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Matin Durrani: February 2010 Archives

By Matin Durrani

One of the reasons why the BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs has been on air for almost 70 years now is that it’s such a simple format.

Guests choose their favourite eight records to take to a desert island while chatting about their life and work to the presenter, currently Kirsty Young.

Jim Al-Khalili — enjoys listening to Rolf Harris

It’s also tempting to think what you might pick if you were on the show. You’d want to appear to have impeccably good taste of course, while not appearing too conventional or mainstream.

All of which left me wondering why the theoretical nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalilli, who appears on this week’s show, decided to choose Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys as one of his eight records.

The song, which was a surprise number one UK hit in 1969 for the Australian entertainer, describes the life of two boys who grew up to fight in the American Civil War. It’s a bit of a cheesy and mawkish song — no, actually, it’s awful — but there’s an interesting story behind why Al-Khalili picked it.

The Surrey University physicist grew up in Iraq, where his father had returned after meeting his English wife while studying engineering in Portsmouth. The family used to listen constantly to the BBC World Service radio broadcasts and his mother one day wrote in, asking for the Rolf hit to be played for Jim and his brother as a request.

It was, to their surprise, and Jim and his family’s name was read out on air.

The show’s, unfortunately, a bit light on physics. Al-Khalili, for example, begins an interesting discussion about nuclear fusion, which gets about as far as him calling it “the holy grail of energy” as it does not produce carbon dioxide or “horrible nuclear waste” before presenter Kirsty Young cuts him off with a shrill “Enough of the science!”

Jim also touches on science in the Islamic world — indeed, he is currently putting the finishing touches to a feature on the topic, which is to appear in the April issue of Physics World magazine.

His favourite book is the heavyweight The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose and his luxury is an acoustic guitar.

You can listen to the broadcast via this link

By Matin Durrani

Most readers of this blog first got interested in physics for a variety of reasons — be it an inspiring teacher, a good popular-science book, or just a deeply held desire to get to the bottom of something really quite hard.


Sadly, not everyone has the same passion for physics as physicists themselves. People are, of course, perfectly happy to reap the benefits of physics — be it finding their way in the car using a GPS sat-nav system, downloading the latest movies over the optical fibres of the Internet, or getting treated with an MRI scanner when they’re ill.

But that does not mean non-physicists want to know anything about physics. Even worse, many people aren’t even aware of what physics can do.

Now, though, my colleagues at the Institute of Physics have published an excellent report that outlines, at a very simple level, how physics has contributed to 10 different technological developments.

Entitled Physics for an Advanced World, the glossy full-colour report can be downloaded for free here

Launched at the House of Commons earlier this week, it has 10 case studies showcasing the the social and economic benefits of physics — each with great photos, accessible text and a useful timeline. Other applications in addition to those mentioned above include holography, lasers and, of course, the Web itself.

Without which you would not be reading this blog.

By Matin Durrani, Editor, Physics World

The Royal Society — perhaps the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society — is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1650 by a group of 12 natural philosophers, including Robert Boyle, best known for his law describing how the pressure of a gas rises as it is compressed at constant temperature.

Over the years, the society has had plenty of links with physics — past presidents include Isaac Newton, J J Thomson, Lord Kelvin and Ernest Rutherford and the current president is the Cambridge University astrophysicist and cosmologist Martin Rees.

Speaking in an exclusive video interview with, Rees explains why he thinks the Royal Society still has an essential role to play in the modern world. After all, if scientists can communicate quickly and easily via online discussion groups, Facebook and Twitter, a society with a limited and admittedly elite membership might not be totally in tune with today’s world. For Rees, however, the society’s strengths lie in its ability to promote and disseminate science — and in the increasing amount of scientific advice it offers to politicians on topics like energy and climate change.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Rees also welcomes President Obama’s decision not to return astronauts to the Moon.

“Given the financial constraints, if I were an American taxpayer I would entirely support it,” he says. “I think it is very important we pursue science in space [but] the case for sending people into space is getting weaker all the time with every advance in robotics and miniaturization. I still believe in the long run that there is a role for people in space, but that’s just for an adventure - not for any practical purpose.”

As for what are the mostexciting developments in astronomy, Rees cites the search for Earth-like extrasolar planets, the study of the cosmic microwave background by the Planck satellite and the ability of the Herschel infrared telsecope to understand how the earliest galaxies formed.

The interview with Rees took place at the Royal Society’s “presidential flat” — a kind of up-market crash-pad at the society’s headquarters at Carlton House Terrace in central London. The flat has great views out onto the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, where Rees — as a member of the House of Lords — had spent the morning giving evidence to a scientific committee. That was followed by a radio interview and then us.

Add in his duties as master of Trinity College Cambridge, and it’s not surprising that Rees only has time for research at weekends. But, as he explains, he is “in a style of life that is fascinating”.

By Matin Durrani

With their passion for analysing the world by breaking it down into ever-smaller pieces, most physicists are “reductionists” at heart. Whether through tradition or instinct, our natural inclination is to reduce matter first to molecules and then to atoms and on to nuclei, nucleons, quarks and beyond.

But this approach, while astonishingly successful in terms of understanding the fundamental particles and forces of nature, does not always work. In other words, the whole can often be more than the sum of the parts.

Just consider the beautiful patterns created by large flocks of birds flying in the sky, which cannot be explained by understanding in ever greater detail the physiology of those birds. It is the interactions between the birds that are the key: the patterns form if each individual simply keeps a steady gap between it and its neighbours and flies in their average direction.

The February 2010 special issue of Physics World magazine, which can be downloaded for free via this link, looks at the science of “complex systems” — a rapidly growing field that tackles any system with lots of individual elements that interact in some way, be they birds flying in formation, car drivers moving along a highway or computers linking to form the Internet.

One active area of complexity, where physicists are making much of the running, is network science. Mark Buchanan and Guido Caldarelli (p22) kick off the issue by charting the rise of the field, which involves studying any system where its properties lie not in the behaviour of the individual components of the network but in the nature and structure of the connections between them.

It is important to note that while networks are complex systems, not all complex systems are networks. A colony of ants, for example, might co-operate on building a nest, but their connections are not formalized in any way. A network of traders, computers or phones, in contrast, do have such links.

Much of the fascination of network science lies in its roots in everyday life. For example, as Vittoria Colizza and Alessandro Vespignani explain, tools from physics can be used to model how infectious diseases, such as the H1N1 swine-flu pandemic, spread in real time.

Dirk Brockmann then reveals how information garnered from the geographical movement of banknotes and the location of mobile phones can reveal patterns in how people travel.

Finally, James Crutchfield and Karoline Wiesner chart a roadmap for the future of complexity, which they think lies in applying ideas from complex systems to the social sciences. It is a brave notion — but one that may make hard-core reductionists shudder.

Download the issue via this link