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Matin Durrani: January 2013 Archives

By Matin Durrani

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons
event. (CC BY Fred Benenson)

It’s surprising the little nuggets of information that come our way here in the Physics World office.

A couple of weeks back, for example, we received an e-mail from Paul Ginsparg, the Cornell University physicist who set up the now-ubiquitous arXiv pre-print server more than 20 years ago.

Ginsparg had written a great article for us back in 2008, when Physics World celebrated its 20th anniversary, in which he reflected on the early days of the Web and examined how it has changed scientific communication.

At one point in that article, Ginsparg discussed the growing influence of blogs, describing how he watched someone at a scientific seminar blogging with seemingly expert ease.

“Glancing over my shoulder”, Ginsparg wrote, “I was struck by how a native laptop-user can navigate text and search windows faster than the eye can follow, and assemble references, photos and graphics from multiple sources, simultaneously replying to comments, and in the end spending far less time to assemble a set of useful pedagogic pages, accessible to the entire world, than I spend writing problem-set solutions for a small class.”

Ginsparg did not realize at the time who the person in question was, but he has now discovered that the mystery blogger was in fact the Internet activist and open-access advocate Aaron Swartz. Swartz had been arrested by US federal authorities in 2011 in connection with systematic downloading of journal papers form the JSTOR database and was tragically found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment on 11 January this year.

Ginsparg had been reading reports about Swartz’s death and realized, from photos of the SciFoo 2007 meeting, that Swartz was the person who had been “sitting next to me…blogging with unforgettable skill”.

“I didn’t know who he was,” Ginsparg wrote in an e-mail to me, “having missed introductions because I was going back and forth between sessions, and never did get to talk to him at all. [It was a] missed opportunity and only now I learn he was not the typical generic 20-something blogger as assumed. Oddly enough, 5.5 years later I see the precise text I’d presumably described him writing preserved here.”

You can read more about the meeting in this blog entry by the science writer George Dyson.

All together now

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Shirley Ann Jackson

Courtesy: Charles Glover

By Matin Durrani

How do you tackle the world’s biggest problems such as making sure everyone has enough food, clean water, a secure energy supply and access to proper medicine and healthcare?

According to Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US, the answer lies in a novel kind of research endeavour, which she dubs “the new polytechnic”.

Speaking at the 2013 ERA Foundation international lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London last night, Jackson spelled out the principles of such an endeavour, which would essentially involve bringing researchers from different subjects, countries, cultures and sectors together to work on important multidisciplinary problems. Exploiting computer technology, the Web and big data sets would be the key to tackling such challenges, she reckons.

Jackson, who trained as a particle theorist and is also a member of Barack Obama’s science advisory council discussed three interesting fields that, she thinks, could – indeed, already do – benefit from such an approach. They are using tissue-regeneration techniques to heal injured patients, incorporating solar panels and other forms of energy-saving devices into buildings, and exploiting the “data trails” we leave when we use social media.

I found Jackson a polished speaker, no doubt honed by her years in top positions in the US. Apart from being one of Obama’s science-policy wonks, she was boss of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission between 1995 and 1999 and is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Before that Jackson was part of the faculty at Rutgers University, spent 16 years at Bell Labs and had spells as a postdoc at Fermilab and CERN. Her impressive CV also includes a string of directorships at the likes of IBM and FedEx.

Jackson was less detailed on the nitty-gritty of setting up her “new polytechnic” or explaining who would fund such an enterprise. Last night was perhaps not the forum for those questions. But to me the elephant in the room was the whole concept of multidisciplinarity itself, which surely can only work if you have strong, vigorous disciplines in the first place. Jackson pointed to the likes of Cardinal Newman as advocates of the need for a broad education as long ago as the mid-19th century, but there are probably very valid reasons why so many of us prefer to hone our talents in a particular discipline and why the goal of multidisciplinarity can be so hard to put into practice.

Jackson hinted that leadership is the key in her new vision, highlighting Nelson Mandela as an example of the kind of bold, visionary thinker who is needed to get her blueprint off the ground. I found Mandela on odd choice given that he is not the first person you would associate with revolutions in higher education, but Jackson was right that managing, leading and encouraging multidisciplinary teams – particularly if they are spread over different continents and different time zones – is crucial.

Next stop for Jackson on her European tour is the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week. Whether she’s got time to pop in on her old haunt – CERN – I’m not sure.

By Matin Durrani

Facebook poll

It has become almost a cliché to call graphene the “wonder material”, but this super-thin 2D honeycomb array of carbon atoms boasts some enviable electronic and mechanical properties. Apart from being the strongest material ever measured, graphene is also the stiffest and has an electrical current density a million times that of copper. Hardly surprising then that companies and institutes around the world have been stumbling over themselves to carry out research into this material, which was first isolated through Nobel-prize-winning work at the University of Manchester in the UK in 2004.

But a new report from the intellectual-property consultancy CambridgeIP suggests that the UK might be losing out in the quest to commercialize this material. By the end of last year, companies and institutes in China had apparently applied for or won a total of 2204 graphene-related patents – more than any other nation – ahead of the US, with 1754, and South Korea with 1160.

The most prolific firm in the patent-filing business is the South Korean electronics giant Samsung, with 407 patents and patent applications, followed by the US tech company IBM in second, with 134. The whole of the UK, in contrast, has filed and applied for just 54 graphene patents, with only 16 of those coming from the University of Manchester. UK science minister David Willetts complained that this was “the classic problem of Britain inventing something and other countries developing it”.

But do patents tell the whole story? After all, not all patents applied for actually get granted and many graphene patents may be merely speculative applications either made as a kind of insurance policy, or as shots across the bow to ward off rival businesses from entering the same territory. And even if a company or institute has a particular patent granted, the technology still has to be exploited – plus there is always the danger of having to defend one’s patent, often at great cost.

In the University of Manchester’s case, it is therefore focusing its patent efforts on areas that are likely to be “most useful”, such as scalable manufacturing techniques, coatings and composites, and is seeking only a few patents related to applications of graphene, such as graphene-polymer composites and fluorographene. Continued research is the key, the university claims, because by the time reliable methods for making graphene have been developed, today’s patents may have in any case expired.

But is the huge number of patents on graphene a positive sign that this material could soon find its way into real products that will revolutionize our lives? Or is the fact that big business is snapping up patents likely to hamper the commercialization of graphene?

Let us know what you think by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll

Are patents hampering the commercialization of graphene?


Please feel free to explain your answer by posting a comment on the poll

In last week’s poll we asked you if you felt that university professors have one of the least stressful jobs. The question was inspired by a ranking exercise on the website, which suggested that being an academic researcher is one of the cushiest jobs around. That conclusion had got quite a few scientists pretty steamed up, so we wanted to find out what you thought.

Physics World’s Facebook followers proved to be fairly evenly split, with 47% of respondents agreeing that being a prof is an easy number and 53% saying no. One poll respondent – Leonardo Paulo Maia – felt our question was too broad-brush. For him, university professors who don’t actually do any research – and presumably are more involved in teaching and admin – definitely do have a relaxing time, even if they might be busy. He felt the really stressed-out people are the active researchers.

But another respondent – Lois Hoffer – was quite clear on her views. In a magnificent 250-word diatribe on the reality of a typical academic’s lot, Hoffer painted a picture of a life with far too much teaching, not enough money to hire a postdoc or student for research, no departmental administrators, complicated European grant applications, no office, plus poor students who jabber away during lectures, don’t know how to take exams and yet still have to be taught, marked and graded.

“Yes the money is good, and the job is for life,” Hoffer concluded. “But lack of stress?? You gotta be kidding.”

Thank you to everyone for taking part and we hope to hear from you again this week.

Welcome back

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By Matin Durrani

Hello everybody and welcome back to Physics World after the festive break.


If you’ve just got your hands on a brand new tablet device, the first thing you’ll want to do – apart from reading the latest issue of Physics World magazine, of course – is possibly to use it to write your latest scientific paper using every physicist’s favourite typesetting language – LaTeX.

Not so fast!

Unfortunately, making LaTeX function on a tablet device has been no easy task, as software developer Duncan Steele makes clear in a fascinating feature article in the January 2013 issue of Physics World. Thankfully, LaTeX is making the switch to tablets, but it’s not been plain sailing.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, you can access the entire new issue online through the digital version of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.

If you’re not yet a member, you can join the Institute as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year via this link. Being an IOPimember gives you a full year’s access to Physics World both online and through the apps. It’s the start of the year – so why not join now?

Also in the January issue we look at promoting scientific entrepreneurism in the developing world, explore the new view of the universe as seen by the Herschel Space Observatory, find out how to eradicate experimental bias in science – plus much more besides.

For the record, here’s a rundown of highlights of the issue:

Italy cancels €1bn SuperB colliderMichael Banks examines the repercussions of Italy’s decision to axe a new particle collider that would have produced copious amounts of B mesons

Fuelling innovation in Africa – Joining a team of entrepreneurs and technology-transfer experts in Addis Ababa, Joe Winters asks what role physics has to play in the economic growth of one of the world’s poorest nations

Identity physicsRobert P Crease calls for your new metaphors exploiting the Pauli exclusion principle and Bose–Einstein condensation

The blind physicist – Physicists might not like to admit it, but preconception and bias taint many of their experiments. Brian Clegg explores how this “experimenter bias” manifests itself, and looks at the measures some collaborations are taking to counter its effects

The revolution will be typeset – As the computing world shifts from desktops and laptops to tablet-style devices, one of the most widely used tools in physics – LaTeX – is struggling to follow. Software developer Duncan Steele explains how this typesetting program is now starting to catch up

Cool dust and baby stars – The helium that is cooling its camera is about to run out, but the data from the Herschel Space Observatory, which is designed to study how stars and galaxies form, is likely to keep sub-millimetre wavelength astronomers busy for years to come. Steve Eales explains

Fuelling the thorium dreamJess Gehin reviews Superfuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future by Richard Martin

Philosophical about space–timeClarissa Ai Ling Lee reviews Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time by Tim Maudlin

A clean solutionMichael Duncan, John Girkin and Tom McLeish describe how an unusual cross-disciplinary collaboration between Procter & Gamble and Durham University is generating benefits for both sides

Once a physicist – Meet Ted Hsu – member of parliament for Kingston and the Islands, Canada

The carbon-neutral gymMichael de Podesta wonders whether gym-goers could actually make a difference to the environment