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Matin Durrani: September 2011 Archives

By Michael Banks

The world may be in the midst of an economic downturn, yet that has not stopped scientists from planning a whole host of next-generation “big-science” facilities as well as governments pledging billions of euros to build them over the next 10–15 years.

From the ITER fusion experiment currently under construction in Cadarache, France, to the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, the coming decade look to be a boon for researchers seeking new subatomic particles that exist for only a fraction of a second or studying events that occur on the femtosecond timescale.

PW-big-science-2011 cover.jpg

In a special supplement accompanying the October issue of Physics World and available to download here, we take a look at the specific challenges of building and designing these facilities – from how to get them funded to the engineering and scientific issues that have to be met before construction can begin.

One facility that certainly fits the big-science mould is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva. With the LHC now on track hunting for new physics, researchers at CERN are not resting on their laurels but planning a major upgrade to their accelerator and detectors that will produce and track ever more collisions.

Indeed, detecting faster processes is also an integral part of the planned SuperB particle-physics experiment to be built near Rome by 2016, which will study the decay of quarks. As one article in the supplement explains, it may employ CMOS detector technology to take images at a rate of two million per second of the debris caused by particle collisions.

Other highlights in the supplement include the challenges that lie in store for the European X-ray Free Electron Laser in Germany – a new facility to detect ultrafast processes such as chemical reactions – that will use pioneering superconducting magnet technology to enable it to take “movies” of chemical reactions happening in real time. Magnets are also the name of the game at ITER, which will use thousands of tonnes of coils to hold a 150 million Kelvin plasma in place.

Big science also means big lasers and they are set to play a key role in a German-based collaboration using them to accelerate protons for medical application as well as at the European Extremely Large Telescope, planned for Chile, which will use lasers as an integral part of its novel approach to correcting for atmospheric distortions of light from distant objects.

I hope this supplement gives you a glimpse of the challenges that researchers face to surpass the possibilities of existing technology and make next-generation facilities happen. Download it here.


By Matin Durrani

I went up to London yesterday (I’m never quite sure if one goes up or down to the capital but never mind) to attend a lecture at the Institute of Physics given by Mary Curnock Cook (right), who is chief executive of the University and Colleges Admissions Service.

Entitled “Gender maps in education”, Cook’s presentation was this year’s memorial lecture given in honour of Elizabeth Johnson, a US-born condensed-matter theorist who did much to encourage women to pursue careers in science.

The memorial lectures always have women in science as their general theme and as head of UCAS – the centralized service in the UK for students applying to university or college – Cook had some fascinating data about how many women go to university and how well they do once they are there.

Cook’s starting point was that women who have a degree from a British university earn a total of £82,000 more over their lifetime than someone without a degree. Which sounds fantastic, until you realize that the equivalent “graduate premium” for men is a much larger: roughly £121,000.

So why the difference? Well, it’s complicated is the short answer – or, as Cook put it, “it’s the educational equivalent of a can of worms”.

But one reason is that more men than women study science, engineering, technology and medicine (STEM) subjects at university, which generally lead to jobs that have higher salaries than those jobs that don’t require a science degree.

However, the good news for women is that they are starting to catch up with men when it comes to pay: while men in their 40s earn quite a bit more than women of the same age, younger men who are currently in their 20s are on a par with women. We could, Cook speculated, have reached a tipping point: as those women get older, the overall differences in pay between the sexes – the “gender pay gap” – will even out.

What’s also interesting is that while some 40% of 18-year-old women in the UK go into higher education, just 32% of men of the same age go on to do degrees. On the other hand, men have a slightly better overall success rate of being accepted onto a course than women. That’s because men are more likely to study STEM subjects, which are generally less popular and hence easier to get into.

Cook was well aware that there’s a lot more one could say on this subject – and that a proper treatment would probably require a year-long academic study to get to the bottom of things. But the evening-out of the gender pay gap certainly sounds like a good thing.

Searching for a star

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By Matin Durrani


I learned earlier today that Lord Sainsbury – the former UK science minister – is launching a search for the UK’s “most inspirational technician”.

It seems a worthwhile initiative, given how important lab technicians are for the smooth running of science. (We can all probably speak from experience – I recall some fabulous technicians during my time at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, including Dick the glassblower, who once saved my bacon after I blew up a mercury thermometer that I’d left too long in a beaker on a hot plate. The beaker dried out and the thermometer exploded. Fortunately the embarrassing incident took place inside a fume cupboard and was not witnessed by anyone else.)

Supported by Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation and STEMNET – a charity that tries to get young people involved in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) – the award seeks to recognize “the excellent work of technicians who inspire young people to follow technical careers” and to improve the image of a profession in “high demand by employers”. It is one of five categories in the National STEMNET Awards 2011, sponsored by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the others being for best teacher, best employer, best STEM club and best STEM ambassador.

There is no limit to the number of categories you can nominate in and all finalists will be decided by an expert panel. The deadline for nominations is Monday 3 October – more information is available via this link

The top technician – and the other award winners – will win a day trip to the CERN particle-physics lab in Geneva, sponsored by the STFC. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony at the House of Lords in December.

If he were alive today, I reckon in the running for an award would be veteran Cavendish lab technician Ebenezer Everett, who by all accounts did some fabulous work that played a key role in J J Thomson’s discovery of the electron in the late 1890s.

The reason I mention Everett is that I recently came across the following passage in Robin Strutt’s biography of Thomson, which appeared in the Cavendish magazine CavMag last year, concerning the switching on of a powerful electromagnet surrounding a discharge tube.

JJ: “Put the magnet on.”

There followed a click as Everett closed the large switch.

JJ: “Put the magnet on.”

Everett: “It is on.”

JJ: (eye still to the microscope) “No, it isn’t on. Put it on.”

Everett: “It is on.”

A moment later JJ called for a compass needle. Everett returned with a large needle 10 inches long. JJ took it, and approached the electromagnet. When about a foot away the needle was so strongly attracted to the electromagnet that it swung round and flew off its pivot, crashing into the bulb (which burst with a loud report) and coming to rest between
the poles of the magnet. Everett was glowing with triumph, and JJ looking at the wreck with an air of dejection.

“Hmm,” he said. “It was on.”

TV’s Sheldon bags Emmy

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Big Bang Theory
From left to right, Raj, Howard, Leonard and Sheldon build a robot to enter a fighting-robot competition. (Courtesy: Warner Bros Television Entertainment)

By Matin Durrani

Yes we know that is probably not your first port of call for red-hot showbiz news, but congratulations to Jim Parsons for picking up an award for “outstanding lead actor in a comedy series” at last night’s Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

Parsons, as you may well be aware (and if you’re not, then you really have been living under a stone), plays socially inept physics postdoc Sheldon Cooper on the hit CBS TV comedy show The Big Bang Theory.

Parsons, 38, bagged the same award last year, which marked the show’s first Emmy win. This time he beat his co-star Johnny Galecki, who plays fellow physicist Leonard Hofstadter.

On the show, a fifth series of which is set to start in the US on Thursday 22 September, the two physicists share an apartment together in Pasadena, with Leonard being what my colleague Tushna (who’s a self-confessed Big Bang nut) calls “a quintessentially cute geek”, who stoically puts up with Sheldon’s comical antics.

The appeal of the show lies partly in the relationships between Sheldon, Leonard and their two pals Raj (another physicist) and Howard (an engineer), but also in their interactions with “near-normal” neighbour Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who is the foil to the others’ actions.

But what’s made the show so popular with scientists – 2005 Nobel laureate Jan Hall told us it is just so damn funny – is that the show is peppered with references to physics, most of which are reasonably coherent, thanks in part to the contributions of the show’s science consultant – astrophysicist David Saltzberg from the University of California, Los Angeles.

I sat through about a dozen episodes on a long flight back to the UK from Australia a couple of months back and found the show moderately amusing – if not laugh-out-loud funny – and felt the writing was (like many other US sit-coms) a bit manufactured for my taste.

But, damnit, what do I know? Parsons has won an Emmy so he must be doing something right. And according to that trusted information source, Wikipedia, he, Galecki and Cuoco each earned $200,000 per episode in the last series, which is more than most postdocs earn in five years.

You can read more about the show in this great feature article we published last year, which includes interviews with Galecki, Saltzberg, Simon Helberg (who plays Howard) and the show’s creator, writer and executive producer Chuck Lorre.

Special report: China

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By Matin Durrani

Ever since Physics World was launched by the Institute of Physics in 1988, we have sought to report on physics wherever it is going on in the world – first in our print magazine and then here on this website.

But with the huge recent expansion of physics research in China – which has included everything from next-generation telescopes to powerful synchrotron and neutron sources – we have, in turn, massively increased our coverage of the country’s physics.

We’ve now put together a new Physics World special report, which you can view online here, that draws together a selection of our recent news stories, features and careers articles published about physics in China.

Among the highlights is an exclusive interview with the chief scientist of China’s lunar programme and a profile of the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Beijing.

There’s also an analysis of the massive growth in scientific papers produced by researchers in China, who – at least, according to a recent study by the UK’s Royal Society – now publish more than 10% of the world’s total. Sadly, the rise in quantity has not always been accompanied by a rise in quality, with some unfortunate though high-profile examples of plagiarism.

Several of the articles are based on a week-long trip to Beijing that I went on earlier this year – it was my first visit to China and I found the country a fascinating place. I hope you find this special report equally stimulating and please do let me have your comments by e-mailing

View the special report now!