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Hamish Johnston: July 2008 Archives

By James Dacey

Vatnajokul, Iceland — Europe’s largest glacier (Credit: OneGeology)

OneGeology has been dubbed ‘the biggest mapping project ever’ and its basic premise is to create the first ever digital geological map of the world and make it universally available via a web portal.

I have a background in geophysics, and I am on a Science Communication course at University of Bath, so I was naturally intrigued to see how this project will improve how scientists interact with each other and how they communicate with society as a whole.

In case you are worried that I have hi-jacked this blog, I am working as an intern at Physics World. If the lack of dark matter hasn’t scared you away then I’ll tell you a little bit more…

By Hamish Johnston

In May, 2006 we ran the news story Ice freezes at room temperature, which explains how K B Jinesh and Joost Frenken came to the startling conclusion that water will form ice at room temperature if it is placed between a tiny tungsten tip and a graphite surface.

So it was a with a great sense of deja vu that I read a new paper in Physical Review Letters by Jinesh and Frenken called Experimental Evidence for Ice Formation at Room Temperature.

I emailed Frenken (who is at Leiden University in the Netherlands) to ask him what was new about the PRL work?

He told me that the original work (also published in PRL) was concerned with the forces between the tip and the ice on the surface. Essentially, the water under the tip had the same elastic constant as ice, and the same maximum shear stress as ice — allowing the physicists to conclude it was ice.

In their latest work, they concentrate on the stucture of the water itself — which (you guessed it) is very similar to ice.

Physics TV

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By Hamish Johnston

Robotic rats, electric eels and teacher training are just three of the topics covered in a selection of videos that the Institute of Physics has posted on the Internet.

Eight of the videos are concerned with the Institute’s “Stimulating Physics” programme, which aims to boost the number and quality of physics teachers in England. One key component of the programme is improving the physics knowledge of non-physicists who teach physics. In the first video you can sit in on a session in which trainer Viccy Fleming helps boost the skills and confidence of such teachers.

You can also watch a number of physics-related classroom demonstrations aimed at younger (and remarkably well behaved) school children — including one called “Robots and Electric Eels”.

There is also a preview of “Pendryfest08”, a conference in honour of Sir John Pendry to be held on September 29-30 at Imperial College; an interview with the IOP’s “Women in Physics Winner 2008” Libby Heaney; and a robotic rat (pictured above).


By Hamish Johnston

UPDATE: The race was won by the Michigan solar car (pictured above), which travelled from Dallas to Calgary in a little under 52 hours. The final results can be found here.

This morning 15 solar-powered cars will leave Medicine Hat, Alberta in a final dash to Calgary, a distance of about 300 km. If the fastest vehicle could maintain its top speed all the way, it could get there in less than two hours.

Unfortunately, the cars competing in the 2008 North American Solar Challenge must obey the speed limit — which I’m guessing on that stretch of the Trans Canada Highway is 110 km/h, much slower that the 160 km/h that some solar cars have been known to reach.

The race began on July 13 in Plano, Texas (near Dallas) and the cars travelled due north for about 2100 km before crossing the Canadian border just south of Winnipeg. Then it was a left turn for the remaining 1400 km to Calgary.

As of yesterday, the leading car was from the University of Michigan, which travelled from Plano to Medicine Hat in 47 hours of driving time. That’s an average speed of nearly 75 km/h (about 45 mph).

Not bad when you consider that the winner of the first such long distance race — held in Australia in 1982 — averaged just 23 km/h.

The race looks wide open this morning because the fastest five cars arrived in Medicine Hat separated by about 13 minutes. The other four challengers with a chance are Principia College in Illinois, Germany’s FH Bochum, the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and the University of Minnesota.

The weather forecast for southern Alberta calls for sunny skies…so the race could be over sooner rather than later.

There is (of course) lots of interesting physics related to solar cells and you can read all about it in this feature article (Bright outlook for solar cells) in Physics World.

By Hamish Johnston

‘What a long strange trip it’s been’…The Grateful Dead’s famous lyric describes exactly how I feel after reading a paper on the arXiv preprint server about correlations between the band’s live performances and how many times its most popular songs are listened to online.

The paper is called “A Grateful Dead Analysis: The Relationship Between Concert and Listening Behavior”.

Marko Rodriguez at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US and colleagues have gone through over 1500 “set lists” — the names of songs played at a particular gig — from Dead concerts between 1972 and 1995 to work out the total number of times the group played individual tunes. This was possible because the band’s fans (Deadheads) are a fanatical bunch who have documented the group’s every performance and all this information is available on the Internet.

The team then compared the frequency of live performances with the frequency at which the same songs are downloaded from the website

Their conclusion — the songs most played by the band also tend to be the most downloaded tunes, with some important exceptions the significance of which is not obvious from the paper.

You are probably wondering “what possible use is this information”?

All I can think of is this: in a strange way the Dead were ahead of their time in terms of their “business model”. They did 30 years ago what some bands are starting to do today — they gave their music away for free (by allowing fans to tape-record concerts) and made their money from touring.

I suppose it’s possible that by analysing the data lovingly archived by Deadheads, a band could come up with clever strategy to give their music away on the Internet and cash in at the box office.

Or, it could just be a joke!


By Belle Dumé

The Heads of the International Space Station (ISS) agencies from Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the US met at European Space Agency (ESA) Headquarters in Paris yesterday as part of the ongoing meetings to celebrate the Space Station’s 10th anniversary, which is this year. I went along to find out what they have planned for ISS from now until 2015, and perhaps beyond.

Emphasis was clearly on collaboration with a capital “C”. ISS Partners seem to be very happy with what is the world’s biggest peacetime scientific cooperation to date, which is something that they can be proud of.

The Heads said ISS will continue in its role as “test-bed” for future space exploration and research and development in space.

New modules, including Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, US Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and US Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, together with current vehicles, US Shuttle (up to 2010), Russian Soyuz and Progress, and ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) were discussed.

The Heads then spoke about new initiatives, such as ESA’s plan for an ATV-Advanced Return Vehicle system for down-mass from ISS and Russia-ESA joint preparatory activities on an advanced Crew Space Transportation System.

They are also considering how best to take advantage of an increased six-man crew in 2009.

ISS should be complete by 2010 but the Heads are already looking to post-ISS times — and mentioned a possible international lunar colony.

And to round off the press conference, a surprise for us journalists: a live audio link with astronauts onboard the ESA Jules Vernes ATV, which is cargo carrier, storage facility and “tug” vehicle that raises the Space Station’s orbit every so often. The astronauts had taken original manuscripts from the pioneering 19th century science fiction writer, after whom the spacecraft is named, with them into space and proudly showed these to us in a separate video.

The audio link with ESA headquarters and the Jules Verne was also a link between the past and future, and dreams and reality, said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain as he referred to Verne’s extraordinary vision in books like From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870).

By Hamish Johnston

The July 21 issue of The New Yorker landed on my doormat this morning and I tore open the wrapper knowing that it contained a profile of the controversial theoretical physicist Garrett Lisi. The profile is by the journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

Lisi, who works independently and is not affiliated with a university or research institute, burst on the scene last year when he published “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” on the arXiv preprint server.

As the title suggests the paper tackles one of the big questions of physics — how to unify the Standard Model of particle physics with gravitation. However, it is anything but simple. Lisi’s paper is 31 dense pages of equations, diagrams and tables and is concerned with an 8D lattice called “E8”.

Stephen Maxfield of the University of Liverpool has just written an article on E8 in the July issue of Physics World and Matin Durrani touches on the Lisi controversy in his editorial.

Those with the mathematical expertise (and patience) to get to the bottom of Lisi’s theory have expressed very mixed views on its merit — and the work has yet to pass muster with any peer-review process.

According to The New Yorker, Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute described it as “one of the most compelling unification models I’ve seen in years”.

On the other hand, Jacques Distler of the University of Texas is quoted as saying “Not only can one never hope to get 3 generations out of this ‘Theory of Everything’, it appears that one can’t even get one”. By “generations”, Distler is referring to the various particles that Lisi claims can be described by his model.

However, it is not the content of Lisi’s paper that has generated the most controversy, but rather how certain factions within the physics community have latched-on to it.

Some critics of string theory — a leading contender for a theory of everything — have been accused of talking up Lisi’s work because it draws on similar mathematics as “loop quantum gravity”, an alternative theory of everything.

Also, instead of beavering away at a reputable institute, Lisi has spent the last few years snowboarding in the Rockies and surfing in Hawaii. “One can’t deny that the particular romance of this surfer dude played a part,” Distler is quoted as saying.

So is Lisi’s story one of “a surfer in search of credibility and a movement in search of a poster boy,” as The New Yorker suggests?

NB: I’m afraid you will have to buy The New Yorker to read this particular article because it is not available online.

By Hamish Johnston

My favourite episode of The Simpsons begins with Homer returning to college to retake the course “Nuclear Physics 101”. He manages to get three fellow physics students expelled and they all move into the Simpson home. They proceed to drive Marge crazy with their geeky ways, including tieing up the telephone line by downloading “Top ten reasons why Captain Kirk is better than Captain Picard”.

Funny as it may be, portraying physicists as Trekies is a stereotype that does the physics community no good — which is why someone should have a quiet word with Richard Obousy and Gerald Cleaver at Baylor University, who have posted a paper on the arXiv preprint server called “Putting the ‘Warp’ into Warp Drive”.

The paper describes how to create a “warp bubble”, which would surround a spacecraft and allow it to “effectively travel faster than the speed of light”. Instead of being powered by a cantankerous engineer with a bad Scottish accent, this warp drive harnesses the Casimir effect.

However, Cleaver and Obousy calculate that the total mass/energy contained in the planet Jupiter would be needed to propel a starship the size of the Enterprise to beyond the speed of light.

That’s a lot of dilithium crystals, and the inevitable tabloid headlines like “Physicists want to annihilate Jupiter to reach Rigel 7” will do the physics community no good.

Indeed, many readers will recall Lawrence Krauss’s 1996 book The Physics of Star Trek, which set relations between physicists and the wider community back 20 of your Earth years.

Even Physics World has been guilty of promulgating this stereotype — type “star trek” into our search facility and no less than 20 articles will come up.

A plea to the physics community — no more Star Trek!

Oh, just to set the record straight — Captain Kirk is light years better than Captain Picard.

By Hamish Johnston

Did they see WIMPS, or didn’t they?

The question of whether the DAMA and DAMA/LIBRA experiments in Italy have seen evidence of dark matter in the form of “weakly interacting massive particles” (WIMPs) has hung over the dark matter community for the past eight years.

The DAMA team has measured a very strong annual modulation in the signal from their detectors — which they ascribe to the motion of the Earth through our galaxy’s halo of dark matter.

However, other dark-matter searches have failed to confirm their result. The latest, being posted on the arXiv preprint server by researchers using a new detector buried somewhere under Chicago.

Physics World’s Italy correspondent Edwin Cartlidge will be delving deep into the controversy surrounding the DAMA result in the next issue of the magazine. Stay tuned for much more.


By Belle Dumé

The International Space Station celebrates its 10th anniversary later this year as its first module was launched in November 1998.

To commemorate the historic event, a symposium was held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris this week — and in my capacity as’s Paris correspondent, I was there rubbing shoulders with space industry and agency leaders from around the world.

The symposium, organized by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) and the European Space Agency (ESA), began by looking at history of the cooperation between 16 nations and how it all began in the 1980s — at the height of the cold war. Agreements were signed and collaborations forged thanks to the efforts of early ISS negotiators, including Mac Evans of the Canadian Space Agency, Margaret Finarelli of NASA and Fredrik Engstrom of the ESA (pictured above left to right), all now retired. The symposium also described the present, difficult, construction period and future ISS plans.

ISS crew members, Jean-Francois Clervoy, Leopold Eyharts, Satoshi Furukawa, Sergei Krikalev and Michael Lopez-Alegria also explained what it is like to actually live in space for long periods of time. Such experience will be invaluable for future human space travel.

ISS is first and foremost a giant space laboratory, with experiments being carried out in areas as diverse as medicine and life sciences, microgravity, materials science and physics, and Earth observation. An amazing technical achievement, the ISS is the world’s biggest scientific collaboration to date.

Construction of the $60 billion space station (it weighs over 500 tons) began at the end of 1998 (with Zarya, the Russian control module). It has been successively built over the last decade by over 80 spaceflights, carrying different modules up to the orbiting outpost. This year, the Columbus research module from ESA, the Kibo Laboratory from Japan and the Dextre Robot of Canada were installed. This also means that all of the ISS partners now have their major elements assembled in orbit.

ISS assembly should be complete by 2010, by which time it should be the size of a football field from “port” to “starboard”.

The ISS is crucial in our quest to expand the boundaries of space exploration and research, and will be a real “stepping stone” to other planets in our solar system, like Mars, and beyond. It is also a magnificent testament to what can be achieved when nations collaborate for the advancement of humankind.

By Hamish Johnston
Yesterday I was at a conference in London put on by the Specialised Information Publishers Association, or SIPA.

Although SIPA members publish both print and electronic products, old-fashioned paper was barely ever mentioned and the focus was on the Internet.

A great deal of discussion was devoted to building social networking sites for professionals — and we were treated to several success stories.

Some speakers argued that social networking is the next big thing for professionals, and instead of happening on massive public sites like Facebook or Bebo, professionals will interact on much smaller and much more exclusive “niche” sites.

An example cited by several speakers is SERMO, which claims to have over 65,000 doctors as members.

But what about physicists?

In September, the Institute of Physics (which owns the company that publishes plans to launch a social networking site for its members. The network has the working title MyIOP and according to the IOP’s Karen Bayless, “The network will enhance members’ ability to interact with each other more widely”.

Do you use social networking sites as a physicist?

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