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Matin Durrani: November 2009 Archives

The cover of Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac

By Matin Durrani

“Moving, funny, sad and intensely readable, this is a fascinating insight into the psychology of genius.”

No, not a description of this blog entry, but what the judges of the Costa Book Awards had to say about Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, published earlier this year.

The judges have shortlisted his book, entitled The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, for the 2009 Costa Biography Award.

As physicists, we’re biased, of course, and so are hoping Graham beats off the other contenders.

(For the record, they are a description by the late playwright Simon Gray of his battle with cancer, a biography by the author William Fiennes of his brother Richard, and a biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin. No I’ve not heard of her either, but she lived in France at the turn of the 19th century and was, apparently, “the Pepys of her generation”.)

Graham’s shortlisting — announced last night on the BBC Radio 4 show Front Row — is a great opportunity for me to give you a final reminder that he is presenting the inaugural webinar in the online lecture series tomorrow, Thursday 26 November 2009, at 4p.m. UK time. Graham will be describing Dirac’s life story and outlining his key scientific contributions.

(Profuse apologies again to anyone in the US for the clash with Thanksgiving, but we’re hoping you can log on while popping the turkey in the oven.)

The webinar is free and you can register for the event via this link

Graham was pretty chuffed about the shortlisting. “I’m thrilled,” he e-mailed me today. “I always wanted the book to be read not only by physicists but by people who enjoy biographies. The wonderful thing about prizes like this is that they bring books to new audiences.”

Let’s hope he wins.

Eric Goff testing ball trajectories

By Matin Durrani

Qualification for next summer’s football World Cup in South Africa reaches its climax tomorrow — highlights include France’s return play-off with Ireland and Egypt squaring off against arch-rivals Algeria on the same day.

But some teams, like England, have already secured their passage to the world’s greatest sports tournament and will no doubt be already be dreaming of lifting the famous trophy.

England’s players have a night off tomorrow but if star midfielder David Beckham is feeling a bit bored, he might want to read a new paper in the American Journal of Physics by John Eric Goff of Lynchburg College, Virginia, and Matt Carré of the University of Sheffield in the UK.

Goff and Carré carried out a series of experiments in which soccer balls were launched from a machine while two high-speed cameras recorded portions of their trajectory. The equipment allowed the researchers to vary the balls’ launch speed and spin — balls could be fired either with no spin, topspin, backspin, sidespin or any combination.

From the resulting data, the two physicists then calculated the “lift” drag coefficient on the ball and the “sideways” drag coefficient, CS. If the ball has pure topspin or pure backspin then CS is zero, but if the ball has any other spin, the value of CS is not zero.

All lovely stuff, of course, but where does Beckham come in? Well, Goff and Carré then examined Beckham’s famous 90th-minute free kick taken against Greece in October 2001 that secured England’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup in France. His carefully taken kick bent around the wall before landing plum in the back of the Greek net and secured England a dramatic last-minute equalizer in the 2—2 draw.

Using TV footage of the famous match, the two physicists calculated that the ball left Beckham’s foot at a speed of 36 m/s at which point its “Reynolds number” (air speed times ball diameter, divided by kinematic viscosity) was of 5.1 × 105. The ball had an average rotational velocity of 63 radians per second, rose above the height of the crossbar during the flight and moved about 3 m sideways, before slowing down to about 19 m/s as it dipped into the corner of the goal.

Goff and Carré then did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate a value for CS, which was found to be about 0.2 for the famous shot.

And the punchline? Sorry folks, there isn’t one. But maybe the paper will persuade Becks, who’s currently on loan from LA Galaxy at AC Milan, to swot up on a bit of simple physics before next summer’s tournament. Assuming he makes the team, that is.

Vitaly Ginzburg in Stockholm in 2003

By Matin Durrani

Vitaly Ginzburg, who turned 93 last month, is without doubt one of the leading Russian theorists of the 20th century, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physics with Alexei Abrikosov and Tony Leggett for their work on the theory of superconductors and superfluids.

He’s a long-standing admirer of Physics World magazine — having first written for us back in 1997 — and when the opportunity arose to interview him, I jumped at the chance.

Ginzburg gave answers to our questions in Russian, which were then translated into English by Vitaly Kisin, a former colleauge of mine here at Institute of Physics Publishing. I must also thank Maria Aksenteva, who is the managing editor of the journal Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk, which Ginzburg has edited for the last 11 years. She is very much his “eyes and ears”.

In the interview, which you can read by following this link, Ginzburg talks about how his interest in physics developed, why he distrusts the Church’s growing role in Russian society, and how his role in developing a hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union was what saved his life.:

The interview is in the opinion section of’s In-depth channel which currently contains a couple other great articles worth checking out.

In How to publish a scientific comment Rick Trebino relives the time he tried - and failed - to have a comment published in a scientific journal. You couldn’t make the story up.

Then as Imperial College London counts down to a debate on the pros and cons of human space flight on 12 November, the two panellists write exclusively for us, presenting their arguments for and against manned or robotic space missions in the article Human spaceflight: science or spectacle? Championing robotic missions is David Clements, a lecturer in astrophysics from Imperial. Making the case for human space flight is Ian Crawford, a reader in planetary science and astrobiology from Birkbeck College, London.

Finally, Robert P Crease probes arguments made by US energy secretary Steven Chu that the next generation of synchrotron sources are an essential tool for meeting the energy challenge — check out his article “The Lure of Synchrotrons” by following this link