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AAAS Annual Meeting 2009: February 2009: Monthly Archives

AAAS Annual Meeting 2009: February 2009 Archives

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An “energy-saving” Rube Goldberg house.

By Margaret Harris

For the past two days the conference exhibit hall has been full of both regular conference-goers and also parents and children attending “Family Science Days”. I wasn’t able to catch the full show at the “Physics Van” yesterday, and I’m not even sure what the giant inflatable shark near the hall entrance was supposed to do, but I did happen to pitch up at this energy-saving house just in time to watch it in action.

The house was built by members of the Glenbrook South High School science club, and it’s designed to show people just how “easy” it is to switch from incandescent bulbs to LED lights — by making the switch in the most complicated way possible. I grew up calling such things Rube Goldberg machines, but I’m told that the British term is “Heath Robinson contraptions”. Great minds think alike, or something.

Whatever the name, the result was impressive: there were trains running down slopes, propellers spinning into things, bowling balls lumbering along tracks and fizzy-drink cans catapulting through the air — and yes, the LED light came on at the end of it. Club leader Dan Uhler and team members Max Frotheringham and Liam Ennis talked me through its operation afterwards, and Uhler told me they’d been generating ideas for the house since Christmas. All in all, it was a fine demonstration of physics in action — and although everyone on the team told me they want to study engineering, I guess there’s still time for them to change their minds.

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Image from Barbara Jacak’s talk. Credit: icanhazcheezburger.com

By Margaret Harris

Skeptics find much to complain about in string theory, but perhaps their most stinging criticism has been its inability to be falsified by experiment. A few years ago, one string theorist even told me that a particle accelerator big enough to “see” a string would be so large that its opposite ends would be causally disconnected. So this is not a problem we’ll be solving any time soon.

Yet even if we’ll never see a string in the lab, it turns out that string theory does make a few predictions about how matter should behave at the quantum level — and now physicists from the apparently unrelated disciplines of heavy-ion collisions and cold fermions are coming tantalizingly close to testing them.

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Cool stuff from the AAAS exhibit hall.

By Margaret Harris

Human beings may have originated in Africa, but the best freebies on offer in the AAAS exhibit hall have a distinctly colder origin: Canada. Not only does the silver luggage tag (bottom left) from the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council look classy, their knit cap really scores on the usefulness front — it’s a bit chilly in Chicago this week! And as for the maple sugar candies…well, I’m planning to bring this one back for physicsworld.com editor (and native Canadian) Hamish Johnston, but there’s a chance it might get lost in transit.

The prize for most frustrating freebie, on the other hand, goes to the yellow rubber ball from ITER. It’s got a mechanism inside — probably piezoelectrical — that theoretically ought to make it light up when you bounce it. However, it only seems to work when I don’t want it to — like in a seminar when they’ve just dimmed the lights.

I’m sure there’s an experimental fusion metaphor in there somewhere, but at the moment I’m more worried about getting it past airport security. If they had to confiscate my contact solution because the bottle was 18 mL too big, who knows what they’ll make of a mysteriously flashing yellow ball with “fusion” written all over it?

By Margaret Harris

Are you a T-shaped scientist? No? What about I-shaped? Or pi-shaped?

According to Rita Colwell of the US National Research Council, a T-shaped scientist is one with a broad, shallow background in a lot of scientific topics (the top of the T), plus deep expertise in a single area (the base). This, she argues, is the kind of scientist that many technical and managerial jobs require, but that traditional science postgraduate courses usually fail to produce.

Colwell’s solution is a relatively recent innovation in science education: the professional science master’s (PSM) degree. She described the PSM as a two-year programme that gives students some research experience beyond undergraduate level whilst also providing training in topics like leadership, dealing with government regulations and patent applications, and communication. There are now 135 such programmes in place at more than 60 US universities, said Elizabeth Friedman of the National Professional Science Master’s Assosciation, and that number is growing every year.

Unlike their counterparts in fields like business and public health, master’s degrees in science have often been seen as “consolation prizes” for students who can’t hack a PhD. But in many cases, Friedman said, graduates with only a bachelor’s degree lack the technical knowledge needed to lead a team of scientists in industry. And not everyone wants to spend five or even two years as an apprentice academic — effectively the situation for students doing PhDs or research masters degrees. So in principle, the PSM sounds like a nice middle route, and Friedman said it’s already proving extremely popular with students in biotech fields.

Yet there are drawbacks as well. Colwell noted in passing that universities love the programme because it’s a real “cash cow” for them; PSM students or their industry sponsors pay stiff tuition fees, and some universities rely heavily on cheaper adjunct professors to supply the non-academic part of students’ training (a practice Colwell deplored as short-sighted).

I asked Colwell whether PSM students have any problems fitting in with their home departments, curious as to whether their fee-paying status and industry focus would set them apart. Colwell said that she’d seen no evidence for such divisions within her field of public health, but I’m not sure that would be the case for physics.

Perhaps physicists are more U-shaped…

A mole of Earths

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Artist’s impression of extrasolar planets. Credit: NASA

By Margaret Harris

Alan Boss is the kind of astronomer who sees the glass as not only full, but overflowing. Boss, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, US, told an AAAS audience that there could be up to 1022 Earthlike planets in the universe. Moreover, he argued that finding life on them is almost as inevitable as finding slime mould in a packed refrigerator left unplugged for two months. Maybe these extrasolar Earths don’t harbour life with two legs and a face, Boss said, but they should certainly be teeming with microbes and other simple organisms.

Avogadro’s number, 6.02 × 1023, is best known as the number of atoms in a mole, but in a fuzzier sense, it’s also a gold standard for mind-bogglingly large numbers. So 1022 Earthlike planets is really up there — and, as Boss noted, among astronomers an extra order of magnitude is nothing.

Perhaps I’m suffering from imagination failure, but a mole of Earths is hard for me to to get my head round. Judging from the mob of journalists who surrounded Boss after his talk, I wasn’t alone, and unfortunately someone from the New York Times led him away before I could do more than say hello.

However, if you’re interested in hearing more about Boss’ “crowded universe” hypothesis, fear not: he’s written a feature for next month’s print edition of Physics World on the same subject. In it, he talks about the search for extrasolar planets, and how new space telescopes will provide data to distinguish between a universe that is half full, half empty, or maybe even overflowing. So if you find the idea of 1022 extrasolar Earths intriguing, you know where to look.

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Dan Meyer won an Ig Nobel prize for publishing a paper on the side effects of sword swallowing.

By Margaret Harris

It’s not all doom and climate-change gloom here in conferenceland, however. Many readers will already be familiar with the Ig Nobel prizes, which are given annually in honour of science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think. But it’s not every day that you get to see a proud Ig Nobelist in the flesh — and it’s even rarer to watch one of them swallow 12 inches of solid steel, as Dan Meyer is doing in this photo (he swallowed an even bigger blade — 24 inches, long enough to reach the base of his stomach — at the press party later that night).

Meyer is president of the Sword Swallowers Association International, and he won the Ig Nobel for medicine in 2007 for co-authoring a paper in the British Medical Journal on “Swordswallowing and Its Side Effects”. These side effects include - unsurprisingly - both sore throats and, erm, death. Fortunately, nothing so drastic occurred tonight, and if Meyer did get a sore throat afterwards, I’m sure plenty of people would have bought him a drink to help soothe it.

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Al Gore

By Margaret Harris

As we were waiting for tonight’s keynote address by former US vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore, the man next to me commented that the International Year of Astronomy hasn’t received nearly as much press attention as the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species. Perhaps people can only absorb one celebration at a time, he suggested, and Darwin pipped Galileo to the post.

If it’s true that the public has a limited appetite for scientific anniversaries, then Gore’s speech must have left its audience very full indeed. The beginning of the talk incorporated not only Darwin and Galileo — whose evidence for a heliocentric universe Gore called “the original inconvenient truth” in reference to his 2006 film — but also Sir John Tyndall, who discovered 150 years ago that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs radiation from the sun.

The remainder of Gore’s address was essentially a statistics-rich tour of climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects on human life. Having seen it, I can understand how “An Inconvenient Truth” struck such a chord with viewers. As a politician, Gore was often lampooned for being humourless and wooden, but his calm, deadpan manner suits his subject matter perfectly: the facts are so striking that they speak for themselves, with no need for histrionics or overt emotion.

Gore now calls himself a “recovering politician” — he’s on Step 9 of the programme, he joked — and he claimed he didn’t want to make a political speech tonight. Yet one of the most optimistic things he had to say was also among the most political. After calling the search for green energy the greatest scientific challenge of our age, he claimed that we nonetheless have everything we need to solve it “except possibly political will — and the United States has just demonstrated that political will is a renewable resource.” If the situation is as dire as Gore’s data indicate, let’s hope he’s right.

By Margaret Harris

I’d thought that the economic crisis might be the elephant in the conference room here at AAAS, but it turns out I was only half right: it’s an elephant-sized issue, true enough, but presenters aren’t avoiding it.

Jose Manuel Silva Rodriguez, the director-general of the European Commission for Research, seemed optimistic about prospects for science research in a recession despite looming budget cuts in EU member countries. Most of their projects, he said, are funded well in advance, and should be safe through 2012. But one speaker at a career forum for women and minorities was less sure: she claimed that 50% of jobs in her subject — field biology — were canceled this year in the teeth of previous funding promises.

Brooke Allen of trading group Maple Security took a middle route. He’d changed the title of his seminar from “Finding Hidden Values in the Job Market” to the more downbeat “Finding Work and Finding Jobs in Hard Times,” but he also maintained that recessions were the best time to find work, because “greedy people who won’t work except for lots of compensation drop out of the market”.

There’s just one catch: “work” and “jobs” are not synonymous, so there may be plenty of work to be done, but not enough paid jobs available for people to do them. His advice for securing a paid job boiled down to an exhortation to do more networking — not in itself a terribly original suggestion, but Allen did have an interesting way of illustrating this old cliché.

He’s an advocate of what he calls “promiscuous networking,” which means that he views literally everyone he’s ever met (2500 people and counting) as part of his network. To illustrate how this works, he got everyone in his audience to list three things they wanted, three things they could offer, and then mill about the room comparing notes and exchanging email addresses.

I decided to offer help with reviewing books, living in the UK, and finding good places to go hiking, while asking for help on articles about careers, finding funny physicists to write Lateral Thoughts columns, and improving my Spanish. At the end of the session, I had collected names of four people who wanted my help, and four who thought they might be able to help me. Not bad.

So does this promiscuous networking thing work? The jury’s still out for me, but for those of you seeking jobs in this difficult climate, it could be worth a try.

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“Cloud Gate” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park

By Margaret Harris

Is this a strangely shiny cosmic singularity? An artist’s impression of life inside a tokamak reactor? An alien spaceship?

All good guesses, but actually it’s the underside of a sculpture called “Cloud Gate” that sits in a public park on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore. From the outside, it looks like a giant mirror-clad coffee bean, and it does a nice job of reflecting a slightly warped version of the city’s skyline — plus a few camera-happy journalists who wander past in search of lunch.

I’ll leave figuring out the bean’s optical properties as an exercise for the reader, because I’m on to bigger things: specifically “Our planet and its life: origins and futures,” which is the rather grandiose theme of the 2009 AAAS meeting. In practical terms, this means that most of the scheduled talks seem to fall into one (or more) of three categories: astronomy, environmental science, and evolution.

I plumped for the first and last category this afternoon by attending a briefing on “The Cosmic Cradle of Life.” During the session, Tony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia spoke about how observers have found more than 150 different types of molecules — including ethylene glycol, or antifreeze — suspended in the interstellar medium. These discoveries have provided support for the idea that life on Earth (and potentially elsewhere) might not have required a complex homegrown chemical soup to get started — the key ingredients could have come from space instead.

Maybe they got there inside a giant mirrored bean…

Visiting Fermilab

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Fermilab’s Wilson Hall

By Margaret Harris

“I know it’s kind of a busman’s holiday for you, but do you want to visit Fermilab?”

The AAAS conference doesn’t officially kick off until tomorrow, so I was supposed to spend today de-jet-lagging myself while visiting my uncle west of Chicago. Now, a rainy February day in the Chicago suburbs is not everyone’s idea of great holiday material, but one of those suburbs happens to host the world’s biggest operational particle accelerator…and several of its scientists have prominent slots on the conference schedule…so…

Fermilab’s striking Wilson Hall atrium is open to the public from dawn to dusk most days, and you can hike in the surrounding prairies, too (just watch out for the resident bison herd — now down to 20 head due to budget cuts). But on Wednesday and Saturday mornings they also run guided tours, so my uncle and I joined the small group of curious local residents following science historian (and UK native - between that and the mist, I felt right at home) Yvonne Twomey around the linear accelerator building.

The ongoing Higgs boson hunt means that the Tevatron is nearly always running, so there’s a limit to what you can see at Fermilab on a public tour. But we poked our heads into the auditorium, peered through glass at the giant Cockcroft-Walton generator and the first few feet of the linear accelerator beam line, and learned a little about the great astrophysicist office-space takeover (they used to be confined to the third floor, but as the lab’s particle physics mission winds down, other sub-disciplines have picked up territory) before going back to the high-rise’s 15th floor to gaze out at the lab’s other buildings. And the mist. And the bison.

And, of course, to the distant skyline of Chicago proper, where I’ll be reporting on the conference from tomorrow on. Until then…

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