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Jon Cartwright: April 2008 Archives


On April 3 last year, the left-hand side of the Fermilab Today website had a graphical weather forecast depicting storm clouds. It was a fitting metaphor for the mood of the US lab, which had recently discovered that one of the “quadrupole” magnets it supplied the European lab CERN for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had failed a preliminary test. On the right-hand side of the website, Pier Oddone, the director of Fermilab, admitted they had taken “a pratfall on the world stage”.

Indeed they had. The failure meant they had to replace all similar magnets with redesigned models and skip the low-energy test runs that were due to take place before winter. It also added to the problems that forced CERN to delay the LHC’s (already repeatedly delayed) start up from May to July this year.

Now, though, everything looks to be well again. On the right-hand side of Fermilab Today, Oddone writes that the first of the replaced magnets has passed the test it failed last year. He writes that the 50 or so scientists, engineers and technicians at CERN who made the repairs deserve “a crown”. And the left-hand side of the website is forecasting sunshine.

The original problem was that the magnets had inadequate support to withstand the forces produced during “quenching”. This is when a magnet gets warmed up above its 1.9 K operating temperature, and could happen happen, for example, if one of the LHC’s proton beams veers off course. Last Friday the replaced magnet passed the one-hour test designed to simulate quenching.

“Everyone commissioning the LHC,” writes Oddone, “both accelerator and detectors, is racing excitedly towards colliding-beam operation and the great physics results that we can almost taste.”


With $5000 of his research grant left burning a hole in his wallet earlier this year, Frank Mueller, a computer scientist from North Carolina State University, decided to hit the shops and buy eight Playstation 3 games consoles. Not for pleasure, you understand — no, Mueller figured that with eight Playstations strapped together he could create a modestly powered supercomputer. “The cost for performance is unbeatable,” he says.

Mueller’s “cluster” of games consoles doesn’t quite break into the TOP500 list of supercomputers. But if he had another $4m lying about, he reckons he could string together 10,000 Playstations to make the fastest supercomputer in the world.

So, could physicists use Playstations to save a few trips to Blue Gene? “Yes,” says Mueller, “if they are willing to substantially rewrite their most computer-intensive code portions in a non-standard API.” That’s the Application Programming Interface, for those of you who don’t know.

On his website, Mueller notes that he uses his Playstation cluster for “educational purposes”.

You don’t need a research paper to tell you that tabloid newspapers aren’t the best source of scientific information.

Or do you? Maxwell Boykoff and Maria Mansfield from the University of Oxford, UK, seem to think so. In a paper published today in Environmental Research Letters, they have surveyed nearly 1000 articles dating back seven years from the UK’s most-read tabloids: the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express and the Mirror. It seems that around a quarter of the articles have strayed from scientific consensus — that is, that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are “very likely” to be causing the observed global warming over the past half century.

This conclusion is buttressed by interviews with journalists and editors, as well as examples of dodgy environmental reporting. Here’s a few to whet your appetite:

“Experts are still arguing over whether [global warming] is a natural phenomenon, or the effect of industrial societies releasing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere…” (Ivor Key of the Express)

“It seems that the most significant global warming is caused by the hotheads who are anxious to believe their own propaganda.” (Commentary in the Mail on Sunday)

“This confirms what I have been saying for years — cars do not cause global warming. Now we learn that all along it was bloody sheep and cows.” (Jermey Clarkson, motoring journalist and regular aristarch of environmentalists, commentating in the Sun after learning that methane emissions from cattle are significant in global warming)

There’s an interview with Boykoff on our sister website, environmentalresearchweb.