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Michael Banks: October 2009 Archives

By Michael Banks

On Wednesday night US President Barack Obama hosted an astronomy night at the White House.

Obama, who today won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace, invited 150 school students, former astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride, and Mae Jemison and NASA administrator Chalres Boldren and his deputy Lori Garver to the event on the South Lawn.

Astronomers spent all day setting up 20 telescopes in preparation for the party in the evening.

Obama was also joined by the first lady, Michelle Obama, and his science advisor, John Holdren.

Obama managed to get some education policy into his speech and talked about reinvigorating maths and science in schools.

“Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky,” Obama said to the youngsters, “and now it is your turn.”

By Michael Banks

Outreach raps or songs about science are all the rage these days. Last year we had the Large Hadron Rap by Kate McAlpine and more recently she released a rare-isotope rap for the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory.

Indeed, Steven Rush — aka Funky49 — recently released a rap about the Tevatron for Fermilab entitled Particle Business.

Not to be outdone, Australia’s national science agency — The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization — has teamed up with Sydney University’s Science Revue to release a song about seemingly every science topic.

Featuring “Chem”, “Bio”, “Psych”, “Phys” and “Maths”, they have done a take on the Backstreet Boys’ hit single: Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).

However, Instead of using “everybody” in the song, they have replaced it with climatology, oceanography, or indeed anything else that ends in -ography.

It is a well put together music video and they have upped the ante for science/geeky songs.

My favourite bit is when “Maths” appears wearing a chain around his neck with a rather large pi symbol attached to it singing the words “am I irrational”.

As they all seem to be students, I guess that “Maths” has had some help from “Chem” to make his rapper-like chain to appear to look like gold.

circular vision

By Michael Banks

I can’t imagine a science laboratory that doesn’t have a periodic table hung somewhere on the wall.

I even have a periodic table application on my iPhone that gives you all you need to know about a chosen element (admittedly it is not one of my more frequently used apps).

Yet while generations of science students have learned the periodic table first developed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, Mohd Abubakr from Microsoft Research in Hyderabad, India, thinks he has found an alternative way of visualizing it.

Abubakr says the major disadvantage with the current table is, well, the shape itself and that it doesn’t help to describe the properties of the elements.

He suggests instead using a “circular form” of the periodic table. His ‘table’ has seven layers, which are each divided into 18 sectors. These sectors each represent the groups in the original table.

However, as with the original table, the lanthanides and actinides are somewhat isolated and are arcs around the main ring.

Although on a first instance it looks like a new way to represent the elements, I haven’t found anything that is fundamentally different from Mendeleev’s table.

Abubakr says that as the new model looks a bit like an atom, with hydrogen and helium near the nucleus, it is better than the current table when trying to teach students the table.

We will see whether the new table takes off, but I don’t expect any updates to my app just yet.

By Michael Banks

With only one day left until the Nobel Prize for Physics is announced everyone, of course, will have their eyes on the eventual winners.

Yet what about the winner’s family and in particular their spouse: how will winning the prize affect their daily lives?

Anita Laughlin, the wife of the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Robert Laughlin from Stanford University who shared the 1998 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the fractional quantum-Hall effect, has written a behind-the-scenes account of what winning the prize can do to a family.

In Reindeer with King Gustav, Anita Laughlin describes the months after her husband won the prize and the mad rush to sort everything out for the big day in Stockholm.

I haven’t read the book yet, but if it is anything like the video posted on Anita Laughlin’s website to promote it then the account will make for an hilarious read.

“Dad, some guy is calling from Sweden,” is how the video starts, when the youngest son in the Laughlin household answers the phone at 02:30 on 13 October 1998.

Then in true Laurel and Hardy style, with Henry Mancini’s Shades of Sennett playing, the Laughlins rush around their bedroom already dressed in their evening attire to pack (or at least Anita Laughlin seems to be doing most of the packing, with Robert sitting on the bed holding a bottle of bubbly).

If you believe the video then the Laughlins seem to have got some sleep that evening, I just wonder how many physicists will instead be sat patiently by the phone tonight.

Space chill (credit: ESA/PACS/SPIRE)

By Michael Banks

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released the first images taken by its Herschel space telescope during a calibration run last month.

The awe-inspiring images show cold gas clouds lying near the Milky Way — thousands of light-years from Earth. Five infrared wavelengths have been colour-coded in the image to differentiate very cold material (shown in red) from the surrounding, slightly warmer stuff in blue.

Herschel — named after the German-born astronomer who in 1781 discovered Uranus — is a far-infrared and submillimetre telescope that will study star formation in our galaxy and galaxy formation across the universe.

Herschel was launched in April together with ESA’s Planck mission — a microwave observatory that will study the geometry and contents of the universe by finely measuring the comic microwave background (CMB) radiation, which is a remnant of the Big Bang.

The both occupy a place in space called the Lagrange point L2 — where a probe can usefully hover, little disturbed by stray signals from home and without having to use much fuel to keep it in position.

Herschel will investigate light with wavelengths of 55-670 μm and the satellite will look back to the early universe to see galaxy formations that are invisible to the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope because of gas and dust.

Larger areas of the Milky Way will now be surveyed by Herschel so look out for more cool images soon.

The 2008 Ig Nobel award

By Michael Banks

Maybe physicists are not doing enough research that “first makes people laugh, then think”.

Last night was the annual bash at Harvard University for the Ig Nobel awards, which are given by the humour magazine The Annals of Improbable Research and celebrates research that “cannot, or should not, be repeated”.

Each year the awards have an overall theme. Last year it was redundancy, and in 2007 it was, bizarrely, chickens which involved keynote speaker Doug Zonker repeating the word “chicken” for two minutes.

This year’s theme was risk and mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot gave a keynote address. But fitting in with the eccentricity of the event, every winner of an award had only 60 seconds to give a speech before an eight-year-old girl went up to that stage saying she was ‘bored’.

This year’s ‘physics’ prize went to three anthropologists: Katherine Whitcome from the University of Cincinnati, Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University and Liza Shapiro from the University of Texas won the award for determining why pregnant women do not tip over.

The work, published in Nature, found a difference in the spines of women and men, which allowed a pregnant woman to lean backward and counterbalance the weight of the developing fetus.

I didn’t find the work particularly hilarious and probably represents rather bona fide research.

The chemistry prize lived up more to the suggestion of making you laugh then think. This year’s prize went to Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamond films from tequila.

Other 2009 winners include Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, who won the prize for mathematics for “giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers”. Gono ordered bank notes in Zimbabwe to be printed with denominations ranging from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars.

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson from Newcastle University’s school of agriculture were awarded the veterinary medicine prize for discovering that giving cows names increases their milk yield compared to unnamed cows.

The last few years have seen rather dubious awards given for physics. Last year was for understanding why knots form spontaneously in lengths of “agitated” string, while in 2007 the prize was won for the “physics of wrinkling” — providing insight into why drapes hang a certain way.

It was much better when the prize for physics was given for such things as levitating frogs, calculating that beer froth decays exponentially and finding the best way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea.