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Michael Banks: June 2009 Archives

By Michael Banks

What do street house numbers, death rates and election results have in common?

They all follow a law, devised by physicist Frank Benford in 1938, which states that in a list of numbers from real-life data there are more entries that start with the digit “1” than any other number.

According to Benford’s law, numbers that begin with “1” occur almost 30% of the time in a list of numbers that are distributed logarithmically, such as house numbers. The higher the number the less it occurs, to the point where numbers that begin with “9” occur less than 5% of the time.

This law also turns out to be useful for checking fraudulent behaviour, for example, finding out if people have made up number on their tax return forms.

Now, however, cosmologist Boudewijn Roukema, from the Nicolas Copernicus University in Poland, has used this law to test the results from the recent Iranian election.

On 12 June it was announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current Iranian president, had won the election beating main rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Protests then broke out in Iran disputing the results.

Then on 14 June the Iranian Ministry of the Interior released the results of the 2009 Iranian election for 366 voting areas giving Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over 24 million votes and Mir-Hossein Mousavi around 13 million votes.

Roukema noticed a strange anomaly in the votes for Mehdi Karroubi from the National Trust Party, who came in third place. He found that the number seven occurs as a first digit more often than would be expected by Benford’s law.

He found that this anomaly occurs in three of the six largest voting areas and, moreover, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a greater proportion of votes in these three areas than the others.

Roukema concludes that this could suggest an error in the official count of around one million votes.

However, he says that applying Benford’s law may not be able to find every “anomaly” in the election results - meaning the difference could be more significant.

“The fact that use of the first digit detected a significant anomaly in this particular case only indicates that this anomaly somehow failed to be hidden,” says Roukema. “It certainly doesn’t guarantee it’s the only anomaly.”

Meanwhile, Elham Kashefi and Vincent Danos from Edinburgh University have started collecting signatures for an appeal to call for fresh elections and to oppose violence against protesters.

By Michael Banks

One of my favourite news stories last year was in the Sun newspaper just before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN started up on 10 September.

“Boffins in ‘Doomsday’ rap” ran the Sun headline, which featured a grainy image of two people dressed in lab coats and hard hats in an underground lab.

The story began with “The team behind an experiment which boffins fear could destroy the world have worried sceptics further - by posting a RAP SONG about the procedure on YouTube.”

Of course, that was the “Large Hadron Rap” written by science writer Kate McAlpine, who together with a few colleagues, rapped about the LHC at CERN and what it hopes to find.

Now, however, McAlpine and her crew have released their second rap video — not about particle physics this time but nuclear physics.

The video is shot at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State University, which produces high intensity beams of rare isotopes.

These isotopes are only known to exist in exploding supernovae and could provide insights into the forces between protons and neutrons in nuclei.

The song, with lyrics such as “and to put your nucleus on the nuclear map,
you’ll then measure it in a detector or trap”, is unfortunately not as catchy as the original LHC rap.

However, there are a lot of nice graphics — and corresponding rap — explaining the operation of NSCL’s new $550m Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB).

The video is even shot in high definition, so no need for any grainy images this time in the Sun.

Lunar breakdown manual

By Michael Banks

If your car has ever broken down late at night, then the first port of call is, of course, the breakdown services. Failing that, then you can get your hands dirty and turn to the help of the trusted car manual.

One company famous for its owners’ manuals is Haynes who produce them for seemingly every make and model of cars, motorcycles and trucks.

But the publishing firm may now have gone one small step too far. The company has brought out an owners’ manual for the Apollo 11 mission to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the Moon on 20 July 1969.

The manual contains technical illustrations and photographs of the 1969 Apollo 11 model including descriptions of the Saturn V booster rockets as well as the CM-107 command module, the SM-107 service module and the LM-5 lunar module, which took the astronauts to the surface of the Moon and back.

The manual also contains “how it works” and “how you fly it” guides, that give insights into launch procedures, flying and landing the lunar module and even a guide to walking on the Moon.

So if one of the landing legs is a bit stuck or the lunar module hatch is jammed then who needs the 400 000 people who helped build Apollo 11, just get your hands on the Haynes manual for only £17.99.

By Michael Banks

If you have ever discovered something such as a new theory or particle then maybe the most fun part would be giving it a name.

So this is exactly what Sigurd Hofmann and his group at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt, Germany, are doing now as they rack their brains for a name for the newly discovered element 112.

Hofmann already created one atom of the element, which has 112 protons in the nucleus, in 1996 while at GSI. The element was then temporarily given the catchy name of Ununbium, after “ununbi” which is latin for “one one two”.

However, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which develops standards for naming new elements and compounds, stated that the production of any new element must be independently verified at another lab first before it can be officially recognised.

The difficulty was that, at the time, there was no other laboratory in the world that could reproduce the results, meaning a long waiting game for Hofmann.

Then eight years later, in 2004, scientists at the RIKEN Discovery Research Institute near Toyko produced two more atoms of element 112. This finally convinced the IUPAC, but due to other claims on the discovery of element 112 it took the union another five years to investigate and decide who did actually discover it.

In May 2009, an IUPAC report stated that Hofmann’s group did fulfil all the criteria for creating the new element and so Hofmann can now submit a name for the element to the IUPAC.

Once the IUPAC have received the name, they will then publish it on their website for six months giving scientists and the public more than enough time to scrutinise and comment on the new name.

“Our group is presently discussing a name and we hope to present it within the next two or three weeks,” Hofmann told “However, this discussion is top secret.”

The GSI lab is getting a lot of practice naming elements as it has already found elements 107 to 111. These are Bohrium (107), Hassium (108), Meitnerium (109), Darmstadtium (110) and Roentgenium (111).

So readers have you any suggestions what they should name element 112?

Star gazing (Credit: Louis Vuitton/Annie Leibovitz)

By Michael Banks

It is probably not what astronauts would use as their tool bag when in space, but the fashion house Louis Vuitton has launched an ad campaign for its famous handbags featuring former astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and Sally Ride.

Buzz Aldrin flew on Apollo 11 and became the second man to set foot on the Moon in 1969. Jim Lovell was the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970, who guided his crew safely back to Earth while physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space in 1983 on the space shuttle Challenger.

The ad is launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the lunar landings in July 1969 and is the latest instalment of the French luxury brand’s “journeys” campaign that has previously featured ads featuring the actor Sean Connery and the film director Francis Coppola.

The image of the astronauts was taken in the Californian desert and shows them sitting on and standing next to an old pickup truck while looking at the stars. They are not alone as a $1500 Louis Vuitton “Icare” travel bag sits with them on the pickup’s bonnet.

The ad is due to be in magazines in July, but the website today will start showing videos of the astronauts talking about their trips to the Moon and space and how it has changed their lives.

More than a cardboard cut-out (credit: DESY)

By Michael Banks

The ATLAS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is going on tour. Not the real one of course, but a 150 kg wooden replica of the cathedral-sized detector.

Technicians at the DESY particle-physics lab in Hamburg were commissioned last year by DESY physicist Thomas Naumann to build a model of CERN’s huge detector at 1/25th of the actual size.

Taking over seven months to build, the model is made entirely from wood with only aluminium tubes used for the six magnet coils that surround the detector. The wooden replica is almost two metres in length and one meter wide.

The model was first on show as part of the Weltmaschine exhibition that ran in a subway station in Berlin from October to November last year.

175 Modell Atlas-Detektor.jpg
(credit: DESY)

“The model helps to explain the function of the different detector components - the tracker, the calorimeters, the muon system and the large toroidal magnets,” says Naumann, who uses the model to explain the detector to DESY visitors and members of the public.

Due to popular demand the exhibition has now gone on tour. If anyone missed the opening show at the Hamburg harbour festival on 8 May, then the next tour dates are 13 June at Hamburg University, 19 June at the long night of science in Dresden and 5 July at DESY with further shows planned in Göttingen and Heidelberg later in the year.

Once the tour has finished the ATLAS replica will go back to DESY. “The model will be in the DESY foyer where it is a nice object welcoming visitors,” says Naumann.

By Michael Banks

Everyone hears the big stories of fraud in science. Indeed, a feature in last month’s Physics World (May 2009 pp24–29) documented the rise and fall of Jan Hendrik Schön who published a number of papers in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science that have since been shown to include fabricated data.

But how common are the smaller cases of misconduct? It is not easy to get accurate data about how common misconduct is within the research community. One could, for example, look at the number of paper retractions in journals, but these only include cases that have been discovered, and possibly not all retractions are based on fraudulent work.

So who better to ask than the researchers themselves if they have ever fabricated of falsified data? Well, Daniele Fanelli from the University of Edinburgh in the UK has analysed over 20 surveys in which scientists were asked a number of questions about scientific misconduct including if they had ever made up data points or distorted their results.

Fanelli found that, on average, 2% of scientists admitted to fabricating, falsifying or have modified data at least once during their careers. While over a third of researchers said they have published papers with “questionable research practises” such as not including data in a publication that may counter their conclusions or dropping data points from analysis because they were deemed “inaccurate”.

Fanelli also analysed surveys that asked researchers about the practises of their colleagues. He found that 14% said they knew someone who had fabricated data, while a massive 72% said they knew someone who has published papers with “questionable research practises”.

As Fanelli points out, it is sometimes difficult to interpret what researchers may term as misconduct, “the fuzzy boundary between removing noise from results and biasing them towards a desired outcome might be unknowingly crossed by many researchers”.