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Physics on film

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Recently by Jon Cartwright

By Jon Cartwright

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De Regules: “Science is the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world”. (Credit: Sergio de Regules)

One of the best features of the web is that it allows readers to give their opinion freely on the news, and at physicsworld.com we appreciate all your comments. In fact, it was while looking back at an article I wrote earlier this year that I came across an interesting comment by a reader called Sergio de Regules, who suggested we ought to have more “science commentators” to cover the history, philosophy, controversies and murkiness that make science so fascinating.

De Regules, 44, is a physicist, writer and musician living in Mexico City. As he tells me via e-mail, he has written a science column for the English-language newspaper The News (a selection of which are now archived on his blog), has edited at the Mexican science title Cómo Ves, has written several other books, and has appeared on radio shows and talks. Presently he is a science communicator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

I decided it would be worthwhile to ask him for his thoughts on science writing, and what academia is like in Mexico.

JC: What do mean by “science commentator”?

SdR: I like to think of science communication as a way of sharing science with the public. But we all know that science is not so much in the results of research as in the spirit of research, or in the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world. If the scientific results reported in the news can be viewed as newly conquered territories, science is the strategy by which they are conquered. Explaining the what in a scientific development is very good, but it is the how and the why which are memorable. The science commentator provides these.

By Jon Cartwright

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Joran Moen waits to fire his rocket to investigate radio-transmission loss in the Arctic (Credit: Yngve Vogt)

Flying over the Arctic can be like being on the far side of the moon: if the Northern Lights are particularly active, they will sometimes block all radio signals, thus severing communications with aircraft.

Joran Moen, a physicist at the University of Oslo, might have the key to explaining this phenomenon. Over the next few weeks he will be waiting for the right moment to launch his rocket ICI-2 so that it can fly 350 km into the sky to find the origin of the radio blocking, or “high-frequency backscattering”.

Scientists think the backscattering is caused by turbulent structures in the ionosphere’s electron plasma, which are related to the Northern Lights, so Moen is going to investigate. “The formation mechanisms of the structures are not yet determined, not even the altitude range,” he writes in an e-mail. “We want to study the instability mechanisms that drive the electron plasma turbulent.”

By Jon Cartwright

In his first week as US president-elect, Barack Obama has faced a barrage of recommendations into how he should run office come 20 January next year. One of those firing the rounds is the American Physical Society (APS), which on Friday scheduled meetings with his transition team to discuss ways to improve the nation’s energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency plays a key role in climate change, an issue that Obama put near the top of the list during his election campaign. He promises to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80% by 2050 — an ambitious target that he aims to meet through investment in basic research, commercialization of hybrid cars and development of green technologies.

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Hubble’s “perfect 10” (Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio)

By Jon Cartwright

After a month in “safety mode” following an error on its onboard data formatter, the Hubble is back online and taking photos again.

To evidence its good health, the grand old telescope has produced a “perfect 10” image of the galaxy pair Arp 147. According to a press release, the blue ring of the right galaxy formed its “0” shape when the left galaxy (the “1”) passed through. At the moment of impact a circular wave of dense material rippled through the right galaxy, colliding with material moving inwards from the galaxy’s gravitational pull. The resultant shockwaves and dense gas stimulated stars to form in a circle.

By Jon Cartwright

Awarding Nobel prizes, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) proved earlier this month, is no easy business. Sometimes the the prize-worthy research is the responsibility of one or two inspirational scientists. But, as is more and more often the case, the research is a joint effort among many.

Take the Higgs boson, predicted by Peter Higgs in 1963 and now the one of the most sought after particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN lab near Geneva. If the LHC does detect a Higgs boson, who deserves a Nobel? Just Higgs himself? Perhaps also the LHC project leader, Lyn Evans? Or maybe the entire LHC crew?

By Jon Cartwright

A new instrument at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in the US proves that Europeans are not the only scientists equipped to study the Big Bang.

The Fundamental Neutron Physics Beamline (FNPB) has just become operational at the SNS, which is based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Although just one of 25 instruments that will eventually power up at the SNS, the FNBP will not be using neutrons to study other materials. Rather, scientists will use it to perform studies of the neutron itself.

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Should Nicola Cabibbo have shared this year’s Nobel prize? (Credit: Marcella Bona)

By Jon Cartwright

There was a reason why science reporters like me groaned at the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics yesterday. “Drat,” we thought in synchrony. “Now I have to explain what symmetry breaking is.” Maybe that’s why we on physicsworld.com all hoped for more fathomable research, like dark energy or neutrino oscillations.

For some particle physicists, there was a less selfish reason to be irritated. Two of the three new Japanese-born laureates, Toshihide Maskawa of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics and Makoto Kobayashi of the KEK lab, were awarded the prize for figuring out how to encompass so-called charge–parity violation in the Standard Model. The crucial part of their work was in describing the decays of quarks, for which they created the CKM matrix — “M” for Maskawa and “K” for Kobayashi. So why did the Nobel committee appear to disregard the first initial — “C” for the Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo?

arXiv thrives

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Paul Ginsparg, creator of the arXiv e-print server

By Jon Cartwright

The electronic dust may have only been settling on arXiv for 17 years or so, but the world’s favourite e-print server has already amassed half a million papers.

arXiv started out life in 1991 as xxx.lanl.gov, a server created by Paul Ginsparg, then at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, to share preprints among a small number of high-energy physicists. It was a simple yet surprisingly popular idea, receiving some 400 subscriptions in its first six months alone. By 1999 when xxx.lanl.gov had changed its name to arXiv, the repository was accumulating almost two thousand new articles every month. In 2001, when Ginsparg headed to Cornell University, arXiv went too, and continued to grow.

arXiv began its operations before the World Wide Web, search engines, online commerce and all the rest, but nonetheless anticipated many components of current ‘Web 2.0’ methodology,” said Ginsparg in a statement on Friday, when the server officially passed the 500,000 mark. “It continues to play a leading role at the forefront of new models for scientific communication.”

• If you are interested to read Ginsparg’s thoughts on the development of scientific communication on the Web, why not read Physics World’s online feature?

Climate chaos

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By Jon Cartwright

A few years back after a particularly wet spell, Lenny Smith found that his local pub in Oxford had been flooded. This was of course bad news for Smith’s beer provisions, but for the pub’s owner the more desperate issue was that the flood waters had spilled into the basement and wrecked thousands of pounds worth of new kitchen equipment. So, asks Smith, how much should the owner spend on his kitchen next time? This is the sort of real-world decision related to climate change that he thinks can too easily be forgotten by climate modellers.

I was listening to Smith, a mathematical physicist (and an expert on chaos theory) at the University of Oxford, talk at the international conference on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation at the University of Exeter, UK, yesterday. He was arguing that it is fruitless to mindlessly improve climate models in all areas. Rather, he said, we should investigate how robust current climate models are by checking for consistencies among them.

By Jon Cartwright

Many of you will be wondering how the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been getting on since last Wednesday’s celebrated “switch on”. Well, if you are willing to overlook one 30 tonne hitch, commissioning is still going well.

On the switch-on day itself, if for some reason you left the planet, the operations team managed to get proton bunches all the way around the LHC’s 27 km-long ring in both directions. But even though the media had trickled away by early evening, the LHC team didn’t stop ploughing ahead, as I discovered when I went to the control centre the morning after. By then they had already had an anticlockwise bunch endlessly circulating, albeit spread or “de-bunched” around most of the ring. To correct the de-bunching, the team initiated their radio-frequency systems, which by Friday had been successfully tuned in both frequency and phase.

Friday, unfortunately, also brought difficulties. A transformer weighing some 30 tonnes developed a short circuit, forcing the team to replace it. As I hear from Lyn Evans, the LHC project leader, the new transformer has been lifted into place and the electrical systems, which feed the vital cryogenics systems, should soon be back on line.

The good news, however, is that Evans is planning to try some low-energy collisions next week. Hang on to your hats.