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Margaret Harris: May 2010 Archives

By Margaret Harris

I’m not talking about physical look-a-likes here, but researchers who share your name – and thus might be mistaken for you when someone searches the scientific literature.

In my case, I can’t say that the prospect worries me very much. Although I am only the fifth-most-cited “M L Harris” on the ISI Web of Knowledge – lagging behind a Mary L Harris who studies bowel disease; a Meghan L Harris who works for the Iowa Department of Public Health; and two unspecified M L Harrises who study lung problems in London and environmental toxins in Canada – my doppelgangers and I work in such different fields that it would be hard to confuse us.

However, I can accept that modern-day A Einsteins – of whom there are a surprisingly large number – might feel differently on the issue. The same goes for a physicist I met at a conference once: his name was Slobodan Milosevic.

Name confusion is a particular concern for people whose names have multiple accepted English transliterations, like Xu/Hsu or Müller/Mueller. Different publishers’ conventions can mean that such people become, in effect, their own scientific doppelgangers, with multiple database identities that actually refer to the same person. A separate-but-related problem arises when researchers change surnames after marriage, or add a second initial. Stephen Hawking, for example, publishes as both “Hawking S” and “Hawking S W”. Although he’s probably too famous to care now, lesser-known researchers can suffer if name confusion means that hiring committees and potential collaborators get an incomplete picture of their work.

To address this problem, various organizations have sponsored initiatives that attempt to
assign unambiguous identities to scientific researchers. Many scientific publishers – including IOP Publishing, which publishes – are working on their internal author databases, trying to eliminate duplicate entries and create clear and accurate records of each scientist’s work.

However, the scope of such databases is usually limited to a single publisher. There are a few broader efforts out there, including the American Institute of Physics’ Uniphy service, but so far, there is no “global, cross-sector, cross-institutional system that research institutions and all types of publishers can share”; like the one this article from Chemical and Engineering News suggests is needed.

But is such a vast database really necessary? Or are scientific doppelgangers a minor problem, one that could be solved with better record-keeping on a smaller scale?

Decomposing VX nerve agent with ultraviolet laser light (Courtesy: INL)

By Margaret Harris

Here’s one possible laser application that didn’t make it into this month’s special issue: using lasers to remove chemical contaminants after a terrorist attack.

According to a press release from the US Department of Homeland Security, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have successfully used ultraviolet-wavelength lasers to remove samples of mustard gas and the nerve agent VX from porous surfaces like concrete. One of the scientists involved, INL chemist Bob Fox, compared the process to “laser steam-cleaning”.

As you might expect, the details in the press release are a little sketchy, but it appears that UV light from the laser is breaking molecular bonds in the VX, causing it to decompose into non-hazardous daughter products – and leaving behind the “harmless” (if rather nasty looking) brown stain shown in the photo.

This isn’t an entirely new idea; instead, it’s an adaptation of older procedures that use lasers to scrub soot off buildings and unwanted tattoos off human flesh. The INL team has also studied ways of using lasers to remove radioactive contamination, and might move on to biological contaminants in the future. “I’m willing to shine my light on anything,” says Fox.

By Margaret Harris

Fifty years ago today, a little-known scientist working in an underfunded lab in California set off a scientific and technological revolution. On 16 May 1960, Theodore Maiman and his assistant Irnee d’Haenens succeeded in coaxing a beam of coherent light out of a flashlamp-pumped crystal of pink ruby. The laser had arrived.

Of course, the events of that day were not the whole story. Although Maiman is rightly honoured for inventing the first working laser, many others played a role in the laser’s development, both before and (particularly) after the initial breakthrough. Among the key early figures were Einstein, whose predictions about stimulated emission laid the theoretical groundwork; and Charles Townes, who invented the laser’s microwave predecessor, the maser.

To learn more about the early days of the laser, I’d highly recommend downloading Physics World’s May special issue, which you can do for free via this link. On page 23, you’ll find a great article by Pauline Rigby called “And then there was light”, which describes the events leading up to Maiman’s breakthrough and some of the controversy that followed it.

As for what happened next, I think the thing that surprised me most when I was researching the special issue was just how quickly researchers in various fields found ways of putting Maiman’s new toy to use. Barely a year after its invention, a device that d’Haenens memorably called “a solution looking for a problem” was already being used for human eye surgery.

So what will we be doing with it in 2060? Well, as Niels Bohr supposedly said, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future” — but if you want to hear some experts’ views , check out “Where next for the laser?” on p53 in the downloadable pdf. You can also watch our laser video series .

Update: Pauline Rigby has written an entry on her own blog about how the article “And then there was light” came into being — including additional material from her interview with Maiman’s wife Kathleen. You can read it here