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January 2012 Archives

By James Dacey

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A new report released earlier this week concluded that physical scientists use and access information in very different ways depending on the precise field they work in. Based on interviews and focus groups with a range of physical scientists, Collaborative Yet Independent reports that researchers have started to use online tools such as social networking sites in relation to their work. It found, however, that when it comes to disseminating new scientific results, publication in a traditional scientific journal remains the “gold standard” for researchers.

We want to know whether you think this will remain the case looking to the future of science. In this week’s Facebook poll we are asking the question:

Do you believe that researchers will always view the scientific paper as the gold standard for sharing new results?

No, it will be replaced by other forms of communication

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page. And, as always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment on the poll.

In last week’s poll you may have clocked that we addressed the timely issue of timekeeping. It was the topic of the hour because last Thursday delegates were debating whether or not we should scrap the “leap second”, at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva. This is a second that is added to or taken away from Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) every few years to take account of the slight speeding up or slowing down in the rotation of the Earth.

Since the first leap second was inserted in 1972, people have deliberated whether this is the most effective way of dealing with time. Some have suggested swapping the leap second in favour of the addition of a larger chunk of time after a longer period – such as a leap hour roughly every millennium. Others have suggested abandoning astronomical time altogether, replacing it with an Earth-based reference such as an atomic clock. To do so would decouple time from the Earth’s rotation, allowing traditional night hours to gradually become day hours, and over millions of years the seasons would shift from their traditional months.

We asked for your opinion on this issue and 72% of respondents believe that we should define time using an atomic clock. The remaining 28% would prefer to maintain our connection with the heavens by keeping astronomical time.

One commenter, Robert Minchin, believes that we should keep the leap second to save a stitch in time. “Getting rid of them would simply be storing up problems for the future, when a larger leap-something will need to be introduced before the night becomes the day,” he wrote. Another respondent, who goes by the name of Strum Cat, feels strongly that we should ditch astronomical time. He wrote: “Are you kidding? Defining time by the rotation of Earth is fine for getting to work on time, but useless for precise science.”

It appears, however, that the debate is set to continue for some time yet. Last Thursday – after our poll went live – officials at the ITU announced that they have sent the issue back to a panel of experts for further assessment. They say a revised proposal will be introduced no earlier than 2015.

Thank you for all of your votes and comments, and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

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By Hamish Johnston

Anyone who has trained as a scientist has learned about the “scientific method” – but the concept remains ill-defined and its origins are a topic of debate among philosophers and historians.

In this week’s instalment of In Our Time on BBC Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg and his cabal of intellectuals discuss the role of the English polymath Francis Bacon (1561–1626) in the development of the method. Through writings such as Novum Organum Scientiarum, Bacon (right) championed the use of inductive reasoning in science. Indeed, Bacon had a very important influence on a future generation of scientists who founded the Royal Society in 1660.

Another character associated with the development of the scientific method is Isaac Newton. According to historian Simon Shaffer of Cambridge University, Newton first developed his rules of scientific enquiry to study a very non-scientific subject: the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Newton then further developed his ideas by applying them to what we would think of as science.

Rounding off Bragg’s panel are the philosophers John Worrall of the London School of Economics and Michela Massimi of University College London. The quartet go on to discuss how Charles Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species was first received by Victorian scientists. Not very well it seems – Darwin’s arguments seemed to fly in the face of the scientific method because the processes of evolution could not be observed in laboratory experiments.

The team also looks at how the overthrow of Newtonian physics in the early 20th century by relativity and quantum mechanics led to a rethinking of the scientific method. Leading the way was philosopher Karl Popper with his idea of falsifiability and Thomas Kuhn with his theory of paradigm shifts.

You can listen to the programme here.

Hawking exhibition opens in London

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By Matin Durrani

I travelled up to London last night to attend the official opening of a new exhibition at the Science Museum celebrating the Cambridge University cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who turned 70 earlier this month.

Sadly, Hawking was too ill to attend in person, but he did deliver a “speech” via his trademark voice synthesizer, in which he said that “it has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics”.

“Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 70 years, and I’m happy if I have made a small contribution,” he added.

Hawking went on to say that he wanted to share his “inspiration and enthusiasm” for science. “There’s nothing like the ‘eureka’ moment of discovering something that no-one knew before,” he claimed.

The exhibition, which is fairly small, includes a short letter that Hawking sent to the editor of Nature in 1974 accompanying his paper showing that black holes can emit radiation – a hypothesis that he warned “might cause quite a stir”.

There is also a drawing of Hawking by the artist David Hockney and some other memorabilia, including a copy of a baseball encyclopedia that was the subject of a bet with Caltech physicist John Preskill. Hawking gave Preskill the book in 2004 after conceding that information could be retrieved from a black hole, as Preskill had argued but Hawking had originally denied.

Also present last night was Hawking’s daughter Lucy, who paid tribute to her father and thanked the museum for putting on the display.

Spotted among the attendees was Graham Farmelo, author of a biography of that other great British theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac. Entitled Strangest Man, it was Physics World’s Book of the Year 2010 and you can listen to an online lecture by Farmelo about Dirac here. Also present last night was Surrey University physicist Jim Al-Khalili, who recently delivered an online lecture for about the scientific contributions of Muslim scholars.

More details about the exhibition can be found here.

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By Hamish Johnston

For most people there are 86,400 seconds in a day – but astronomers have known for some time that days are getting longer thanks to sudden shifts in the Earth’s rotation.

While most of us will live our entire lives oblivious to this tiny warping of time, it does mean that the time kept by super-accurate atomic clocks and the astronomical time calculated from Earth’s motion are drifting apart by up to one second per year.

To solve this problem, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) maintains Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). The length of the second in UTC is defined as a certain number of beats of an atomic clock, whereas the actual time of day is defined astronomically. This is done by adding or subtracting “leap seconds” to UTC when necessary.

For the past decade, however, various groups have been calling for the abolition of the leap second and the adoption of pure atomic time. The ITU will be meeting in Geneva over the next few weeks and the abolition of the leap second is on the agenda. Indeed, the first debate is scheduled for today.

If the ITU does do away with the leap second, it will end tens of thousands of years of astronomical timekeeping by humans. This bothers some scientists – including Markus Kuhn of the University of Cambridge in the UK. You can read more about the leap second, and Kuhn’s arguments, here.

What do you think? You can have your say by participating in this week’s Facebook poll, where the question is:

How should time be defined?

By the Earth’s rotation
By an atomic clock

In last week’s poll we found ourselves in rather gloomy territory following the news that the famous Doomsday Clock had swung one minute closer to midnight. We asked you to choose from a list of scenarios the one you believe is most likely to lead to the end of civilization as we know it.

Runaway climate change emerged as voters “favourite” choice by picking up 49% of the votes. In second place was a nuclear world war, receiving 27% of votes. In third place was an asteroid impact with 12% of votes. Fourth place went to an act of bioterrorism with 10% of votes. And just 6% of voters believe that we will meet our end at the hands of an alien invasion.

Once again, the poll attracted a lot of comments from our fans on Facebook, despite its rather depressing theme. And a lot of people appeared to have given the doomsday scenario some serious thought. That includes Bill Dortch, who warned “I would say an act of bioterrorism, especially now that not one, but two researchers, with NIH funding, have demonstrated how very easy it would be.”

Cathy McHale Albano also believes that our fate will ultimately lie in our own hands. “I’m guessing it’s got to be something caused by humanity, so it’s runaway climate change, bioterrorism or nuclear world war,” she says. “The insidious nature of climate change makes it more likely, in my mind, although all it takes is one wrong move by one of the world’s wackos for the other two to happen.”

However, there were plenty of others who answered the poll in jest, including Lynette Fitch Blair: “Since there is no category for zombie apocalyse, then I guess alien invasion is the next best choice.” And Paul Tangney, who chipped in early to point out that we were offering “some post-festive cheer from the physics community”.

Thank you for all of your votes and comments, and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

And the winner is…

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By Margaret Harris

Congratulations to Andrew Palfreyman of San Jose, California, for winning the Physics World Quiz of the year 2011. This annual feature tests your knowledge of great and small events that occurred in the physics community over the past 12 months, from the shutdown of Fermilab’s Tevatron to the discovery that building a nuclear reactor in your kitchen is a great way to get arrested (who knew?).

We received quite a few entries this year, and about a dozen of them came from alert readers like Palfreyman who got every question right. If you didn’t win this year, better luck next time; in the meantime, though, here are the answers.

A. Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator
B. Wrinklon
C. The Allen Telescope Array
D. Jane Fonda
1. Studying how the Sun and aerosols affect the Earth’s climate
2. Mercury
3. Lake Baikal, Russia
4. Subaru 8 m telescope
5. “Heavenly Palace”
6. B (Mobile phones)
7. C (A degree and a PhD)
8. A (Writing research papers)
9. B (String theory)
10. A (They are part of a microgravity experiment)
11. B (David Cameron)
12. A (Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
13. E (Michael Gove)
14. D (John Ellis)
15. C (Athene Donald)
16. B (25)
17. C (The bars contained elevated levels of lead)
18. A (Building a nuclear reactor in his kitchen)
19. C (Jupiter)
20. D (Galileo Galilei)

By James Dacey

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On Tuesday, the famous Doomsday Clock swung a minute closer to midnight, suggesting that humanity has recently edged slightly nearer to self-destruction. The time on the Doomsday clock now reads five minutes to midnight, having being wound back to six minutes before midnight back in January 2010.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), who created and control the clock, attributed the change to inadequate progress on nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation, and continuing inaction on climate change.

We have addressed this rather gloomy topic of Doomsday scenarios in this week’s Facebook poll in which we are asking the following question:

Which scenario is the most likely to lead to the end of civilization as we know it?

A nuclear world war
Runaway climate change
An asteroid impact
An act of bioterrorism
An alien invasion

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page. And, of course, if you believe that some other ghastly scenario is more likely to wipe bring us to an unsavoury end, please feel free to post a comment.

In last week’s poll we asked you to select the person you believe to be the greatest living physicist from a shortlist of five. It quickly became a two-horse race between the two Steves: Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking that is. But in the end Weinberg narrowly won out, gathering 36% of the vote, compared with Hawking’s 34%. In third place was Ed Witten, accruing 15% of the vote. In 4th place was Philip Anderson with 14%, and in last place was Franck Wilczek with just 2% of the vote.

The poll also attracted a lot of comments and various other scientists were proposed for this mantle of greatest living physicist. The suggestions included: Murray Gell-Mann, Leonard Susskind, Gerard ‘t Hooft, Sean Carroll and Peter Higgs.

Thank you for all of your votes and comments and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll. And we promise to ask a slightly more cheerful question next week!

By Hamish Johnston


This week’s episode of the radio programme Great Lives focused on Joseph Rotblat, the Polish-British physicist and peace campaigner who died in 2005. The format of the programme involves a discussion of the person’s life with a celebrity admirer – in this case the UK’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees – and an expert on the subject. The latter was Rotblat’s friend and colleague Kit Hill, who is also a physicist.

Rotblat (pictured right, courtesy Nobel Foundation) was born to Jewish parents in Warsaw in 1908. He narrowly escaped the Nazi occupation in 1939 when he travelled to Liverpool to work at the university. From there, he went to the US, where he worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons.

He was the only scientist to quit the project for conscientious reasons – after seeing first hand how difficult it was proving to make a bomb, he concluded that the Nazis had no chance of succeeding and therefore the Manhattan Project was no longer purely a defensive act. Upon returning to the UK, he devoted his scientific career to studying the effects of radiation on living organisms.

In 1955 he joined forces with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and other leading intellectuals to issue the Russell–Einstein Manifesto that alerted world leaders to the dangers of nuclear weapons and warfare. This led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize with Rotblat himself.

The most intriguing question that the programme’s host Matthew Parris put to Rees and Hill is why Rotblat appeared happy to work on nuclear weapons when he knew that they could be used to kill Germans, but then recoiled from the idea when he realized that they looked destined to be used against other peoples?

You can listen to Great Lives here.

Hooke to hang in London

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By James Dacey

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There’s no doubt that during his time the natural philosopher Robert Hooke was something of an outsider, depicted by his chroniclers as “jealous” and “mistrustful”. But over the past three centuries, historians have come to realize that Hooke may well have been a far more important Enlightenment figure than first assumed. Today, in a further attempt to reposition Hooke’s place in the history of science, a new portrait will be unveiled in London at the headquarters of the Institute of Physics – which publishes Physics World.

Hooke was part of the group of natural philosophers that formed the Royal Society, becoming the first curator of experiments in 1662. Records show that during his career Hooke’s research spanned a gamut of interests, including biological organisms, gas experiments and the nature of light. But despite the range of his work, Hooke is only known for his eponymous law – which states that the extension of a spring is proportional to the force applied.

Hooke’s achievements began to be readdressed, however, around the tercentenary of his death in 2003, when several biographers re-explored his life and painted Hooke in a more favourable light. It was suggested that the credit for much of Hooke’s work ended up going to his contemporaries, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.

These claims gathered further weight with the discovery in 2006 of Hooke’s folio in a Hampshire country house. In these notes, Hooke had detailed the minutes of meetings at the Royal Society during his tenure as curator of experiments. Among the revelations, the notes show that Hooke was the first to state that gravity causes the elliptical motion of the planets – an idea that Newton later developed into the famous inverse-square law.

The creation of this new portrait is hoped to further improve Hooke’s status. The picture will be unveiled today during a day of talks at the Institute’s headquarters that has been organized to commemorate Hooke’s life. The work has been produced by Rita Greer, a history painter, who has depicted the natural philosopher with a notebook and quill under his right arm. In his left hand is a spring to represent Hooke’s law of elasticity.

It’s a slightly eerie image, where Hooke appears in the moonlight with bags under his eyes and his well-documented hunched back. But Greer is committed to helping Hooke get the credit he deserves for his work. “Robert Hooke, brilliant, ingenious 17th-century scientist was brushed under the carpet of history by Newton and his cronies,” she says. “When he had his tercentenary, there wasn’t a single memorial to him anywhere. I thought it disgraceful as Hooke did many wonderful things for science. I have been working on a project to put him back into history where he belongs – up with the greats.”

Help us to improve

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By Matin Durrani


We like to think you enjoy what we do here at, whether it’s our daily news, our blog, in-depth features or the videos, online lectures and podcasts.

But now’s your chance to tell us what you really think by taking part in our readers’ survey.

It won’t take more than a few minutes and for every entry we’ll make a donation to IOP for Africa, which aims to improve physics education in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Take the survey now and help us to improve

The deadline for comments is 31 January 2012.

By Hamish Johnston

Physics lovers in the UK were enthralled this morning as two of the nation’s greatest physicists – Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton – were featured on BBC Radio 4.

First up was Hawking, who answered five of the many questions submitted by listeners of the Today programme in honour of the cosmologist’s 70th birthday.

Questions that Hawking chose to answer included those on the origins of the universe, faster-than-light neutrinos and the colonization of space. You can listen to his responses here.

Newton featured on Radio 4 this morning in the final instalment of a series on the history of the written word presented by another national treasure, Melvyn Bragg. In today’s episode Bragg explores the role that writing has played in the development of science. Indeed, the programme argues that science emerged shortly after writing itself, as astronomers in ancient Mesopotamia began to record the positions of stars with the aim of predicting stellar positions in the future.

About halfway through the programme, Bragg travels to the library of the University of Cambridge to look at the student notebooks of Isaac Newton. One book contains a graphic description of how Newton pushed a wooden needle into his eye socket and recorded what happened when the needle distorted the shape of the back of his eye – that’s got to hurt!

You can watch a slideshow about Bragg’s series on the written word here.

Who is the greatest living physicist?

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By James Dacey

This week, the scientific community and the media are celebrating the phenomenal achievements of Stephen Hawking who will celebrate his 70th birthday on Sunday.

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In addition to his work in cosmology, Hawking has been prolific in popularising the complex ideas of theoretical physics through his books, his lectures and his appearances on television. His bestselling book A Brief History of Time has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and it regularly appears in polls charting “the best popular-science books of all time”. Indeed, Hawking is now so famous that he regularly crops up in popular culture – including several appearances on The Simpsons – and even his name has become a by-word for “intelligence”.

Although Hawking’s achievements clearly transcend the science, make no mistake: he has made colossal contributions to physics. Hawking’s work on black holes is considered to be some of the most important physics of the past Century, not least because it started to unify quantum theory, general relativity and thermodynamics. And, here at the Physics World headquarters, all this talk of achievement has led us to wonder whether Hawking should be considered as the greatest among his peers. We want to know your opinion on this issue. In this week’s Facebook poll we are asking the following question:

Who is the greatest living physicist?

Philip Anderson
Stephen Hawking
Steven Weinberg
Frank Wilczek
Ed Witten

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page. And, of course, if you would believe that this accolade should be bestowed on another physicist, not on our list, then please feel free to post a comment on the poll.

In our final poll of 2011, we were looking ahead into this year and the exciting discoveries that may be ahead. We asked which of the following is most likely to become a confirmed discovery in 2012: The Higgs boson; neutrinos travel faster than light in a vacuum; both; or neither.

53% of respondents believe that a confirmed Higgs discovery alone is the most likely outcome. The second most popular, with 35% of the votes, was the option was that neither will be discovered. 32% of voters opted for the superluminal neutrinos, and just 21% are optimistic enough to predict that both will become confirmed discoveries.

Brian Kelly, Senior Research Physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, was among the people to comment. He wrote: “Superluminal neutrinos will surely go away. I hope the small Higgs signal is confirmed. If it isn’t, the raison d’etre for construction of the LHC is negated and the future of experimental high energy physics looks dismal.”

Thank you for all your responses and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

New photo portraits to mark Hawking’s birthday

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By James Dacey

This portrait is part of a series of photographs commissioned by London’s Science Museum to celebrate the birthday of Stephen Hawking, who turns 70 on Sunday.

In the picture, the celebrated cosmologist was snapped in his office at the University of Cambridge by the photographer Sarah Lee. It is the classic scientist’s office: modestly decorated, a blackboard full of calculations and full of clutter.

In the foreground you can make out a toy model of one of NASA’s space shuttles, which I believe is Discovery. And what appears to be a plastic model of Hawking as he has been depicted in several episodes of The Simpsons. Note as well the crystal ball – perhaps to aid the great scientist as he searches for his next insight into black holes.

The new collection of pictures will be on show at the Science Museum from 20 January as part of a display that will celebrate Hawking’s life and achievements. The display will feature objects and papers sourced from Hawking’s own personal archives.

Meanwhile, at the University of Cambridge, a special conference is being held called The State of the Universe. The event starts today and will conclude with a public symposium to celebrate Hawking’s birthday on Sunday. A string of high-profile physicists will be speaking, including Kip Thorne, Frank Wilczek and one of last year’s Nobel prize winners, Saul Perlmutter.

For full details see the event website, and you can watch the talks via this live stream.

By Hamish Johnston

Taking seventh place in our top 10 breakthroughs for 2011 were physicists working on the Tokai-to-Kamioka (T2K) experiment in Japan, who were the first to measure the rate at which muon neutrinos change into electron neutrinos (and then back into muon neutrinos) as they travel hundreds of kilometres through the Earth. This neutrino oscillation was then observed by scientists on the similar MINOS experiment in the US, with some degree of agreement between the two values. Both experiments provided important new information about the physics of neutrinos, which is by no means settled.

Neutrinos come in three “flavour” states – electron, muon and tau. However, physicists also believe that neutrinos can be described in terms of combinations of three mass states – m1, m2 and m3. Interference between these mass states gives rise to the observed oscillations of neutrino flavour.

Although physicists have measured many of the parameters that describe this flavour/mass system, one crucial value remains unclear. This is the “mixing angle” θ13, which is a measure of how the m1 and m3 mass states are combined within the flavour states.

T2K and MINOS have both given preliminary values for θ13 that are in rough agreement, and now a third experiment – Double Chooz in France – has also determined θ13 (what is actually measured is sin213).

Double Chooz took a different approach by looking at electron antineutrinos that are produced in two nuclear reactors and detected about 1 km away after travelling through solid rock. The electron antineutrinos are expected to oscillate to either muon or tau antineutrinos, and the rate at which electron antineutrinos vanish from the beam due to oscillation is determined by θ13 and one other parameter that is well known.

The experiment was run for 101 days and the number of electron antineutrinos that should have been detected was calculated to be 4344. Instead, the physicists only saw about 4100 events in the detector.

Double Chooz found that sin213 is about 0.086, whereas T2K suggests a value of about 0.11 and MINOS gives 0.04. All of these figures have large uncertainties associated with them and cannot be seen as definitive measurements of the mixing angle. What’s becoming clear, however, is that θ13 is not zero.

Once θ13 has been determined, the next challenge for physicists will be to work out if there are differences between the oscillations experienced by neutrinos and antineutrinos. The discovery of such an asymmetry could shed light on why there is much more matter than antimatter in the universe.

You can read a preprint describing the Double Chooz results here.

By Hamish Johnston

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester have received knighthoods in the 2012 New Year Honours. The pair bagged the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their pioneering work on graphene – sheets of carbon just one atom thick. Both physicists were knighted for their “services to science”.

James Dacey visited the Manchester lab where graphene was first isolated and shot a video about how to make the material. The short film was one of our favourites of 2011 and you can watch it here.

Also receiving a knighthood is Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a biophysicist at the University of Cambridge who shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on the structure and function of ribosome.

Other physicists honoured include Jonathan Flint, chief executive of UK-based Oxford Instruments, and Philip Sutton, who has held a number of senior positions at the UK’s Ministry of Defence, including director of science and technology strategy. Both Flint and Sutton become Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 2007 Flint talked to me about how Oxford Instruments is making physics profitable, and you can read that interview here.

The honour of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) has been bestowed on James McLaughlin of the University of Ulster and on Mohamed El-Gomati of the University of York. Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) honours go to John Huddleston of AEA Technology, Derek Raine of the University of Leicester and Ian Miller of the University of Lancaster.

How to grab attention with your science videos

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By Liz Kalaugher, editor of environmentalresearchweb

And no, that doesn’t mean including footage of people attending exercise classes. The S Factor under scrutiny in this blog is the S Factor Workshop on how to make successful science videos, held at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in December 2011. The event saw a panel of Hollywood professionals critique 10 entries, picked from a total of 42 submissions by hopeful researchers.

On the panel were marine-biologist-turned filmmaker Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, and his former film-school classmates Sean Hood, now a screenwriter with credits such as horror movie Halloween: Resurrection and Conan the Barbarian to his name, and Jason Ensler, co-producer and director of Franklin & Bash, and director of episodes of TV hits Gossip Girl, Chuck and Psych.

The trio were cheerfully disparaging of scientists’ storytelling skills, saying that many of the videos took the approach “here’s our lab, here’s our kit, come see us some day”. But story is key – “think of it as making a trailer for science”.

One exception was San Jose State University’s Green Ninja. The panel felt this video showed good storytelling, with a character who clearly has a problem – his oversized and ever-growing feet – that he needs to solve.

A useful technique, as detailed by Nicholas Kristof, is to follow the story of one individual and, ideally, to reach an uplifting conclusion. According to Olson, Kristof argues that an article on death is depressing, but an article on people fighting a disease engages. In the same way, a story about coral deterioration could be depressing or dull, but a story about a man interested in coral can catch people’s attention.

Since film is good for conveying emotion and humour but not for transmitting information, it can be useful to break your complex content down to a simple story. According to Ensler, it takes time to develop stories but they can be overdeveloped and lose some of their original spark. Hood stressed the need “to keep hold of that nugget of awe”, and that scientists should “inspire the 11 year old in all of us”.

It’s also worth considering changing the order of events from a “that happened, then that happened, then this happened” type of narrative. Replacing “ands” in the storyline with “buts” and “therefores” can change the direction of the story and add tension, the film experts explained. For example, in Volcano from Space, the storyline could have been “We monitor volcanoes but they’re hard to see so we need new techniques.” Arguing two sides of an issue can also create a good story.

Ensler recommended that researchers set up cameras whenever they are in the field so that they have plenty of interesting footage to use in their videos.

But interesting is not enough; if somebody says interesting after Hood’s latest film pitch, he knows “I’ve failed, because I haven’t grabbed them emotionally”. People are most engaged by people talking, not things, he said, so it’s useful to show a person alongside a piece of scientific kit. Because watching a person speak in real life is different to seeing them onscreen; if you’re filming a talking head, then you need multiple cameras and different angles, as per the TED talks, to stop it from being boring.

That said, many of the films submitted began with somebody speaking to camera – the panel felt there was no need for this. According to Olson, it’s good to arouse and fulfil – grab the audience’s attention, make them want, then fulfil their need. For example, the Mata Eruption video from JISAO (the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean) could have put its amazing video footage of an undersea volcanic eruption right at the start of the film before answering the questions the footage raises. Alternatively, Ensler said the team could have made the audience want by promising them they were going to see some great footage but first explaining why it’s hard to obtain.

As film is a visual medium, it can be helpful to see if you can get the gist of a short film without listening to the soundtrack, the professionals explained. Indeed, one of the most well-received videos – Perspective, which used animated graphics to indicate the relative energy release of large earthquakes throughout history – contained no sound at all, and was praised for its Hitchcockian withholding of information from the audience.

In summary? Every picture (should) tell a story…