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Hamish Johnston: June 2008 Archives

By Hamish Johnston

The British media were talking about physics today, and I’m afraid the news wasn’t good.

The BBC was reporting on a study on the state of physics teaching in England by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University Of Buckingham.

Robinson and Smithers found that in 2007 just 12% of scientists accepted on teacher training programmes were trained as physicists — down from 30% in 1983. If this trend continues, it could be very difficult for the government to hit its target of having 25% of all science teachers specialising in physics by 2014.

The decline in physics teachers has meant that many education authorities have opted for “general science” teachers who cover biology and chemistry as well as physics. Indeed, the researchers found that half the schools in inner London have no teachers specialising in physics.

However, all is not gloom and doom for teaching physics in England. Last week we had our summer company meeting and Bob Kirby-Harris, chief executive, the Institute of Physics (which owns the company that publishes physicsworld.com) told us about how the organization was tackling the problem. The IOP has set up the Physics Enhancement Project, which aims to boost the physics expertise of trainee science teachers who don’t have formal qualifications in physics.

Most of our readers are outside of the England, so please let us know about the state of physics teaching where you are.

By Hamish Johnston

There’s nothing more annoying than the sound of your own voice…

I have come to this conclusion after spending many painful hours transcribing hundreds of taped interviews that I have done with scientists, industrialists and other luminaries.

But today, the shoe was on the other foot (or ear). At noon I was in a radio studio speaking to the host of the BBC Radio Wales programme The Science Cafe about dark energy.

2008 marks the tenth anniversary of the discovery of dark energy and Adam Walton wanted an update on the stuff from Physics World.

I’ll be the first to admit that cosmology is not one of my strengths and I know that I don’t have a voice for radio — but no-one else on the editorial team seemed to be available, so I agreed.

I spent the last few days reading up on dark energy — indeed, Physics World recently published three articles to mark the 10th anniversary, all of which were very helpful.

I did my best to answer Adam’s questions and I hope that after some skillful editing, his listeners will learn something about dark energy.

One thing I learned from the experience is that many of the things that I find interesting about dark energy — the huge discrepancy between the cosmological constant invoked to explain dark energy and the “cosmological constant” that can be derived from quantum field theory, for example — are very difficult to explain in sound bites.

If you live in Wales, you can listen to the show on Sunday, 29 June at 5pm. The rest of us can listen online.

I was pretty nervous during the interview, so I can’t really remember half of what I said. It will be interesting to hear what they use and what ends up on the cutting room floor.

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week I received a press release about a paper entitled ‘Abundant health from radioactive waste’, which was published today in the International Journal of Low Radiation.

Not surprisingly, this set the alarm bells ringing, but I couldn’t resist following it up.

The paper is by Don Luckey who is Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Missouri. Luckey is a proponent of “radiation hormesis” — the idea that small doses of radiation can actually be good for you, even if much larger doses will kill you.

In his paper, Luckey goes so far as to suggest that schools be built “in used nuclear power plants”, and children be given sculptures that are impregnated with nuclear waste to boost their exposure to radiation (and their health). He does caution, “However, children should not ride [sculptures of] radioactive ponies for more than a few minutes every day”.

I had never heard of radiation hormesis, so I got in touch with several health physicists in the UK and I was genuinely surprised to get a mixed verdict on the theory. Although they all agreed that hormesis was at the fringes of health physics, some did say that there could be something to it.

Indeed, I was told that the theory has a small but very vocal group of supporters, particularly in France, Japan and the US, who have been lobbying the International Commission on Radiological Protection to look into revising its Linear No-Threshold (LNT) principle. The LNT maintains that there is no exposure level below which radiation has no harmful effects (although these effects are extremely small at very low levels).

The reality is that it is very difficult to understand the effects — good or bad — of very low levels of radiation. As a result, the literature is full of seemingly conflicting reports and scientists who have a passionate belief in radiation hormesis can pick and choose studies that support the theory, while dismissing those that don’t.

A case in point is the controversial 1995 study by Bernard Cohen, which suggested that people living in parts of the US with high levels of the radioactive gas radon tend to be less likely to die from lung cancer — strong evidence for radiation hormesis, according to Luckey. However, in 2003, Jerry Puskin showed that this could be explained by considering the different rates of smoking in these regions — something that Luckey seems to have ignored in his latest paper.

So, will my children be playing on a radioactive pony? I don’t think so!

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By Hamish Johnston

Summer can be a miserable time in Toronto. It can get very hot and humid, causing folks to turn up their air conditioning, which in turn puts the region’s coal-fired generating plants into overdrive blanketing the city in a sickly yellow smog that can harm those with breathing difficulties.

As a result, local utilities have begun to shut down aging coal-fired plants in an attempt to improve air quality — but leaving some wondering where the city and surrounding province of Ontario will get its electricity.

Now, Ontario’s Minister for Energy Gerry Phillips has given the go ahead for two new nuclear reactors to be built at the Darlington generating plant just east of the city, which is already home to four reactors. These are the first power reactors to be built in Canada in over 15 years.

According to the Toronto Star, the reactors will come online in 2018 and the design will be chosen in November from a short list of three firms: Atomic Energy of Canada; US-based Westinghouse; and Areva of France.

The reactors are expected to generate about 3200 MW of power, which will double Darlington’s current capacity.

The move is part of Ontario’s CDN$26 billion plan to maintain its current nuclear capacity of 14,000 MW through a series of upgrades over the next 20 years.

Darlington is located in a part of Ontario that has been hard hit by lay-offs in the automotive industry, so Phillips may be hoping that the promise of 3500 new jobs will offset the concerns of environmentalists.

By Hamish Johnston

I spent an hour or so this morning trawling through the arXiv preprint server, where many physicists post their research results before they are published formally. It’s a great way to keep up with the latest breakthroughs — and a good source of more controversial or off-beat stories.

That’s where I spotted this gem: “Growth of Diamond Films from Tequila” by Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga and Victor M Castaño, who are physicists based in (you guessed it) Mexico.

It seems that the three physicists have used the famous spirit in their chemical vapour deposition (CVD) machine to create tiny diamonds.

Although the paper notes that diamonds have already been made by CVD using a number of other precursors, the trio suggest that tequila provides “an excellent alternative to produce industrial-scale diamond thin films for practical applications using low-cost precursors”.

It’s not clear from the paper why tequila was used rather than vodka, gin or whisky — and of course, if this paper was entitled “Growth of Diamond Films from Water and Ethanol”, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

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By Hamish Johnston

I have just updated the “Featured Journal” slot on physicsworld.com to include a paper published today that presents a “feasible” recipe for creating a metamaterial that could completely cloak an object from sound — at least in two dimensions.

Instead of absorbing and/or reflecting sound like traditional acoustic insulation, an acoustic cloak would guide sound waves around an object, much like water flowing around a stone in the middle of a stream. This analogy makes it easy to see why those charged with hiding submarines from sonar would like to get their hands on such a material.

But don’t expect to be able to cover the walls of your bedroom with the stuff and finally get a good night’s sleep, because the authors haven’t actually made the material yet (although if your neighbour’s microwave oven is keeping you awake, physicists have made a microwave cloak).

The paper is by Daniel Torrent and José Sánchez-Dehesa of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain. I spoke with Sánchez-Dehesa earlier this year when I wrote a news story about a paper they published in February. This earlier work suggested that an acoustic cloak could be made by surrounding an object with an array of cylindrical rods. If the rods had the right elastic properties and their radii and spacing were varied in a specific way, silence would reign.
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However, it looks like they have decided that this earlier design cannot be built using real materials. Now, they have refined their design to a multilayered composite of two different “sonic crystals” — with each crystal being a lattice of cylindrical rods.

Torrent and José Sánchez-Dehesa have calculated that about 200 metamaterial layers would be required to cloak an object over a wide range of acoustic frequencies — although it’s not clear from the paper how thick this would be if real materials were used.

Both papers are published in the New Journal of Physics, which will be putting out a special issue on “Cloaking and Transformation Optics” later this year.

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week our Paris correspondent Belle Dumé was back in her hometown of Liverpool, where she took in an exhibition of astronomy images on display around the city’s famous Albert Dock.

Belle took a selection of photos and reported back to us.

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Called “From Earth to the Universe”, the exhibition runs until 29 June 2008. Belle says that it provides a taste of things to come during the International Year of Astronomy celebrations next year.

2009 has been proclaimed the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and UNESCO. Its mission is to bring astronomy into the wider public domain.

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Belle tells me that the new exhibition, sponsored by the Science Photo Library and the ASTRONET Symposium, is probably the first real IYA2009 event and consists of 48 stunning images taken by professional as well as amateur astronomers. These include photographs of our Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy, the horse head nebula and the now famous image of the Cosmic Microwave Background revealed by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite in 2003.

Belle’s hometown was chosen to host the exhibit because it is the European Capital of Culture this year. The exhibition also coincides with a major European astronomy meeting, the ASTRONET Symposium, which will take place from 16-19 June at the Liverpool John Moore’s University.

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Belle tells me that the display is a prototype for an exhibit that will tour the world next year. So it might be coming to a park, shopping centre, metro station or airport near you.

There will be special coverage of IYA2009 in upcoming issues of Physics World.

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By Hamish Johnston

In my line of work I don’t usually get to talk to multi-millionaires — but a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with high-tech magnate Mike Lazaridis, who made his fortune developing the Blackberry handheld email/mobile phone device.

Lazaridis and I were in a conference call with Neil Turok, one of the world’s leading cosmologists who had just been enticed by Lazaridis to leave Cambridge and become executive director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.

The institute was founded in 2000 by Lazaridis who put up about CDN$100m of his own money. Now, Lazardis has donated a further $50m to Perimeter.

If you count the millions that he and his wife have given to the Institute for Quantum Computing at the nearby University of Waterloo, Lazaridis (who is not a physicist) has spent an amazing $200m on physics research!

When I asked Lazaridis why Turok was the right person to lead the institute he said: “We share deep convictions in the importance of basic science, the importance of funding basic science, and the importance of philanthropy in promoting basic science for the advancement of mankind”.

Lazaridis is one of a small but growing number of benefactors with deep convictions and deep pockets when it comes to the more esoteric disciplines of physics such as cosmology, astrophysics and particle physics.

Just two weeks ago an anonymous benefactor donated $5m to Fermilab, which has been particulalry hard hit by US government cuts on physics spending.

And staying with the topic of funding cuts, during our conversation Turok told me that recent cutbacks in the UK made Perimeter’s offer all the more attractive — something that he has discussed in great detail in a recent interview with the Times.

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