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Michael Banks: September 2009 Archives

low vibrations

By Michael Banks

Yesterday I visited what is supposed to be the “quietest building in the world”. Being in Bristol and only a few kilometres away from our office, there was really no excuse but to visit.

The £11.5m Bristol Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information (NSQI) is housed at the University of Bristol next to the physics department.

Construction of the quietest building has taken over two years to complete and is seemingly quiet due to the huge amounts of concrete that have been poured into the ground beneath it.

“There is more than 2 m of concrete beneath our feet,” says Fred Hale, building manager of the NSQI, as he shows me round the basement of the building. “This is the right building, in the right place.”

The site in Bristol is well suited to hosting such a quiet lab since the ground under the building consists of solid rock.

Engineers excavated a one-storey deep hole in the rock and then filled it in with concrete. The centre was then constructed on this rather solid base.

The quietest room in the world

The four-storey building has a number of “quiet rooms” in the basement, where most of the experiments are housed. Each experiment then sits on an additional 24 tonne block of concrete separated from the floor by rubber bearings.

And if that wasn’t enough, each lab in the basement also sits inside a Faraday cage, and the temperature, air flow and acoustic noise in the room can also be strictly controlled.

So how does a building, or room, get to be called the quietest in the world? Well, according to Hale, the engineering firm that helped to build the rooms - Arup - reckon that vibration measurements taken on the concrete blocks are the lowest they have ever taken.

The centre will contain two clean rooms, a wet lab, eight low noise labs and two cell culture labs with research groups only just starting to put experiments into the labs.

The centre is meant to be a hub of interdisciplinary research with groups from the university’s biology, physics, chemistry and engineering departments using the new facility.

One such lab that was in use when I visited was using a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope, which can produce images if samples on the single-atom level. The low vibration environment is needed to produce very sharp images of the atoms under study.

NSQI is also home to one of the newly launched doctoral training centres. Funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the centre for functional nanomaterials will train up to 10 PhD students every year.

Sharper STM images

The second floor of the building is mostly meant to bring people from different disciplines together to discuss their work. Indeed, one of the coffee rooms was enlarged once a virtual walkthrough of the plans showed that there was not enough space for researchers to interact.

It seems like everyone is catered for. In one meeting room, for example, mathematicians demanded that blackboards be placed on the wall instead of white boards.

So while the basement may well be the quietest place in the world, researchers at NSQI will hope that the second floor is anything but.

And the survey says…

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Piled high and deeper

By Michael Banks

I have only ever reviewed a couple of manuscripts in what was my brief career as a research scientist.

I remember finding it quite exciting at first, as well as being honoured to be selected by a publishing house to be able to review articles submitted by my peers for publication.

However, being a busy researcher, running experiments and writing papers, by the time the third e-mail reminder landed in my inbox asking me to finish the review as quickly as possible, I could see how researchers get fed up of reviewing articles, sometimes as many as 20 per year.

Peer review, of course, has a serious and important role in science. Still, I was rather surprised to see that 86% of respondents to a new survey on peer-review practises say they actually enjoy reviewing.

Over 4000 researchers responded to a survey carried out by Sense About Science - a UK-based charity that promotes the public understanding of science.

In what is the largest international survey of authors and reviewers to date, Sense About Science has now released its preliminary findings from the 2009 survey.

Although the survey does not seem to reveal how many papers a researcher reviews per year, it does find that, on average, reviewers turn down two papers every year.

According to the survey, the biggest benefit of peer review is that it makes researchers feel like part of the community, with 90% of respondents saying this is why they do it. Only 16%, however, say that reviewing increases their chances of having future papers accepted.

There is the argument that due to the “publish or perish” ethos in science, there are not enough researchers to peer review the increasing number of articles being submitted to journals.

However, according to the survey only 20% of respondents thought that peer review is unsustainable because of too few willing reviewers.

There is also the tricky question whether peer review stops plagiarism and fraud. While 81% say that peer review should detect plagiarism and 79% say that it should prevent fraud, only around 35% say it is capable of doing both.

And lastly, 41% of researchers say they would like to be paid to peer review, but not at the cost of the author. More than half of respondents thought that a payment in kind such as a subscriptions would make the more likely to review.

Image of the Californian wildfires from NASA’s Terra satellite (credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL)

By Michael Banks

The enormous wildfires in California are still threatening the Mount Wilson observatory sat 1742 m high in the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, northeast of Los Angeles.

Yesterday, the fires crept nearer and the observatory’s website as well as the live webcam went down.

There was some hope, however, as Reuters reported that cooler weather as well as increased humidity had hampered the fires and firefighters hoped they could drive the fire away from the observatory.

Founded in 1904 by the US astronomer George Ellery Hale, the observatory still performs astronomical research via its 1.5 m Hale telescope and 2.5 m Hooker telescope, which was used by Edwin Hubble to discover that galaxies were moving away from us.

Regular updates on the wildfires are being provided by the Los Angeles Times and Georgia State University, which operates the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy at Mount Wilson.