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Matin Durrani: March 2011 Archives

By Matin Durrani

For those of you wondering where we get all our ideas for news stories on from, well obviously we have a bulging contacts book, we scour many of the leading journals, and we keep tabs on all of the key scientific experiments, facilities and space missions.

But, like all journalists, we do rely as well on press releases, including those supplied by the Alphagalileo service, which lists many of the latest releases from institutions in Europe, and those from a similar US-based service called EurekAlert! from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Now, EurekAlert! has revealed which press releases posted on its website were looked at most by journalists during 2010.

Nine of the top 10 were in biology and the biosciences, but the winner is one related to physics.

Curiously, it has nothing to do with anything that we at would regard as all that significant – say the search for extrasolar planets or the hunt for the Higgs – and it certainly didn’t come anywhere near to making our list of the top 10 breakthroughs of 2010.

No, the top press released accessed by journalists on EurekAlert! was on a relatively obscure branch of physics. It concerned evidence, presented in the journal Science, that an unusual form of symmetry known as E8 – which a small number physicists believe underlies a theory of everything – may have been spotted in a solid material for the first time.


We wrote about the paper at the time in January last year, which you can read here.

The paper may have proved so popular because it claimed to have shown that this 8D symmetry group describes the spectrum of spin configurations that emerge when a 1D chain of spins is chilled to near absolute zero and subjected to a specific magnetic field. The finding also suggested that the idea of a “golden mean” – previously only seen in mathematics and the arts – also exists in solid matter on the nanoscale.

But – and I’m guessing here – it may actually have been because journalists remember a controversial (and unrefereed) paper on E8, entitled “An exceptionally simple theory of everything” by an obscure, independent physicist called Garret Lisi, who is a keen surfer and does not follow a conventional academic life. Those traits – and some pretty pictures associated with E8 symmetry – led to a fair amount of press coverage, and far more than many string theorists felt, and still feel, it deserves.

In their view, this latest accolade from EurekAlert! will probably only make the situation worse.

By Matin Durrani

radioactivity_chart.png The impact of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan earlier this month has been truly devastating, with the latest reports suggesting 9000 people have died and a further 13,000 currently unaccounted for.

But if you spend your days following media reports of the disaster, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the biggest catastrophe has been the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

I’ve sometimes felt as if the mainstream media almost want an epic nuclear disaster to take place so that they have something to get their teeth into and fill their rolling TV news bulletins.

I was therefore pleased to see a sober assessment of the true nuclear danger from the plant from a recent blog entry by Randall Munroe, a physics graduate best known for his comic-strip website xkcd.

The picture above, which you’ll need to click here to see in full, tries to quantify to the best of Munroe’s ability the real risks from the plant.

Sure, it would be great if the reactor had survived the earthquake and tsunami – and there’s no harm making sure other reactors around the world are as safe as they can be as many countries are doing – but this shouldn’t be the signal for the world to end the recent revival in nuclear power.

You only have to think about the damage caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year to see a true environmental disaster.

Of course, the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry is the fear of “radiation” and ionizing radiation in particular. You can’t see it or smell it, which makes it, to some at least, creepily scary.

But hopefully Munroe’s chart puts things in perspective a bit.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to follow how the quake is affecting Japan’s physics community. Things are looking not too bad and the odd bent beamline is far from catastrophic given what else has been taking place.