Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Cosmic blunders that have held back science

Big enough already: Portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

Big enough already: portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam. (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

By Hamish Johnston

Can you name 10 blunders that have held back the progress of modern astronomy? Avi Loeb of Harvard University can, and he lists them in an essay entitled “On the benefits of promoting diversity of ideas”, which is posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Loeb argues that a common flaw of astronomers is to believe that they know the truth even when data are scarce. This, he argues, “occasionally leads to major blunders by which the scientific community makes the wrong strategic decision in its research plans, causing unnecessary delays in finding the truth”.

The first example he gives is the 1909 pronouncement by Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, that telescopes had reached their optimal size and that there was no point trying to make them any bigger.

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A new Longitude Prize, global cooling in the 1970s, inspirational creatures and more

A red kite and a drone swoop down on their prey (Courtesy: Vijay Kumar)

A red kite and a drone swoop down on their prey. (Courtesy: Vijay Kumar)

By Hamish Johnston

A bird of prey swoops out of the sky, grabs its victim from the ground and flies off into the distance. It’s what a bird does instinctively, but how could we get a drone aircraft to do the same thing? That’s the subject of one of the papers in a special issue of the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics that focuses on “Bioinspired flight control”.

The above sequence of images is from a paper entitled “Toward autonomous avian-inspired grasping for micro aerial vehicles” by Vijay Kumar and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. The special issue also includes work on aircraft inspired by flying snakes, flocking birds and incredibly stable moths.

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Microwave pockets, space station strife and dreaming of Mars

Russia has the toilets on the ISS (Courtesy: NASA)

Russia has the toilets on the ISS. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

The physics of how the contents of a microwaved pastry can become “hotter than the Sun” is the subject of an entertaining and informative blog entry by Ethan Siegel. He looks at the physics of heating “microwave pockets”, those roof-of-your-mouth-scalding savoury treats that appeared on shelves in the 1980s. He explains why the outer portion of a pocket can be extremely hot, while the interior remains frozen – and why pockets often explode when heated through.

Siegel’s been a bit cheeky and republished this entry from 2009, but I suppose it’s timeless and I’m sure you can still buy microwave pockets somewhere! His blog is called Starts With a Bang and the entry is entitled “Throwback Thursday: The physics of hot pockets”.

As the crisis in the Ukraine drags on, scientists are beginning to worry about the effect it could have on scientific collaborations involving Russia and the West. Several websites are reporting that Russia is threatening to ban US astronauts from the shuttles that travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Indeed, the Independent quotes Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying that it would be possible for Russia to independently operate its portion of the ISS, while the US would not be able to do so. Indeed both toilets on the ISS are Russian, so it could get very messy up there!

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The biophysics of Godzilla, skipping stones, Schrödinger in the morning and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

I’m a bit of a connoisseur of the art of stone skipping. That’s because I grew up a stone’s throw from the western end of Lake Ontario, which thanks to its shale shoreline has the best skipping stones in the world. As a result, I was fascinated to read a piece on the Figure One blog about entitled “Frisbee meets fluid: Skipping stones takes spin and skill”.

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Scientists face discrimination when choosing a PhD

By Hamish Johnston

One of the most important decisions any aspiring scientist must make is what they should study for their PhD. Therefore, any advice that they receive from established academic researchers is of great value – and many academics are very generous with their time when it comes to mentoring up-and-coming researchers.

But do academics tend to reach out to some groups of people while ignoring others? That’s the subject of a study by three business-school professors – Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola and Dolly Chugh – who wanted to know if a person’s gender or ethnic origin affects their chances of booking an appointment with an academic to discuss their future.

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Winning rock-paper-scissors, meeting a future Nobel laureate, hot new batteries and more

By Hamish Johnston

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries. (Courtesy: MIT/M Scott Brauer)

When I was a PhD student, there was a group of retired professors that shared a tiny office in the physics department. It was whispered that one of them was extremely wealthy thanks to a successful commercial spin-out and we marvelled at the fact that he came in to work every day rather than enjoying the fruits of his labours. However, it wasn’t the wealthy professor who was destined for international fame. In 1994 his officemate Bertram Brockhouse shared the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Brockhouse’s quiet life changed dramatically. Indeed, he got his own office!

I was reminded of this little group when I read ZapperZ’s blog entry about his encounter with Ray Davis before Davis bagged the 2002 Nobel for his work on neutrinos. Sitting next to Davis on a two-hour flight, ZapperZ had an inkling that he was beside an interesting character after their brief chat about physics. But it wasn’t until the Nobel was announced several years later that he realized the opportunity he had missed.

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Hi-tech giants eschew corporate R&D, says report

IBM's latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

IBM’s latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

By Hamish Johnston

“Think” has been motto of the US-based computer giant IBM since it was coined in the early 20th century by founder Thomas Watson. Many would argue that IBM has succeeded over the past 100 years because physicists and other scientists were given the freedom to think while working at the company’s research labs. And science has benefitted too, with three Nobel prizes won or shared by physicists working at the firm’s labs. Even more impressive is that a whopping seven physics Nobels have been awarded to physicists at Bell Labs – originally Bell Telephone Laboratories.

But the days of these corporate “idea factories” are over according to a new study published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Entitled Physics Entrepreneurship and Innovation (PDF), the 308-page report argues that many large businesses are closing in-house research facilities and instead buying in new expertise and technologies by acquiring hi-tech start-ups.

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Why electricity grids fail, what to do if your PhD is stolen, and what is a ‘Suris tetron’?

 

By Hamish Johnston

It’s the nightmare scenario for any PhD student: losing all those research results that you carefully squirreled away for when you finally sit down to write your thesis. That’s just what happened to biologist Billy Hinchen, who lost four years’ worth of 3D time-lapse videos of developing crustacean embryos when his laptop and back-up drives were stolen. Find out what happened next in “What would happen if you lost all of your research data?” by Julia Giddings at the scientific software firm Digital Science. Hinchen also tells his tale of woe in the video above.

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Cakes that are out of this world, what’s on Andre Geim’s iPod and who’s the April fool?

The joke’s on me: click on the image for a larger version where you can see the instruction for users

The joke’s on me: click on the image for a larger version where you can see the instruction for users

By Hamish Johnston

On Tuesday I was feeling particularly pleased with myself over the April Fool’s piece that I penned. It was about a fictitious microwave-oven ban organized by radio astronomers at the UK’s Jodrell Bank Observatory. But now it looks like I might have a bit of microwaved egg on my face because two of my colleagues visited Jodrell Bank this week and guess what? Astronomers there have built a Faraday cage around the microwave in their tearoom to stop it from interfering with their equipment. Louise Mayor took the above photos: click on the image to read the reminder to microwave users.

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Silence the ping: astronomers urge 24-hour microwave-oven ban

By Ken Heartly-Wright

Switch Microwaves Off Now

(Shutterstock/Andris Torms)

An international group of astronomers is calling for people to stop using their microwave ovens for 24 hours next April to give scientists a better chance of finding gravitational waves.

The ubiquitous kitchen gadgets broadcast copious amounts of electromagnetic radiation at frequencies around 2.45 GHz – exactly that of the cosmic microwave background, which bears the signature of gravitational waves from the early universe.

The call for a one-day global microwave oven ban comes just a fortnight after scientists detected B-mode polarization from the early universe using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole.

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