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October 2011 Archives

Recurrent Nova RS Ophiuci

NASA image of the star field in the constellation Ophiucus; at the centre is the recurrent Nova RS Ophiuci (Credit: John Chumack)

By Tushna Commissariat

Complex organic compounds – one of the main markers of carbon-based life forms – have always been thought to arise from living organisms. But new research by physicists in Hong Kong, published yesterday in the journal Nature, suggests that these compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.

Sun Kwok and Yong Zhang at the University of Hong Kong claim that a particular organic compound that is found throughout the universe contains complex compounds that resemble coal and petroleum – which have long been thought to come only from carbonaceous living matter.

The researchers say that the organic substance contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) complex components. They have come to this conclusion after looking at strange infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space and galaxies that are commonly known as unidentified infrared emissions (UIEs). These UIE signatures are thought to arise from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules – being “pumped” by far-ultraviolet photons. But Kwok and Zhang both felt that hypothesis did not fill the bill accurately enough, when they considered the observational data.

As a solution, they have suggested an alternative – that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex. After analysing the spectra of star dust forming when stars explode, they found that stars are capable of making these complex organic compounds on extremely short timescales of weeks and that they then eject it into the general interstellar space – the region between stars.

Kwok had suggested, at an earlier date, that old stars could be “molecular factories” capable of producing organic compounds. “Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions,” says Kwok. “Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening.”

Another interesting fact is that the organic star dust that Kwok and Zhang studied has a remarkable structural similarity to complex organic compounds found in meteorites. As meteorites are remnants of the early solar system, the findings raise the possibility that stars enriched our protoplanetary disc with organic compounds. The early Earth was known to have been bombarded by many comets and asteroids carrying organic star dust. Whether these organic compounds played any role in the development of life on Earth remains a mystery.

It will also be interesting to see if this finding has an impact on research groups that look for life in the universe, such as SETI , considering that complex organic molecules have always thought to be markers of carbon-based life forms.

The new Proton Accelerator Facility in Ankara

The new Proton Accelerator Facility in Ankara (Credit: Michael Banks)

By Michael Banks in Ankara, Turkey

A helipad is not what you would normally expect to see at a brand new research facility. But that is what sits next to the new Proton Accelerator Facility (PAF) based in Ankara, Turkey.

However, the helipad is not for A-list scientists or celebrities visiting the PAF, but instead to transport medical isotopes, which in some cases have a half-life lasting just a few hours, from the PAF to hospitals around the country.

Construction of the PAF has just been completed at the Saraykoy Nuclear Research and Training Center (SANAEM), which is operated by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK).

Earlier today I was granted an exclusive tour of the PAF (and no, sadly, I didn’t arrive by helicopter) by Ali Tanrikut, acting director of SANAEM.

The €20m PAF will produce a range of medical isotopes such as fluorine-18 and thallium-201 by accelerating protons in a 2 m diameter cyclotron to energies around 15–30 MeV and then smashing them into a variety of targets.

Turkey already has eight smaller cyclotrons that produce medical isotopes. However, they are all based at hospitals and mostly make fluorine-18, which is used in positron emission tomography to produce a 3D image of processes in the body.

Until now, other isotopes such as palladium-103, which is used to treat prostate cancer, have had to be imported from other countries and the PAF will aim to end Turkey’s dependence on this. Indeed, radioisotope production is an expensive business, with 1 g of some radioisotopes costing thousands of pounds.

Another important role for the facility is to help to train students and researchers so they can start building their own beamlines at the facility. “Education and training cannot be done without infrastructure,” says Tanrikut. “We need to train young people so they learn how to play with these protons.”

The cyclotron at the Proton Accelerator Facility

The cyclotron at Turkey’s Proton Accelerator Facility (Credit: Michael Banks)

The Acclerator Technologies Institute

The Acclerator Technologies Institute at Ankara University (Credit: Michael Banks)

By Michael Banks in Ankara, Turkey

“Build it and they will come” seems to be the mantra at the new Accelerator Technologies Institute (AIC) based at Ankara University in central Turkey.

I was here today in the Turkish capital to learn about the country’s ambitious plans to create a smorgasbord of particle accelerators over the next 15 years – from an infrared free-electron laser to a particle factory that would produce copious amounts of exotic particles.

The AIC, which was completed last year, is now gearing up to train PhD students in accelerator technology starting in spring 2012.

As well as training the next generation of young scientists, the centre is also the first part of the Turkish Accelerator Centre.

The TAC is a $1bn project that will, over the next 15 years, involve the construction of – wait for it – two free-electron lasers, a low-energy proton accelerator, a 3 GeV synchrotron, a high-energy proton accelerator and, last but not least, a particle factory that will collide electron and positrons and be complete by 2024.

The infrared laser, known as TARLA, forms the second part of TAC and will cost around €35m to build. It will accelerate electrons to an energy of 40 MeV before sending them through an “undulator” – a set of magnets – to produce radiation in the range 2–250 µm.

The building for TARLA is now complete, with scientists beginning to move in the first parts of the accelerator. The facility is expected to have its first users by 2015 and will have room for eight experimental stations with beamtime also available to users from outside Turkey.

But for now, attention is firmly on the AIC and training the next generation, who will most likely be building the next parts of the TAC. “What we need is to educate people. That is the most important aspect,” says TARLA director Suat Ozlorucuklu.

The building for Turkey's TARLA free-electron laser

The building for Turkey’s TARLA free-electron laser is complete (Credit: Michael Banks)

By James Dacey

Yesterday, the Royal Society opened up its entire historical journal archive – making all papers more than 70 years old free for everyone to access, forever. Among the old papers available via a searchable database was Newton’s first published scientific paper in which the master physicist presented his New Theory of Light and Colors.

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The first thing that struck me when reading this old text was the relaxed first-person narrative adopted by Newton as he recalled his experimental exploits. Newton tells us how he recently procured a glass prism for some optics experiments in his house, and he even shares some of the feelings he had when carrying out the work.

And in order thereto having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in my window-shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the Suns light, I placed my Prisme at his entrance, that it might thereby be refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing divertisement, to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby; but after a while applying myself to consider them more circumspectly, I became surprised to see them in oblong form, which, according to the received laws of Refraction, I expected should have been circular.

This is an extract from the full paper.

For me, it was fascinating because this style of writing humanizes the science and gives us an insight into the thought processes of this great physicist. The style is in stark contrast to modern scientific papers, which are largely written in the third person, where the scientist writes economically about “an experiment that took place”, where the results emerge seemingly without human input. One could argue that the modern scientific paper hides the scientific process and the essential toils of the experimentalist, thereby making it difficult for an independent party to come along and repeat the experiments from simply reading the paper.

On the other hand, Newton was operating in a very different time and there are also compelling reasons as to why scientific papers have been slimmed down to cut out all of the human trial-and-error. With the sheer volume of scientific research being published now, and the extra responsibilities that have come with the professionalization of science, researchers today perhaps do not have the time to read about all of the human activities that lead to a new scientific result.

But we want to know your thoughts on this issue. In this week’s poll, we are asking the question:

Do you think that scientific papers would be more informative if they were written in a first-person narrative where researchers told the “story” of their research as well as the scientific results? Yes or no?

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page, and please feel to explain your answer by posting a comment on the poll.

In last week’s poll we also looked at the issue of science writing as we asked you to select what you believe to be the most significant popular physics book from a list of five titles. There was no real surprise to see that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time emerged as the clear winner collecting 62% of responses. The other books on the list fared as follows:

22% The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
9% A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
1% Longitude by Dava Sobel
5% The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss

Naturally what was meant by most “significant” was open to interpretation. But in our original list, drawn up in 2008, we chose books that “broke new ground for science writing”. Others were chosen for “the depth of their ideas or the strength of their arguments”. And some were selected simply because they are “cracking good reads”.

Other books that did not make it onto our list but were mentioned by our Facebook followers included: Cosmos by Carl Saga; Hyperspace by Michio Kaku; Quantum by Manjit Kumar; and Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman, a collection of reminiscences written by Feynman himself. Thank you for all of your responses and we look forward to hearing from you again on the Physics World Facebook page.

Newton’s first paper among newly opened archive

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By James Dacey

Newton’s first published scientific paper and James Clerk Maxwell’s paper describing his electromagnetic theory of light are among the Royal Society’s historical journal archive, which from today is permanently free to access online. More than 60 000 papers are available in a searchable database where all papers published more than 70 years ago (all 8000 of them) are free to view online or download.

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Newton – who was president of the Royal Society between 1703 and 1727 – had his first paper published in Philosophical Transactions in 1671, in which he presented his New Theory of Light and Colors. Unlike the convention in modern scientific papers, Newton writes in the first person throughout and he begins with this meandering description of how this research came about:

To perform my late promise to you, I shall without further ceremony acquaint you, that in the beginning of the Year 1666 (at which I applyed my self to the grinding of Optick glasses of other figures than Sperical,) I procured me a Triangular glass-Prisme, to try therewith the celebrated Phenomena of Colours.

Newton went on to publish his full treatise on the behaviour of light in his famous book of 1704, Opticks.

Another incredibly important paper now freely available to the public is Maxwell’s Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic field, published in 1865. This paper came after Maxwell had first published his famous equations but it appears to have been the first time that Maxwell presented his argument that light is an electromagnetic field. The language in this paper is far more familiar to the modern English reader, as when he presents the basis of his idea in the introduction:

The electromagnetic field is that part of space which contains and surrounds bodies in electric or magnetic conditions. It may be filled with any kind of matter, or we may endeavour to render it empty of all gross matter, as in the case of GEISSLER’s tubes and other so-called vacua. There is always, however, enough of matter left to receive and transmit the undulations of light and heat…

The opening of the Philosophical Transactions archive comes during Open Access week, and it also follows shortly after the Royal Society announced the creation of its first ever open access journal – Open Biology. Other interesting papers in the archives include Benjamin Franklin’s account of his electrical kite experiments and geological work by a young Charles Darwin.

Jim Al-Khalili

By Margaret Harris
One of the highlights on last week was an online lecture by the University of Surrey physicist and science communicator Jim Al-Khalili, who spoke on the subject of his recent book Pathfinders: the Golden Age of Arabic Science.

If you missed the live version of Al-Khalili’s lecture “On the shoulders of eastern giants: the forgotten contributions of medieval physicists”, you can watch an archived version of the hour-long event here. Be sure to stay all the way to the end, when Al-Khalili tackles some probing questions from audience members – including one asking why these physicists’ contributions have been forgotten in the West, and another wondering why science declined in the Arabic-speaking world after the medieval period.

As usual with these question-and-answer sessions, we ran out of time long before you ran out of questions. On this occasion, several of the ones we couldn’t fit in were so interesting that we asked Al-Khalili to send us written answers so we could share them with you. Below are his replies.

Flux pinning in action

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By Hamish Johnston

The above video shows a very nice demonstration of flux pinning in a superconductor. This effect occurs in high-temperature superconductors, which when exposed to a magnetic field will allow some magnetic field lines to penetrate their bulk. This is unlike most conventional superconductors, such as lead, which expel all magnetic field lines.

The field lines inside the superconductor don’t like to move around, which pins the magnetic field in place. The result is that the magnet and the superconductor don’t want to move relative to each other, which is demonstrated in the video.

Exceptions occur when there is a degree of symmetry in the magnet field. This is illustrated nicely by showing that a superconductor will rotate on a magnetic disk but not on a rectangular-shaped magnet. Even better is when the superconductor is placed above – and then below – a magnetic track and given a shove.

Which is the most significant popular-physics book?

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By James Dacey

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Last Friday we expanded our coverage of the literary world with the release of the debut Physics World books podcast. The programme looks at the topic of “women in science”, and it is the first in a series devoted to physics books and the issues they cover.

I personally believe that reading about the history, the personalities and the issues surrounding science can be just as inspiring as doing the science itself. But we want to know what you think. In this week’s poll, we are looking specifically at popular science and the books that may have inspired your interest in physics. The question is:

Which do you believe is the most significant popular-physics book?

A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking
The Elegant Universe Brian Greene
A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson
Longitude Dava Sobel
The Physics of Star Trek Lawrence Krauss

To cast your vote, please visit the Physics World Facebook page.

These five titles have been taken from a list drawn up in 2008 by the Physics World editorial team to celebrate the most significant popular-physics books of the past 20 years. As we acknowledged at the time, our criteria for selecting these books was, by necessity, highly subjective. So if your favourite book is not included then please let us know by posting a comment on the Facebook poll.

In last week’s poll we looked at the issue of carbon emissions and personal behaviour. My colleague, Tushna Commissariat, had recently attended a talk by James Hansen, the US space scientist who is also well known for his advocacy of action to limit the impacts of climate change. A member of the audience had challenged Hansen on his decision to fly to the UK to talk about the need to rapidly reduce fossil fuel consumption. Hansen replied that it is already too late for his minor sacrifice to make a significant difference, and that the more important thing is to communicate the message that urgent government action is required.

We asked you the following question: Would you consider not attending a conference because it would involve a flight? And it seems that the majority of respondents share similar sentiments to Hansen, with 51% choosing the option No. My sacrifice would have no useful impact. A smaller number of people, however, may be inclined to take action, as 26% of respondents selected Possibly. I try to significantly limit my air travel. 18% of respondents said that I would take another means of transport, even if it drastically increased my travel time. And just 5% said that Yes. I would not attend, even if it could hurt my career.

And in a busy week on our Facebook page we also wanted to hear from you about a new development in astronomy. The Very Large Array, the famous bank of radio telescopes in New Mexico, is about to be renamed following an upgrade, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is asking the public to come up with ideas. We encouraged you to enter the NRAO competition, and then share your ideas on our Facebook page.

We’ve seen some creative suggestions! My two favourites were: the Eyes of Hope, suggested by Helmy Parlente Kusuma in Indonesia; and Contact, suggested by Velin Ivanov in Bulgaria. It appears that the facility’s biggest fan is Kyle Murphy in the US – he believes it should be renamed the Serious Gravitas Array because “everything about this scientific achievement is awesome”. Thank you for all your contributions.

icarus.jpg By Hamish Johnston

Physicists were buzzing last month when scientists at the OPERA experiment in Italy hinted that neutrinos may move faster than the speed of light. If you missed all the excitement, the experiment measured the time it takes the particles to travel 730 km from CERN in Switzerland to Gran Sasso in Italy – and came up with a relativity-defying result.

Although there was much coverage of the “Was Einstein wrong?” sort in the popular media, I suspect that most physicists were quietly thinking “there must be something wrong with the experiment”. Others have been more vocal, with nuclear-physicist-turned-TV-presenter Jim Al-Khalili famously declaring that he will eat his boxer shorts if it turns out to be true.

Well, it looks like Jim won’t be tucking into his briefs any time soon because new data from OPERA’s sister experiment ICARUS have failed to yield any evidence for superluminal neutrinos. More precisely, ICARUS has shown that neutrinos travelling from CERN to Gran Sasso do not emit electron–positron pairs. Emission of such pairs is expected if the neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, according to a preprint published recently by Andrew Cohen and Sheldon Glashow.

The emission of electron–positron pairs would have a noticeable effect on the energy distribution of neutrinos arriving at both OPERA and ICARUS, but now neither experiment has seen evidence of it.

OPERA’s superluminal result is based on the time it took for neutrinos to travel the 730 km – and now this speed measurement contradicts both the OPERA and ICARUS energy-distribution measurements.

I should point out that the Cohen–Glashow paper has yet to pass peer review (as far as I can tell). However, the preprint seems to meet with the approval of physicists who have blogged about it – and the ICARUS collaboration repeatedly uses the word “must” to describe the effect. And the fact that one of the authors is a Nobel laureate must give it additional kudos.

If you haven’t yet had your fill of superluminal neutrinos, the BBC will be airing a television programme on that very subject tonight. It will be hosted by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and you can find more details here.

UPDATE: The Cohen-Glashow paper has been accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters.


By Hamish Johnston

If you happened to be listening to BBC Radio 4 last night, you would have heard interviews with two famous American physicists. First up was Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who is in London to give a lecture on Sunday about our relationship with the cosmos.

Krauss chatted with Quentin Cooper – host of Radio 4’s Material World science programme – about physics in the news, including dark energy, superluminal neutrinos and quasicrystals. You can listen to the programme here and Krauss appears after about 15 minutes.

Next up was cosmologist Lisa Randall (right) of Harvard University, who spoke with Radio 4’s Andrew Marr on his Start the Week programme – which this week was entitled “God and science” and also featured Richard Dawkins and the Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks.

Dawkins kicked off with a discussion of his new book entitled The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, which aims to show children and their families that the myths surrounding phenomena such as earthquakes and rainbows pale in comparison with the magic and wonder of science. Particularly interesting was Dawkins’ argument that space aliens must have eyes.

Randall speaks about her latest book Knocking on Heaven’s Door about 25 minutes into the programme, which you can listen to here. Earlier this year, she also spoke to our very own Michael Banks, and you can listen to that interview here.

Listen to our debut books podcast

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PW books podcast

Physics World podcasters. Left to right: Margaret Harris, James Dacey, Matin Durrani

By James Dacey

Followers of this blog may remember that a little over a month ago, I wrote an entry about how I had just been in the studio with my colleagues, Matin and Margaret, to record a special podcast about physics books. The theme of the podcast – our first ever – was “women in science” because all the books that we discussed were in some way connected to this theme. Well, after various discussions and good chunk of time spent in the editing suite, the programme is finally available to listen to online. You can also subscribe to our podcast service.

In the show, we discuss the following titles:

The Madame Curie Complex by Julie Des Jardins;
Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel by Michael Hoskin;
Science Secrets: the Truth About Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife and Other Myths by Alberto Martinez; and
Soft Matter: the Stuff that Dreams are Made Of by Roberto Piazza

In our next podcast, to be released in December, we will be discussing a selection of our favourite books reviewed in 2011, and announcing Physics World’s top 10 books of the year. In the meantime, you can continue to read book reviews each month in Physics World and on

By Matin Durrani

The guys who in 2008 came up with the annoyingly catchy “There’s no-one as Irish as Barack O’Bama” – more than a million hits on YouTube and counting – have re-recorded their song with new lyrics describing the latest mystery in particle physics.

Jumping on the huge interest in claims that neutrinos may travel faster than light, the musicians, known as the Corrigan Brothers and featuring someone called Pete Creighton, have called their new version simply “The neutrino song”.

The song’s not bad if cheesy synths and breezy pop are your thing, although it does that awful thing of going up a key near the end, which is a pet hate of mine.

But as I’ve learned to expect from a string of recent physics-meets-pop disasters, it’s the lyrics that will make your toes curl up.

I won’t spoil the lyrics by reprinting them here in full except to warn you of what is possibly the worst rhyme ever in the history of physics:

Now physics for ever may not be the same
And boffins are gonna be driven insane
If light’s not the fastest
What can this mean-o
And is something faster than the neutrino.

By James Dacey

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As you may have just read in Tushna Commissariat’s account, on Monday and Tuesday scientists gathered at the Royal Society’s headquarters in London for a meeting about the Earth‘s climate history. One of the speakers at the event was James Hansen, a highly respected US space scientist, who is also well known for his advocacy of action to limit the impacts of climate change. In his talk, Hansen argued that – based on recent observational data – rapid reduction of fossil fuel consumption is essential if we are to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Following his talk, Hansen was asked the inevitable question of whether he saw any conflict of interest in his taking a transatlantic flight to deliver a lecture on the importance of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. His response was to say that at this stage it is already too late for this sort of minor sacrifice to make a significant difference, and that the more important thing is to communicate the message that urgent government action required. Hansen argued that the key to avoiding further rapid warming is for policy makers to establish high taxes on carbon emissions, which would act as an incentive for the development of green energy technologies.

But we want to know your opinion on this in relation to your professional life. Would you consider not attending a conference because it would involve a flight?

Yes. I would not attend, even if it could hurt my career.

No. My sacrifice would have no useful impact.

Possibly. I try to significantly limit my air travel.

I would take another means of transport, even if it drastically increased my travel time.

Please have your say by visiting our Facebook page and taking part in this week’s poll. And feel free to post a comment on the poll to explain your answer.

In last week’s Facebook poll we looked at the issue of financing large-scale science projects such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider or the ITER project – the world’s largest experimental tokamak nuclear-fusion reactor, under construction in the south of France. We asked whether, in general, you think that “big science” facilities are value for money? 49% of respondents answered that yes they are worth the money, with just 3% answering no. The remaining 48% selected the measured option of “depends on the project”.

Craig Levin, one of our Facebook followers based in Chicago, Illinois, who voted yes, believes that funding agencies must look beyond the scientific goals of a project when making decisions. He commented that “one also has to take into account the return on investment and economic impact that these programmes can have on the economy, not just the scientific discoveries”. Marios Barlas, a follower based in Patrai, Greece, who also voted yes, takes a more Promethean view of science, commenting that “science never goes to waste. Be it theoretical or applied medical or humanitarian. There is always something to gain even out of utter failure.”

Dr James Hansen

NASA’s Dr James Hansen (Courtesy: Greenpeace)

By Tushna Commissariat

This Tuesday I was in London meeting some exciting and important people in science. While you will have to wait until tomorrow to find out who I met with in the morning, in the afternoon I went along to the closing lecture at Royal Society’s paleoclimate conference Warm Climates of the Past – a Lesson for the Future?. The lecture was given by Dr James Hansen – the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies who has been very vocal on the subject of climate change since the 1980s.

In “Earth’s climate history: lessons for the future” Hansen spoke about how observations of past climates coupled with current-day observations suggest that hard-hitting and immediate measures need to be put in place to avoid further global destruction. Rapid reductions in the use of fossil fuels are the best way to do so, he argued.

Hansen began his talk by saying that our basic understanding of the Earth’s paleoclimate history should depend more on global “real-world” geological observations, rather than climate models and theories. He feels that the Earth’s history provides the information that is necessary to better understand climate change today and that researching “climate sensitivity” at any given point depends on the timescale taken into consideration and the “climate state” at that given time.

Hansen went on to say that when some generally “intelligent people” say that the Earth has been a lot colder or warmer in the past, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t think that the global mean temperature was ever more than a degree higher, as far back as the last glacial period.

He categorized the three main factors affecting the global climate over the past 65 million years and presented the amount of warming change they would cause in Watts/m2:

*external effects (solar irradiance): +1 W/m2

*surface effects (continental location – geological changes): ~1 W/m2

*atmosphere (CO2 change): >10 W/m2

He pointed out that the natural change in CO2 has been steady at about 0.0001 ppm/year, whereas the human-generated rate today is at about 2 ppm/year. He also showed that the sea level has been rising at about 3 m per millennium, as compared with the near-constant level it has maintained for the past 6000–7000 years. His hard-hitting statement that “Humans could produce ‘a different planet’” makes it clear that he feels very strong measures need to be put in place to preserve the planet as we know it.

His main suggestion to achieve a more stable climate was a drastic cut in the use of fossil fuels worldwide, by levying high taxes on their use. “We cannot burn all the fossil fuels and yet our governments go along with that,” he said. “A solution has to be a gradually rising carbon tax.” He went on to explain that such a tax would mean that fossil fuels derived from tar sands, for example, would almost immediately stop as it would not make economic sense and that coal would follow soon after. He also feels that such a tax would go a long way toward making clean fuel sources the norm. “Rapid reduction of fossil-fuel emissions is required to succeed in preserving a planet resembling the one that civilization developed,” he said.

On a similar note, a recent Physics World opinion piece, titled “How big is your footprint?” and written by astrophysicist Phil Marshall of the University of Oxford, talks about how physicists carry the responsibility to reduce their own carbon footprints. These can be considerable when you consider the amount of energy that is required to run physics facilities or fly across the Atlantic frequently for conferences. For example, he points to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider energy bill – estimated at about €10m per year – comparable to that of all the households in the region around Geneva. He estimates that US astronomers use an additional 130 kWh per day more than the average citizen.

Marshall also talks about a workshop in Lund, Sweden, this week, where researchers are discussing energy for sustainable science to identify ways to do large-scale physics research with a reliable, affordable and sustainable energy supply that is “carbon neutral”. To read about that and maybe take a look the wiki Marshall runs for green-minded astronomers, take a look here.

Discovering the human side of science

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Pictures of famous scientists

By James Dacey

Scientists frequently feature on the radio these days, usually to provide the expert voice on the technicalities of an issue in the public interest – be it climate change, energy issues or the latest medical advance. But these researchers are rarely given the airspace to tell us anything about themselves, such as what first inspired them to pursue a career in science and what motivates them to keep going. A new series on BBC Radio 4 is offering just this.

The Life Scientific, which first aired today, will be a series of 30-minute programmes hosted by Jim Al-Khalili, the nuclear physicist, author and broadcaster based at the University of Surrey in the UK. Each week Al-Khalili will meet an eminent scientist from diverse fields and invite them to talk about their lives and careers in science. Regular Radio 4 listeners will be familiar with the format, which is similar to Desert Island Discs – the show in which celebrities discuss their favourite songs in the context of their life experiences.

In the first episode, which you can listen to here, Al-Khalili meets the Nobel-prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, who is also the reigning president of the Royal Society. Despite his lofty status, Nurse comes across as a very open guest. He speaks in earnest about how he reached his current status in part thanks to his humble upbringing in northwest London – Nurse’s dad was a chauffeur and his mum a cleaner. “It wasn’t that I grew up in a bookish family and only got used to speaking to intellectuals – I like talking to people and I like talking to people from all backgrounds,” he says.

Like many scientists of his generation, Nurse says that his passion for science was fuelled by the space age. He recalls the excitement he felt at reading as a boy of eight or nine that Sputnik II would be passing over the UK that evening. When the Soviet spacecraft appeared as a bright star in the sky, Nurse tells of how he ran down the street in his pyjamas trying to keep up as the light vanished over the horizon.

A little later in the programme we hear about how in his 50s Nurse discovered a great revelation about his private life that was to change his view of the past forever. When applying for a Green Card to take up a position at the Rockefeller University in New York, Nurse was informed that his registered mother was the woman he had thought was his sister; and his father was unknown. It transpired that at just 18, Paul’s mum gave birth but the baby was immediately adopted unofficially by her mother (Paul’s actual grandmother). So Paul’s sister suddenly became his mother and his brothers became his uncles.

It all sounds a bit messy but Nurse tells the story in good spirits. “I now have to refer to everyone with a sort of joint relationship like ‘sister–mother’ or ‘brother–uncle’, just to keep things straight in my head,” he tells a surprised Al-Khalili. “Think of the irony of it: I’m a geneticist and here’s my own genetics I didn’t have a clue about.” Perhaps this resilience and wry sense of humour goes a long way to explaining Nurse’s rise to success.

Next week on the programme Al-Khalili will be chatting with the US-based cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker. Other confirmed guests for future episodes include the Northern-Irish astronomer Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who co-discovered pulsars as a postgrauate student in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, on Thursday 20 October Al-Khalili will also be hosting a special online lecture on about some of the relatively unknown scientists of the medieval Islamic Empire. In his new book Pathfinders: the Golden Age of Arabic Science, Al-Khalili tells the stories of some of these characters and how their works paved the way for the likes of Newton and Copernicus to revolutionize science. You can register here to attend this lecture.

Director General of the Institut Laue-Langevin

By Hamish Johnston

It just might have been the audio interview with that swung it – Andrew Harrison has been appointed Director General of the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France. He replaces Richard Wagner, who has retired.

Harrison had been scientific director of the neutron lab – a post that is now filled by Helmut Schober, who has been at ILL since 1994.

Harrison is pictured above right, with Schober centre and José Luis Martínez Peña, who will continue in his role as director of ILL’s Projects and Technique Division.

When I spoke with Harrison earlier this year, I discovered that we had both spent time at Canada’s McMaster University, where Harrison did a postdoc with the chemist John Greedan. Harrison spent much of his time at the Chalk River lab, where he tells me he shared a house with McMaster graduate student Thom Mason. Mason is now director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US – and I wonder if the two had any inkling back then that together they would control a huge chunk of the world’s neutron flux!

You can listen to my interview with Harrison here. One thing we chat about is the relationship between ILL and the European Spallation Source (ESS), which is currently being built in Sweden. Two weeks ago, ILL and ESS signed a memorandum of understanding that defines how the two neutron labs will collaborate on the development of new instrumentation and other technologies.

Cold winters
How solar output affects northern winters (Courtesy: Nature)

By Hamish Johnston
The last two winters in north-western Europe have been relatively cold. Here in normally mild Bristol, for example, our garden was frozen and snow-covered in November 2010 – something that is very rare indeed.

In a paper published yesterday in Nature Geoscience, UK-based researchers at the Hadley Centre, the University of Oxford and Imperial College have proposed a link between the recent dip in the output of the Sun and the recent cold winters.

You can hear an interview with one of the scientists on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme here. The interview has the unfortunate title “Sun spots explained” – but solar physicists can rest easy because they haven’t been!

Comet Giacobini-Zinner
Comet Giacobini-Zinner, a fairly frequent visitor to the inner solar system, was captured by the Kitt Peak 0.9 m telescope on 31 October 1998 (Credit: N A Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

By Tushna Commissariat

If you have some time to spare tomorrow evening and especially if you live anywhere in the UK and Northern Europe, then I would suggest putting together a picnic supper and going out to the park or an open space from where you have a clear view of the sky because the heavens might just be putting on quite a show! This Saturday on 8 October, the Draconids meteor shower will be at its peak - and scientists predict that we might be in for a meteor storm!

As the Earth revolves around the Sun during the year, it passes through clumps of comet dust – some of which fall towards the Earth’s surface and burn up in the atmosphere creating meteor showers. The Draconids are dust left behind by the periodic comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Generally, the Draconids that peak from around the 8 to 11 of October are a quiet affair, but every now and then the Earth travels through a particularly dense patch of dust. This year, researchers predict that the shower might be much stronger than normal. Indeed, you could see up to 10 meteors a minute, which is well worth camping out for on a chilly autumn evening. While the shower will begin tonight on 7 October and last until 11 October, the peak is set to occur on 8 October at 9 p.m. (20:00 UT), and activity is expected to begin at about 5 p.m. (16:00 UT) so probably the best views for the UK will be just after sunset.

Unfortunately, as the Moon is waxing right now, there will some bright moonlight, so try to keep the Moon behind you by keeping your gaze directed towards the northern half of the sky. Here are a few more pointers for observing meteorite showers:

• Look up a star chart before you embark, or at least pull it up on your phone app so that you can identify the constellation Draco. The shower is called the Draconids because the meteorites look as if they originate from the Draco constellation.

• Keep your eyes open – even the slowest shooting star streaks across the sky in seconds. This is literally a blink-and-you-miss-it situation!

• Take along a reclining chair or a picnic blanket so that you can comfortably lie on your back and not have a crick in your neck to deal with come Sunday morning. And wrap up warm!

• Even if you are in possession of a good pair of binoculars or a telescope, do not bother – meteorite showers are best seen with the naked eye thanks to how quickly they zip across the sky.

• Wherever you are watching the sky from – be it your back garden, the neighbourhood park or from the top of a multi-storey building – try keep away from all sources of light. This means not only bright city lights, but also not flashing a torch in someone’s face once their eyes have become used to the dark. Take along a few coloured plastic sheets – most sheets are red or blue – and fold it over your mobile phone, tablet and even your torch bulb and just secure it with an elastic band.

While just going out and enjoying the sight is lovely, some of you might want to record your observations and contribute your data for a number of global organizations that collate information about meteorite shower from amateur astronomers the world over. If you know how to professionally record your observations, then you can send your data to the International Meteor Organization which also provides you with information on how to do this. In the UK, the British Astronomical Association (BAA) is happy to receive data from any individual or society wherever they are in the world. Their website contains information on how to submit data and some handy maps and charts.

Lastly, with today’s Twitter generation, it is of course possible to tweet your data about the meteors you see. The Meteorwatch website is hosting a “Twitter Meteor Map”.

Tweet your observations using one of the hashtags #meteorwatch, #bbcstargazing, followed by your postcode, your country code (UK, US, etc) and, optionally, the meteor count. An example on their website reads – #meteorwatch SW5 0TR uk 1.

If you do happen to take any pictures of the showers do send them in to Physics World at or tag them on our official Facebook page here.

And lastly, don’t forget to do your special no-rain dance/good-weather chant at least an hour before sunset tomorrow to ward off all the rain clouds and mists that plague any starry sky! Then lie back and enjoy the view.

hands smll.jpg By Tushna Commissariat

Published with the October issue of Physics World is a special big-science supplement where we take a good look at the specific challenges of designing and building humongous facilities such as ITER and the LHC –from how to get them funded to the engineering and scientific issues that have to be met before construction can begin. You can download a free copy of the PDF here.

So, our poll question for this week:
Do you think that “big science” facilities are value for money?
The options are “Yes”, “No” and “Depends on the project”.
Vote now on Facebook.

Results just in

Last week we ran two polls, both of which were about the 2011 physics Nobel prize.
In our first poll we asked you which fields of physics deserved to win this year’s Nobel. We had more than 200 responses and here are some results.

Most people felt that “quantum information” would be a shoo-in with a 104 votes, followed by “neutrino oscillations” with 63 votes among others. Unfortunately, we did not have the foresight to include dark energy in the list, but one of our Facebook followers, Peter Moon, commented about an hour before the prize was awarded saying “The acceleration of the expansion of the universe is the most important and unexpected discovery of the last 30 years. Saul Perlmutter and his team from Berkeley responsible for the 1998 achievement deserve the prize, right now!” It looks as if he knew something that we didn’t!

Indeed, the prize was given “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae” to Perlmutter and two members of a rival group that came to the same surprising conclusion. (Read an extensive history of the discovery here.)

Our second poll question asked “Has the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics ‘for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe’ gone to the right people?” Some 88 of you answered with a “Yes”, while only 7 of you said “No”. So, that wraps up our Nobel polls, until next year!

By Hamish Johnston

Assigning credit for a scientific discovery is never easy, especially when two rival, interacting teams of scientists are involved. That is exactly the problem that the Nobel committee must have grappled with before awarding this year’s physics prize to Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt.

Perlmutter led the Supernova Cosmology Project, while Schmidt and Riess were involved with the High-Z Supernovae programme. Both groups came to the surprising conclusion in 1998 that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing, not decreasing as had been thought. So a shared prize seems fair enough.

Or is it? In 2007 Bob Crease wrote an extensive article about the same discovery that proved controversial – to say the least. Some members from both teams had been particularly worried about Crease’s article, which went through more than 20 drafts.

At issue was the fact that the teams were rivals using different techniques – as well as the question of who reported and published their work first. What Bob’s article reveals is how deeply scientific progress is indebted to ambition, desire, pride, rivalry, suspicion and other perfectly ordinary human passions.

You can read the article here, and I would also recommend looking at the comments that follow.

Also, let us know what you think by voting in our Facebook poll, where the question is:

Has the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for “the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe” gone to the right people?

nobel.jpg By Hamish Johnston

It’s all hands to the pumps here at HQ in the run up to the physics Nobel prize announcement, which will be made this morning at (or after) 10.30 a.m. BST.

Last week we asked our Facebook followers what field of physics they thought this year’s prize would honour – and now I can reveal the results.

Nearly half of you thought that this year’s prize will go for quantum information. While it’s tough to single out three people who should be awarded the prize, I would think Anton Zeilinger, Dave Wineland and Alain Aspect would be in the running.

In second place with about 29% of the vote is neutrino oscillations, which would put my fellow countryman Art McDonald of SNOLAB in the running along with two researchers from the Super-Kamiokande experiment in Japan.

Less than two hours to go…

Watt set for £50 note

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£50banknote.jpeg By Matin Durrani

Quiz question: name a scientist who has appeared on a banknote.

Thanks to the powers of Google (other search engines exist) and this informative but possibly out-of-date webpage from University of Maryland physicist Edward Redish, I see that those who have graced various currencies include Bohr (Danish 500 kroner), Marie and Pierre Curie (French 500 franc), Einstein (Israeli five pound note), Kelvin (Scottish pound), Marconi (Italian 2000 lira), Rutherford (100 New Zealand dollar), Schrödinger (Austrian 1000 schilling), Tesla (er, 10 billion Yugoslav dinar) and Volta (Italian 10,000 lira).

Now, a decade after Michael Faraday was ditched in favour of Edward Elgar on the Bank of England’s £20 note, science makes a reappearance in England with James Watt set to appear alongside his Birmingham-based business partner Matthew Boulton on the bank’s new £50 note, which is to enter circulation on 2 November 2011 (see above).

Born in Scotland in 1736, you don’t need me to remind you that Watt made his name by designing a new kind of more efficient and powerful steam engine, which he commercialized with Boulton (1728–1809). Their invention pretty much kick-started the industrial revolution, offering as it did cheap quantities of power. Watt, of course, is also honoured through the SI “derived unit” of power.

Boulton and Watt were both fellows of the Royal Society, prompting current president Sir Paul Nurse to call it “wonderful” that they were being celebrated in this way. “Science and engineering have long driven improvements in our knowledge and in our day to day lives,” he added. “At a time when the UK is trying to rebalance its economy, Watt and Boulton are also a reminder of how science and engineering can be the basis of economic growth for the UK.

Sadly I haven’t actually got one of the lovely new notes to describe in glowing detail what it looks like, so if anyone from the Bank of England would care to supply one, I’d be delighted.