Posts by: James Dacey

Guide to the solar eclipse

Solar eclipse captured by Hinode craft

Solar eclipse of 2012, which darkened parts of the US and south-east Asia. (Courtesy: JAXA/Hinode)

By James Dacey

On Friday, our old friend the Moon will swing by to remind us that she’s not just there to reflect the Sun’s light; she can sometimes block it out too. A total solar eclipse will be visible to those lucky few people living in the Faroe Islands or the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Many others across Europe, North Africa and Russia will be treated to the (almost as good) spectacle of a partial solar eclipse.

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Personal views on the International Year of Light

 

By James Dacey

“In the beginning there was light – the Big Bang,” said Steve Chu, talking on Monday at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris during the opening ceremony of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015). Chu – a Nobel-prize winner and former US energy secretary – was among a smorgasbord of speakers at the two-day event, which brought together scientists, artists, politicians and many others with a particular interest in light and its applications.

Being a journalist, I was at the event with my own light-based technology, the humble SLR camera. I was recording a series of interviews with people at the event, including Chu, to get their thoughts on what the year of light means to them. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, the fact that “light” is such an all-encompassing theme can also make it difficult to get a handle on what IYL 2015 is all about. I hope that the resulting video – to be published on physicsworld.com next week – will bring clarity to some of the initiatives and projects in the spotlight this year.

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Lighting up a mid-winter Bath

By James Dacey

In what could be described as the West Country’s answer to Diwali, the city of Bath in the UK has just hosted an eight-day festival of light, featuring colourful public artworks based on lighting technologies. “Illuminate 2015″ was one of the first events on the calendar in this International Year of Light, the UNESCO-supported celebration of light science and its applications. I popped along to the event last Thursday to find out what it was all about and I’ve put together this short film, which includes the event’s creative director Anthony Head explaining what the festival is all about.

 

“It’s a subtle introduction to experimenting with science,” says Head, referring to the fact that many of the exhibits are interactive and involve some playful experimentation. One such exhibit, called “Light Painting”, invited the general public to create images that were then projected onto some of the local buildings. Another exhibit, called “Sonic: Sullis”, enabled people to create sounds and light projections by simply disturbing water contained in a box.

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Become a CERN physicist in your bedroom

By James Dacey

Image of particle collision within the ATLAS detector

Particle collision within the ATLAS detector. (Courtesy: CERN/Higgs Hunters)

Who discovered the Higgs boson? Was it Peter Higgs and a combination of other great minds? The experimentalists at CERN who analysed reams of data? The magnificent machinery of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) itself? By the time that the next great breakthrough in particle physics comes along, the debate about who makes the discovery could become even more complex. That’s because a new citizen-science project is encouraging anyone with an Internet connection to search for new curiosities in the Higgs data.

Higgs Hunters” launched this week and invites the public to sift through collision images from the LHC’s ATLAS detector. The task at hand is to look for the paths of charged particles that seem to appear out of thin air in what are known as off-centre vertices. As explained on the Higgs Hunters website, “some scientists think the Higgs could break apart into exotic particles entirely new to science”. On the Higgs Hunters website, citizen scientists help to count the number of particle tracks and can notify the science team if they spot anything out of the ordinary.

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What makes the perfect song?

Jazz pianist  Joe Stilgoe

Jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe performed at the panel discussion on the science of music

By James Dacey

There was a telling moment early on at the event I attended last night when science writer Philip Ball was asked to name his “perfect song”. With a slightly bemused look, Ball picked a tune that I’m pretty sure few in the audience had heard of – “The Most Wanted Song”, which was co-written by a neuroscientist to incorporate the musical elements that people find most pleasing to the ear. Give the tune a listen and you’ll realise that it is a horrible saccharine track that you’ll quickly want to turn off. Of course, the point of the song – and Ball’s choice – was to ridicule the idea that you can create beautiful music with a formula.

Ball was part of a panel discussion at the Royal Opera House in London on “What makes the perfect song?”. He was joined by physicist-turned-opera singer Christine Rice and musicologist Maria Witek, and the event was chaired by the physicist, broadcaster and former pop star Brian Cox. While the panellists were unanimous in their belief that music is a complex emotional thing that cannot be fully explained by physics, they did have some fascinating insights into the science of song.

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Space bonanza to land in Manchester

Starlight graphic

The Age of Starlight will catch both the eyes and the minds of the audience. (Courtesy: ESO/P D Barthel)

By James Dacey

Whatever punters make of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) next year, they certainly won’t be able to accuse it of thinking small. Among the first commissions announced today is a “world-first show about the origin of the universe and everything within and without it”.

The Age of Starlight will be presented by the physicist and TV personality Brian Cox, who will tell the story of the unlikely events that have led to our existence. Details of the show are still scarce but we do know that the space bonanza will feature computer-generated imagery created by the Oscar-winner Tim Webber and the special-effects team behind the film Gravity. The event will be brought to life with technologies developed by Magic Leap, a Florida-based IT company that specializes in “magical” computing solutions.

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Proton-beam therapy explained

By James Dacey

The story of young brain-tumour patient Ashya King has gripped the British public over the past few weeks, with every twist and turn covered extensively in the media. In a nutshell, the five year old was removed from a hospital in Southampton at the end of August by his parents, without the authorization of doctors. They wanted their son to receive proton-beam therapy, which was not offered to them through the National Health Service (NHS). The family went to Spain in search of the treatment, triggering an international police hunt that subsequently saw the parents arrested before later being released.

The drama was accompanied by a heavy dose of armchair commentary, with Ashya’s parents, the hospital in Southampton and the police all receiving both criticism and praise. Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, got caught up in the affair, as he offered his personal support to the parents. To cut a long story short, Ashya’s parents finally got their wish and they have ended up at a proton-therapy centre in the Czech Republic where their son’s treatment begins today.

But what is proton therapy? It is a relatively new medical innovation that shows great promise in the treatment of cancer, though it is only currently available in certain countries. Beams of protons can be directed with precision at tumours in the body – allowing the energy to destroy cancer cells, while causing less damage to the surrounding tissue than is possible with conventional radiation therapies. The treatment, however, is only really useful in specific cases of cancer, such as where is vitally important that surrounding structures are not damaged. And because it is relatively new, there is less information available about how effective it is compared with more established treatments.

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The physics of twitter

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Some university physics departments are modern, others are old-fashioned, but by and large they tend to contain similar features: a bunch of physicists and a selection of equipment such as microscopes and lasers. That was why I was caught by surprise in the physics department of the University of Buenos Aires when I stumbled across a collection of caged birds living in the corner of one of the labs. My curiosity was captured and I had to find out more.

Researcher in front of a cage of zebra finches

Ana Amador in front of a cage of zebra finches.

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Connecting physics with Argentine industry

Photo of scientists in an optics lab

That’s me on the right visiting an optics lab at the University of Buenos Aires.

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

This week, physics PhD students and advanced undergraduates from across Argentina will flock to the University of Buenos Aires for the physics department’s winter school. It’s an annual event where budding researchers spend a few days at the nation’s premier academic institution to learn about some of the latest developments in fundamental research. The year, however, the meeting will be focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry.

I’ve been in Buenos Aires as part of a fact-finding mission to learn about the physics-education system in Argentina. After meeting with various people involved with Argentine physics education, it seems to me that the theme of this year’s winter school at the University of Buenos Aires is indicative of a change in the way physics is being presented to students. The subject is being rebranded from a purely intellectual pursuit into a practical science that can equip students with highly sought-after professional skills. The bigger picture, of course, is that right now the Argentine economy needs all the fresh ideas and workforce it can get!

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What can you learn from Descartes?

Hands with writing showing "I think" and "I am"

Taking Descartes back into the physics classroom. (Courtesy: Shutterstock)

By James Dacey in Córdoba, Argentina

What’s the best way to teach tricky physics concepts to students? Naturally, this was one of the questions underpinning many of the talks here at the International Conference of Physics Education (IPCE) in Córdoba. According to a couple of educationalists in Latin America at least, it seems that one approach is to enlist the help of some of the great scientists and philosophers of the past.

Patricia del V. Repossi, a lecturer at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina in Buenos Aires, spoke about how she uses the history of science as a framework for teaching optics. Repossi explained how she had come to realize that some of the students taking her conventional optics course believed that photons are made of the same stuff as “tennis balls”. So, she and her colleagues set about transforming the way they teach the topic – by combining a physics class with a history lesson.

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