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Michael Banks: March 2010 Archives

How will science fare in the next government?

By Michael Banks

There was the banging of a fist on the table and a heated moment (albeit brief) when government science budgets were debated.

Yesterday, the science ministers for the UK’s three main parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat — met at Portcullis House in Westminster to attempt to put science policy on the agenda.

Science rarely enters policy debates leading up to a general election. Indeed Phil Willis, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, who spoke before the debate, noted that some party election manifestos in the past have not even mentioned science at all.

Yet science was the only focus at the event yesterday, which was organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry and chaired by Susan Watts, science editor of the BBC programme Newsnight. It featured in the red corner, (Labour) science minister Paul Drayson, in the blue corner (Conservative) shadow science minster Adam Afriyie, and in the other corner Liberal Democrat spokesperson for science and technology Evan Harris.

“This time the parties are neck and neck [in the polls], so there is a real choice,” noted Drayson, who has been Labour science minister for the last 18 months.

There are many aspects of science policy that the three panellists seemed to agree on. All three agreed science is an important issue that should be at the heart of government, a point that was reiterated a few times by Drayson.

They also thought a long-term ring-fence of the science budget was right. This means that the treasury cannot dip into the science budget to take any money out after it has been allocated in a comprehensive spending review.

In the two hour debate, the parties also agreed to try and get a chief scientific advisor into the treasury (every other government department supposedly has one) and that they stand by the Haldane principle, in which scientists decide where research money goes rather than politicians, as well the need to get more women into science.

All very good and noble, but what are the differences in science policy for the three main parties?

Even though the three parties support the ring-fence, there are some differences in what happens for the science budget immediately after the election, which is expected to be in early May.

Drayson says that Labour will protect the ring-fence completely, while Afriyie noted that in the long term the Conservatives are committed to a “multi-year science ring-fence”, but says that the “economy has to be first fixed before we can ring fence any budget in the short term”.

So what could this mean? The Conservatives are likely to run an emergency budget if they get elected and although Afriyie didn’t prejudge the outcome, Drayson claims that the Conservatives would make “harsh, deep cuts” in this year’s science budget if they are elected. (The banging of the fist came as Afriyie asked why the government had not yet carried out a comprehensive spending review.)

Harris, meanwhile, says the Liberal Democrats would “not raid the science budget”, and would not cut the science budget this year.

The biggest difference of the night came with higher education policy. Harris said that the Liberal Democrats would scrap tuition fees amounting to £3225 a year that university undergraduates have to pay.

Afriyie says the Conservatives will repay the loans for high performing maths and science students, but Drayson was more guarded about policy saying that Labour will look at the outcome of the a review into higher education spending currently being carried out by Lord Brown. The Brown review will report after the general election.

A few differences, but it might not be such a bad thing. In the event of a hung parliament the three may well have to work together to make sure science is firmly in the government spotlight.

By Michael Banks

Chris Calwell (left) and Jonathan Koomey (right) present Arthur Rosenfeld (centre) with an award for his contribution to energy efficiency (the award has a 100 picorosenfeld piece of coal inside) credit: Adam Gottlieb.

When PhysicsWorld readers were asked to supply their favourite units last year we were inundated with mentions of “barns”, “sheds” and even “Ox-days”, which measures the amount of land a farmer can plough using an ox.

Now say hello to another unit — the Rosenfeld.

The unit is named after Arthur Rosenfeld, a former particle physicist who moved into energy efficiency research.

Physicists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University have proposed the unit as a measure of carbon reduction and energy saving.

It is defined as the energy saved over a year from not operating an average 500 MW coal plant running at 70% capacity, or saving three billion kilowatt-hours per year, which is equivalent to saving three million metric tons of carbon-dioxide per year.

The researchers, who have published their results in Environmental Research Letters, say it is easier for people to “visualize” the number of power plants that don’t need to be built through efficiency savings rather than just the number of kilowatt-hours saved.

The proposal for the Rosenfeld will be launched today in a symposium on the next generation of energy efficiency, which is being held at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

The best site for Europe’s superscope?

By Michael Banks

It has a dome that will be about the size of a football stadium, it will be around 80 m high and have a diameter at its base of about 100 m.

These are the dimensions of the €1bn European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) that will be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope once it is completed at the end of the decade.

Today, the leading site emerged to host the E-ELT, which is a project by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Five sites were under review including La Palma in Spain and four sites in Chile: Armazones, Ventarrones, Tolonchar and Vizcachasand.

The E-ELT’s site selection advisory committee chose Cerro Armazones, near Paranal as its preferred site. The site was selected, the committee says, because it has the “best balance of sky quality across all aspects and it can be operated in an integrated fashion with the existing ESO Paranal Observatory.”

E-ELT will aim to study the earliest stars and galaxies, and track down Earth-like planets in habitable zones around other stars using its 42 m in diameter primary mirror, which is made from 984 smaller segments that are each 1.45 m wide. It will also try to probe their atmospheres using low resolution spectroscopy.

ESO’s council will now make a decision on the E-ELT site, which will take into account the recommendations of the committee.

If Cerro Armazones is chosen, then the E-ELT will join ESO’s Very Large Telescope, which contains four separate 8.2 m telescopes.

Obeying the laws of physics?

By Michael Banks

Imagine being able to watch movies for your undergraduate studies. I certainly wouldn’t have minded it. But this is what students at Boston University are doing as part of a cinema-physica course.

Every week students watch movies such as Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and Armageddon, and use class discussions and experiments to examine the basic physics behind some of the scenes in the movie.

The course is run by physicist Andrew Cohen who says that it is meant to give humanities students a better (sixth?) sense of what science is about.

“What I want them to understand is how a scientific analysis works,” says Cohen.

So what can students expect on the cinema-physica course?

Cohen runs a clip from Speed 2 showing a cruise ship ploughing into a harbour. In true Hollywood style, people are then thrown out of the ship’s windows as it crashes through the dock.

In the lecture, Cohen and the class calculate that before the ship comes to rest it would have been decelerating at 0.1 metre per second squared. As Cohen says this is a “gentle breeze - no one would be spilling their drinks,” rather than being violently ejected from the ship.

So does it really matter if the science is accurate, and does Hollywood need a lesson in physics?

“Well, no I don’t think so,” says Cohen. “But that doesn’t mean I think they get their all their physics right, but why should they?”

0.0000000000000001 helladollars?

By Michael Banks

“Yotta”, “zeta”, “exa” and “peta” could now be joined by a new number prefix, the “hella”, if a physics student from University of California, Davis, gets his way.

Austin Sendek has started a petition on the social networking site Facebook to establish a new, scientifically accepted prefix for 1027(that is 1 followed by 27 zeroes, or 1000000000000000000000000000).

Yotta (1024), which was established in 2001, is currently the largest number established in the International System of Units (SI) - the world’s most widely used system of measurement — with zeta (1021), exa (1018) and peta (1015) following close behind.

“Hella” comes from Californian slang for “very” or “a lot of”. Sendek says that by accepting the term the SI system can “not only rectify their failing prefix system but also honor the scientific progress of Northern California.”

The petition is gaining ground fast with over 20 0000 signatures (or “fans” on the Facebook page) - or 0.0000000000000000000002 hellafans.

So what could you use the hella for? Sendek claims it could be applied in many “crucial calculations”, including the wattage of the Sun (0.3 hellawatts), or the number of atoms in a large sample (6.02 hellaatoms in 120 kg of carbon-12).

Sendek has not said what he would like to call the number for 10-27 (10-24 is the yocto). So readers, any suggestions?