers who want to remain in science, but don’t want to manage a group. The existence of such roles would prevent some talented, well-trained people from leaving science, Rohn observed. However, she also suggested that senior academics had little incentive to make it happen, because PhD students did the same work and were much cheaper. “There is an inherent exploitation element to science careers,” she concluded.


By Hamish Johnston

I’ve just received a press release from Canada’s D-Wave Systems saying that the firm has sold its first quantum computer.

The buyer is the US-based defence and security contractor Lockheed Martin and the company will use the system to address some of its “most challenging computation problems”, according to D-Wave. “The multi-year contract includes a system, maintenance and associated professional services,” says the company.

You may recall that earlier this month D-Wave scientists published a paper in Nature that showed that certain aspects of the firm’s “quantum annealing” scheme for quantum computation worked as predicted.

D-Wave was founded in 1999 and for many years the efficacy of the firm’s technology was a matter of much debate in the physics community.

Now it seems that things are looking up for the Vancouver-based firm.

By Michael Banks

If my memory serves me right, my first introduction to physics came via a demonstration of the Van der Graaf generator.

Situated in the middle of the classroom one day stood a scary-looking contraption consisting of an upright metal stand with a large silver ball on top.

However, once our teacher stood up to give the hair-raising demonstration of the device, the fear of it being used as some kind of torture tool soon eroded.

While Van der Graaf generators are still widely used to teach students about static electricity, researchers at Case Western Reserve University in the US have now used a similar contraption – a Tesla coil – for an altogether different reason.

They have formed the Tesla Orchestra, which uses Tesla coils to convert music into lightning and sound.

In their set-up, an alternating current (AC) is used to generate each bolt of lightning produced by the Tesla coil. As it is made by AC, the bolt has a certain frequency, which can then be tuned to reproduce all of the notes on a keyboard.

Last month the group invited musicians to submit music so they could convert the tunes into sparks and the accompanying sounds. You can see the results in the video above.

On 11 June the Tesla Orchestra will select some of the best songs and perform them in a live show in the Masonic Auditorium in Cleveland.

If you are in the area that day don’t miss out on what is sure to be an electrifying show!

Artist’s impression of a map of the Quantum Universe (Graphic courtesy of “ILC — form one visual communication”)

By Tushna Commissariat

Here’s a bit of Friday physics fun… I came across this rather interesting image that shows an artist’s impression of a map entitled “The Quantum Universe”. It includes six landmasses all floating in the Big Bang Ocean; including Dark Matter Landmass, Sypersymmetry Reef, Higgs Island and the Land of Ultimate Unification as well as others.

So go ahead and tell us which island you would like to settle down on. Be sure to look carefully at gems like Newton’s Lawn and Mount Einstein before you make your mind up!

To see a larger hi-res image follow this link.

Artist’s impression of the new Stephen Hawking Centre at the
Perimeter Institute, which will open in September. (Courtesy: PI)

By Hamish Johnston

Over the last decade the sleepy city of Waterloo, Ontario, has become a hotbed of theoretical physicists.

About 60 miles west of Toronto, the city is home to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI). The PI counts Stephen Hawking as one of its visiting fellows and is also home to about 80 resident physicists – many of whom are household names in the physics community. The PI is also taking an innovative approach to training the next generation of theorists in its Perimeter Scholars International masters level course.

All of this is possible thanks to the generosity of Mike Lazaridus, who made his money by founding and running Research in Motion (RIM). The firm makes the Blackberry smartphone and its fortunes soared in the 2000s as the Blackberry became the must-have business tool.

Lazaridus has donated a whopping $170m to the PI, which he set up in 1999, and two other RIM executives have chipped in $40m more. Compare this to the $180m donated by the Canadian and Ontario governments and it is easy to conclude that the future success of PI and RIM will be linked.

That’s worrying because it seems that company’s heyday may be over, at least according to a market analyst writing in Canadian Business. Henry Blodget points out that the firm’s market share is dropping and tries to explain why.

While I don’t wish any ill on RIM, PI or Waterloo, I’m afraid that I agree with Blodget. Indeed, next to an iPhone a Blackberry looks like something, well, from the last decade. Let’s hope the same fate doesn’t befall the PI, which has done a fantastic job of boosting the profile of physics in both Canada and beyond.

Of course not everyone agrees with Blodget and Canadian Business has published an article taking the opposite viewpoint entitled Long live RIM.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer talking to journalists at the Royal Society, London.
(Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has had its share of good and bad press over the past few years. Controversy and rumours abounded when the machine was switched on in September 2008. The mood then turned quickly to disappointment when its magnets failed and finally to euphoria when the first beams collided at 7 TeV in March 2010.

This week, a meeting to discuss the LHC and all things related was held at the Royal Society in London. The “Physics at the High Energy Frontier – the Large Hadron Collider Project” meeting took place on 16–17 May and saw leading lights of the project come together to discuss the collider and its future.

I was at the meeting for the second day, when a press briefing was held where CERN director Rolf-Dieter Heuer, plus Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli of the ATLAS and CMS experiments respectively, answered all of the questions that the Higgs-hungry reporters could throw at them!

The three speakers described how the collider has “surpassed all expectations” – experimental and computational. Talking about how the LHC is the very essence of global co-operation, Tonelli stressed that “no country could have done it as a stand-alone”. Heuer boasted that every year about 1000 students get their PhDs thanks to the LHC, while just the ATLAS experiment involves about 3000 researchers.

Explaining how things work at the LHC, Tonelli said, “We [experimental scientists] try to test the theory without prejudice. We ask our friends the theorists to come up with something that we can observe.” The collider has already produced the top quark in Europe for the first time and now it is poised to begin a regime of “new physics”, to look for supersymmetry (SUSY), multiple dimensions, matter–antimatter disparity and, of course, the Higgs boson.

The Higgs…or something else?

“We will have an answer to the Shakespeare question for the Higgs – ‘To be or not to be’ – by the end of 2012” declared a confident Heuer. While he did show a great deal of enthusiasm about discovering the Higgs, Heuer was also keen to point out that not finding the particle would be a great result in itself. “Not finding [the Higgs] when it does not exist is a success,” he exclaimed. “If it does not exist, we need to find something else that takes up the job of the Higgs and gives mass to elementary particles,” he added.

The LHC will run until the end of 2012 without any major breaks and Heuer is confident that it will decide the fate of the Higgs by the end of this run. “Physics will not be the same after 2012.” declared Tonelli. “It will change the view of the world.”

Not amused

One of the first questions, asked by BBC reporter Pallab Ghosh, was about the recent ”leak” of an unconfirmed sighting of the Higgs by ATLAS. A sighting that was later denied by a paper released by the ATLAS team and in interviews with physicists on various media channels.

“Unfortunately we live in a world of WikiLeaks, so it leaked!” said a grinning Gianotti. On a more serious note, she explained that such leaked results have not undergone the scientific scrutiny that is necessary, and hence are almost always insubstantial.

“The CERN management was not amused by the leak” said Heuer. He went on to ask journalists not to believe leaked results in the future. “Don’t trust it on first sight” he said. Although Heuer’s displeasure was clear, the leak did put the LHC back in the public eye after a few quiet months. Also, the media interest did provide the public with a rare insight into the vetting process that all scientific discoveries undergo. So perhaps the CERN management should lighten up and enjoy the renewed interest in the LHC!

Rolf-Dieter Heuer giving a talk about the future of the LHC at the Royal Society, London. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Bumps and jumps

When asked about the Higgs-like ‘bumps’ seen at other experiments like the Tevatron and CERN’s Large Electron Positron Collider (LEP) the panel had mixed replies. The Tevatron bump was dismissed by Gianotti and Tonelli, as they both explained that it was too small, statistically speaking, and was only seen by one of the Tevatron’s two detectors. Would the LHC have a look for the Tevatron signal? “No”, was their reply.

However, “interesting events” seen at 115 GeV by the LEP just before its closure in 2000 are of interest to them. While Heuer did say that it is very difficult to determine if it was anything more than a “hint”, the LHC will be looking for the Higgs at that energy soon.


Colliding linearly

The International Liner Collider – a possible successor to the LHC – is another project that Heuer is excited about. He feels that CERN, with the LEP and now the LHC under its belt, would be the perfect host for the collider. “I think CERN has huge potential, not only on the human side, but on its experience side. We have all the instruments. So I see CERN in a very good position.” he said.

But what about the money? “If you have an excellent science case, you will get the money. Don’t ask for the money until you have the science figured out.” he said. He pointed out that, compared to the US, in Europe the politics of funding are more stable and for that reason CERN would be a better host.

Right: prototype microwave cavity for the ILC, illuminated for a “Science Night” in Hamburg. (Courtesy: DESY)


By Matin Durrani

I recently received a copy of the 15 April issue of the Brookhaven Bulletin – the newsletter of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US – which described the forthcoming 100th birthday celebration of the physicist Maurice Goldhaber (right, image courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory).

The birthday bash took place on 18 April, as planned, so I was so sad to learn, as I did yesterday via the New York Times, that Goldhaber sadly died on 11 May.

Born in Austria on 18 April 1911, Goldhaber was one of the last survivors of the glittering pre-war era that saw so many revolutions in physics.

According to Brookhaven’s online tribute, Goldhaber had worked at the University of Cambridge in the UK with the Nobel-prize-winning physicist James Chadwick, where in 1934 Goldhaber became the first person to measure accurately the mass of the neutron.

After obtaining his PhD from Cambridge in 1936, Goldhaber moved to the US, joining the University of Illinois. He arrived at Brookhaven in 1950, going on to serve as lab director from 1961 to 1973.

In 1957 Goldhaber famously discovered that neutrinos have a left-handed helicity, which means that their intrinsic angular momentum, or “spin”, is in the opposite direction to their momentum. That experiment was cited by Brookhaven historian and Physics World columnist Robert P Crease in his collection of most beautiful experiments of all time

By all accounts, Goldhaber was one of those physicists who saw physics as not just a job but his life. Although he retired in 1985, Goldhaber continued to go in to Brookhaven most days until he was well into his 90s. He won numerous awards and prizes, sharing the Wolf Prize in 1991 with Valentine Telegdi for their “separate seminal contributions to nuclear and particle physics, particularly those concerning the weak interactions involving leptons”. He was also awarded a US National Medal of Science.

Goldhaber was not alone in his love for physics: he was part of a family of four generations of physicists, including his son Fred Goldhaber and brother Gerson.

By Michael Banks

Well it had to come didn’t it? There have been quite a few science raps over the last few years touching on nuclear physics, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble and even the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN particle-physics lab, so it seems about right there is now one about climate change.

The rap video for I’m a climate scientist was produced by the Australian current affairs television programme Hungry Beast.

Featuring lines such as “climate change is caused by people, Earth unlike Alien has no sequel”, the video features a raft of climate scientists doing their best Beastie Boys impression.

I will let you decide whether using rap as a means of communicating climate science is a worthwhile endeavour.

By Michael Banks

If you are in the US and stuck for things to do this weekend, then you might well think about catching the noir film The Big Bang, which is released today.

Starring Antonio Banderas, who plays private detective Ned Cruz, and directed by Tony Krantz, the film features Cruz searching for a missing stripper named Lexie Permisson (played by Sienna Guillory) while contending with unsavoury Russian boxers and brash police detectives.

And the physics connection? Well apart from a café in the film called Planck’s Constant Café, the movie’s resident madman is Sam Elliott, played by Simon Kestral, who, with the help of a particle physicist, has built a proton collider under the New Mexico desert to search for the Higgs boson. The film then sees Cruz heading to the underground “military base” to find Permisson.

From the trailer the physics in the movie seems to be fairly accurate. “In 27 hours I am going to find something that theoretically should exist but no-one has ever seen,” says Kestral. “Funny,” replies Cruz. “That is exactly what I am looking for.”

Before heading off to the nearest cinema, however, you might want to read this less than favourable review of the film in the New York Times, which calls the movie a “jumble of notions tossed into a hat”, with the picture being a “low point for Mr Banderas”.

Well, at least it contains some accurate physics, which probably makes for a change.

N.B. The film is rated R (“under 17, requires accompanying parent or adult guardian”) so take note when watching the above trailer.

By Tushna Commissariat

Most of us with an interest in astronomy would recognize the Crab Nebula in images and videos quite readily. The supernova remnant, first seen on Earth in the year 1054, consists of a super-dense neutron start that spins about 30 times an second, making it a pulsar that swings a beam of radiation towards Earth, like a lighthouse.

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is one of many that look for high-energy radiation sources, and recently the Crab Nebula has caught its eye. The past seven months have seen some rather dramatic variations within the nebula, with Fermi and other telescopes noticing X-ray flares a hundred times brighter than seen ever before.

Since 2009 Fermi has detected several short-lived gamma-ray flares at energies greater than 100 million electron volts (eV), which is much higher than the flares seen before. On 12 April Fermi detected a flare that grew about 30 times more energetic than the nebula’s normal gamma-ray output and about five times more powerful than previous outbursts. On 16 April an even brighter flare erupted, which lasted for a few days before the activity died out.

“These superflares are the most intense outbursts we’ve seen to date and they are all extremely puzzling events,” says Alice Harding of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We think they are caused by sudden rearrangements of the magnetic field not far from the neutron star, but exactly where that’s happening remains a mystery.”

When Fermi noted the variances in 2010 it alerted NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which began routinely monitoring the nebula to identify X-ray emissions associated with the outbursts. When Fermi scientists alerted the astronomers at Chandra about the spike in April, a pre-planned set of observations using the observatory was initiated.

Unfortunately, no clear evidence was seen for correlated flares in the Chandra images, so the reason for the sudden extreme variations is still a mystery. Theorists have deduced that the flares must arise within about one-third of a light-year from the neutron star, but efforts to locate them more precisely have been unsuccessful.

Scientists believe the flares occur as the intense magnetic field near the pulsar undergoes sudden structural changes. Such changes can accelerate electrons to velocities near the speed of light. As these relativistic electrons interact with the magnetic field, they emit gamma rays. To account for the observed emission, scientists say the electrons must have energies 100 times greater than can be achieved in any particle accelerator on Earth. This makes them the highest energy electrons associated with any source within our galaxy.

Take a look at the wonderful video by NASA that shows the changes as seen by Chandra, as well as some spectacular shots of the nebula.

Courtesy: National Museums Liverpool

By James Dacey

This unremarkable piece of paper belongs to a chapter in one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century.

It is the recently discovered landing card issued to Albert Einstein in 1933 when he arrived in Britain after fleeing Nazi Germany.

On Tuesday the card went on public display for the first time at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, having been stored away for nearly 80 years at Heathrow Airport.

“We were keen on acquiring any documents relating to immigration but were stunned to find paperwork relating to such a prominent historical figure as Albert Einstein,” Lucy Gardner, curator of the exhibition about customs and immigration.

The document brings proof that Einstein arrived in Dover on 26 May 1933 after sailing from Ostende in Belgium. The “professor” states that he was heading for Oxford, a city he had visited previously during stays at Christ Church College.

Einstein lists his nationality as Swiss having renounced his German citizenship only weeks earlier in angry reaction to Nazi policies. In April 1933 Hitler’s party had passed a law barring Jews from holding any official positions, including teaching at universities. And during a visiting professorship at the California Institute of Technology, Einstein – who was Jewish by birth – had learned that his name had been added to a list of Nazi assassination targets.

Upon his return to Europe Einstein resided in Belgium for a brief time before sailing to Britain. Shortly afterwards, Einstein took up his position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton an affiliation that lasted until his death in 1955.

“This tiny piece of paper brings to life Einstein’s escape from the Nazis to England,” said Gardner.

Curator Lucy Gardner with Einstein’s landing card

By Matin Durrani


I always find it interesting when little-known anecdotes about some of the greatest figures in physics come to light.

So here’s one that I thought I’d share with you, courtesy of Uri Haber-Schaim, a retired physicist now living in Jerusalem.

Writing in the latest issue of Il Nuovo Saggiatore – the bulletin of the Italian Physical Society – Haber-Schaim recalls a summer school in high-energy physics that took place in Varenna, Italy, in 1954, which was attended by, among others, the Italian particle physicist Enrico Fermi.

During the morning break, one of the participants from France – A Rogozinsky – posed a mathematical problem concerning a priest and a sexton on a walk who encounter three people coming towards them.

The sexton asks the priest how old the three people are and is told that “the product of their ages is 2450 and the sum of their ages is twice your [i.e. the sexton’s] age”.

The sexton, saying that he needs more information to solve the problem, is then told by the priest that he – the priest – is “older than any of them”.

So the question is: what are the ages of the three people, the priest and the sexton?

Haber-Schaim recalls that everyone at the meeting realized that writing down equations would not get them anywhere and that he then suggested to Rogozinksy that he present the problem at lunch so that everyone could tackle it together.

Fermi, however, who was a notoriously good problem solver, proceeded to answer the puzzle within a minute.

So over to you, readers. Can you solve the problem or – even better – beat Fermi and get the answer in under a minute?

For the record, I still haven’t figured it out.

By Edwin Cartlidge, Rome, Italy

Rome, the birthplace of nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, is this week hosting a conference dedicated to discussing results from the NASA satellite that bears his name. Some 400 scientists have gathered in the Italian capital to discuss what the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, launched in June 2008, can tell us about all manner of extreme celestial events – from the accretion of matter by supermassive black holes and ultra-energetic events known as gamma-ray bursts to the hypothesized collision of dark-matter particles.

First up on to the vast stage of the echoey Aula Magna at La Sapienza University was NASA’s Elizabeth Hays, who gave an overview of Fermi’s progress to date. Hays says she was happy to report that Fermi’s operations were “becoming almost mundane”, now that the satellite has been circling the Earth for over 1000 days, completing more than 16,000 orbits in that time, and collecting vast quantities of gamma-ray data in the process. (There is even now a Fermi app for the iPhone/iPad.)

Some of the gamma rays collected by Fermi have their origins on Earth, with Hays pointing out that radiation generated by charged particles during thunderstorms created something of a minor storm of their own on the Web with nearly half a million views of a NASA video explaining the process (see video above). Fermi’s principal source of gamma radiation is, however, outer space, and it surveys almost the whole sky in three hours, making increasingly detailed studies of bright sources and attempting to pinpoint the nature of weaker ones.

The first catalogue of distinct gamma-ray sources revealed by Fermi was released about a year ago and researchers have been working furiously to get a second, more precise catalogue published. As Dave Thompson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explained, this has taken a lot longer to produce than expected but he argues that when it comes out later on this month it will represent a “major revision” of the old catalogue, listing some 1888 active galactic nuclei and other gamma-ray sources.

Many of those who have made the trip to Rome will also be hoping that another high-profile – and very expensive – astroparticle mission will finally get to make the trip into space in the next few days or weeks. That mission is the cosmic-ray observatory known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is expected to launch on 16 May on the space shuttle Endeavour. As speaker Giovanni Bignami of the University of Pavia put it, “we are keeping our fingers crossed”.

Edwin Cartlidge is a science writer based in Rome

Celebrating 50 years of US manned spaceflight (Courtesy: USPS)

By Michael Banks

If you haven’t marked it in your diary yet, today marks the 50th anniversary of the first American in space.

On 5 May 1961 NASA astronaut Alan Shepard blasted off on a Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral as part of the US Mercury manned space programme, which had the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth.

Shepard, one of seven astronauts chosen for the Mercury programme, successfully completed the 15 minute suborbital flight, which carried him to an altitude of 187 km. He became the second person in space after Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961.

To mark the anniversary, LIFE magazine has published 30 images taken on the day by LIFE photographer Ralph Morse, which includes 13 previously unseen photographs.

Indeed, Morse was dubbed by NASA astronaut John Glenn (who in 1962 went on to become the first American to orbit the Earth from space) as “the 8th Mercury astronaut” because he spent many years with the astronauts as they trained. You can view the slideshow of images here.

The United States Postal Service has also commemorated the anniversary by unveiling a pair of stamps. There is also one featuring a grinning Shepard (see image above), the other stamp features an image of the MESSENGER spacecraft, which successfully entered orbit around Mercury in March.


By Tushna Commissariat

As I was looking through all that is new and exciting in the world of physics this morning, I came across this interesting paper titled “Persistence of black holes through a cosmological bounce”, recently published on the arXiv preprint server. The paper looks at the possibility of certain black holes persisting when the universe collapses in a “big crunch”, only to stick around for the universe to re-expand with a “big bounce”. The paper was written specifically for the 2011 Awards for Essays on Gravitation held by the Gravity Research Foundation. Upon investigation, I found another two submissions published on arXiv, entitled “Birkhoff’s theorem in higher derivative theories of gravity” and “Quantum gravity and the correspondence principle”.

The Gravity Research Foundation was founded by Roger W Babson, a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who had an interesting relationship with gravity. In his youth, his older sister drowned in a river near their home, prompting him to write an essay titled “Gravity – our enemy no. 1” wherein he claimed that it was gravity that killed her. “She was unable to fight gravity, which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom” he wrote.

Later he owed a debt of sorts to the theory of gravity as it helped him to predict the 1929 stock market crash based on the principle that if there was a strong upward action, there would follow a severe downward reaction. “What goes up will come down” he said. “The stock market will fall by its own weight.”

Gravity was a neglected area of physics in the 1940s. To energize the field, at the encouragement of his colleague George Rideout, he set up the Gravity Research Foundation, which handed out the first awards for the best essays submitted on gravity in December 1949. Previous prizewinners include Stephen Hawking (who has won it six times) and British science writer and astronomer John Gribbin (who was co-author of the winning paper, with Paul Feldman, when Gribbin was only 24) An archive of all winning essays can be found on the foundation’s website.

This year will be the 62nd year of the Essay Award and they will be announcing the top five prizewinners on 15 May, so all the best to the participants. And do look out for a follow-up blog!

By Matin Durrani, Munich, Germany


I’m sitting three rows from the back inside the gently lit conference room at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Munich. The academy is housed in a grand, honey-coloured stone building that forms one wing of the huge Residenz complex, which was almost entirely rebuilt after the Second World War following the Allied bombing that left it and most of the city in ruins.

The Residenz, which looks glorious in the spring sunshine, is an appropriate and symbolic venue for the conference I’m attending, which has been organized to mark 25 years of the journal EPL.

Originally known as Europhysics Letters (it was rebranded in 2007), the journal was set up to promote and showcase the very best of European physics research. It may not yet match its great American rival – Physical Review Letters – as a journal containing short “letter” articles exploring the very frontiers of physics, but just as the Residenz was restored to its former glory, so EPL is playing a small part in rebuilding European physics.

Europe’s long realized that collaboration is the name of the game when it comes to science, with the CERN particle-physics lab being the shining example of what happens when nations work together. And so it is with EPL, which was begun in 1986 as a joint venture between the French and Italian physical societies, the UK’s Institute of Physics, which publishes, and the European Physical Society.

The organizers have invited a string of top speakers – the full list is here – and bused and flown in over 100 students and postdocs from across Europe to create a good, international feel.

As for me, apart from consuming an extremely large number of fabulous mini chocolate croissants on offer in the coffee breaks, I’ve been filming some video interviews with Michael Schreiber, EPL’s current editor-in-chief, particle physicist Luisa Cifarelli, who is current EPS president, and David Delpy, chief executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. They will appear on this website in a few weeks’ time.

The conference dinner was held last night at one of Munich’s best known restaurants – the atmospheric Hofbraukeller – with a fabulous four-course buffet (it may have been five; I lost count).

Right, it’s coffee-break time – off for a few more of those croissants. I just hope my colleagues Fiona Walker, Claire Webber and Jo Pittam, who are also at the meeting, haven’t polished them off yet….

Swan song for the Tevatron

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By James Dacey at the APS April meeting, Anaheim, California

At the end of the September, the close of the US fiscal year, Fermilab’s star player, the Tevatron, is scheduled to be retired after a dazzling 25-year career.

Naturally, here at the APS April meeting there has been a lot of reflection on the achievements of this famous accelerator and the future of high-energy physics in the US.

Chris Quigg, a Fermilab physicist was presented here with the J J Sakurai prize for particle physics, and he told me that the discovery of the top quark was his pick of the Tevatron’s achievements.

“At the time that the collaborations made that discovery in 1995, what they did was almost impossible,” he said. “The number of events was very small, they had to master their backgrounds, and they had to be able to show that they could use a silicon vertex detector in the hadronic environment for the first time.”

On Sunday night the APS also assembled a special panel session to discuss how US physics is being affected by budgetary constraints. It included Fermilab director Pier Oddone and Carl Wieman who serves as chair of the Board on Science Education of the National Academy of Sciences.

All panel members seemed resigned to the fact that the decision not to extend the lifetime of the Tevatron will not be overturned, despite the continued appeals and the recent discovery by the CDF collaboration. Oddone spoke of how US high-energy physics will continue through involvement in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

But Michael Lubell, APS director of public affairs, who chaired the session, made the provocative comment that big discoveries at CERN are seen as European achievements by the US government and the public. He argued that it will become increasingly difficult to convince US funding agencies to continue investing heavily in the LHC. “Let’s face it, what the government really wants to see is the American flag flying over CERN.

I raised this issue yesterday with Mike Tutts, a physicist at Colombia University who is part of the ATLAS collaboration at the LHC. He feels that the big challenge will be communicating to the public the importance and excitement of the work being carried out at the LHC.

Readdressing Feynman’s legacy

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By James Dacey at the APS April meeting, Anaheim, California

Bongo player, womanizer and all-round practical joker are common depictions used by biographers in describing the great 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman.

Tonight, here at the Hyatt hotel, Anaheim, theorist and popular science writer Lawrence Krauss will offer a fresh perspective by readdressing Feynmann’s legacy to science – in physics and beyond.

Krauss has just written a book Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, which is released in March in the US.

I managed to catch up with Krauss earlier today to find about what inspired him to write the book and what he admires most about Feynman’s approach to physics.

“Feynman for me, like most scientists, was a sort of idol and it was a great opportunity to pay homage to him, and a personal homage because the last time I saw him I’d meant to tell him a few things and didn’t get a chance to,” he said.

Part of Krauss’ motivation for writing the book was his feeling that many earlier biographies have focused too much on Feynman’s personality, which can give the impression that science was something Feynman did “on the side”.

“The public knows of him as a curious character, and he is a fascinating human individual, and he’s obviously captured people’s imagination. But what was clear to me is that people did not know why physicists revered him and I wanted to talk about his scientific legacy.”

Krauss told me that his own approach to physics was inspired by Feynman. “He often appeared to have results by magic, and what I also wanted to get across is how incredibly organized he was in his own thinking.

“The reason he could answer so many questions is that at some point or other he’d worked it out before. He’d have thousands and thousands of pages of notes in a very organized fashion.

“While he was a joker in life, when it came to science he was dead serious and he didn’t mess around.”

Are dark forces behind CDF’s bump?

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By James Dacey at the APS April Meeting in Anaheim, California

Three weeks ago the CDF collaboration at Fermilab triggered a tidal wave of media coverage when it announced that it had discovered bump in its data that could not be explained by the Standard Model of particles physics. The unexplained signal was spotted in a study of W and Z boson pairs that are created when protons and antiprotons collide in Fermilab’s Tevatron collider.

Here at the APS April Meeting, I’ve just had a very interesting discussion with Fermilab theorist Dan Hooper, who speculates that the bump could be linked with dark matter. He believes that the excess of events, including a lepton and two jets, could be explained by the presence of a new gauge boson responsible for transmitting the force between dark matter and ordinary matter.

Hooper details his idea in a paper just uploaded to the arXiv preprint server in which he argues that the properties of the predicted boson would provide a natural explanation for the dark matter signals reported by the Cogent and DAMA/LIBRA collaborations.

“The most attractive explanation for the bump is the existence of a new fundamental force… if you’ll excuse the pun,” he said. “If this does turn out to be true, it would be absolutely incredible for physics.”

Earlier analysis by other researchers included speculation that the bump could be explained by a “technicolour” force. All seem to be in agreement, however, that the signal is not related to a Standard Model Higgs boson.

Hooper believes that whatever the bump turns out to be, its discovery has added significant weight to the case to extend the lifetime of the Tevatron. This iconic particle accelerator is due to close at the end of the US fiscal year (end of September), but several high-profile physicists have argued for an extension.