Posts by: James Dacey

Physics World tackles the valley of death

By James Dacey

Many academics believe that they have an idea in them that could lead to a nifty new technology – and make them some cash in the process. But there is a world of difference between discussing an idea in the departmental common room and actually launching a new product to fit into an unexploited niche in the market. One of the biggest challenges that start-up companies face is known as the valley of death, which we have illustrated for you here with this quirky animation.

 

The voice you hear is that of Stan Reiss, who works for the international venture capitalist firm Matrix Partners. He explains how the valley of death is a metaphor for the financial challenges faced by a spin-off company in the early stages of its development. In this phase, the firm may have a prototype for a product but it might not have the income or the capital to comfortably survive and grow. Often, the company simply runs out of money and falls by the wayside. “There’s a lot of dead bones and skeletons at the end of that valley,” says Reiss.

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A network analysis of the FIFA World Cup

(Courtesy: Paolo Cintia and Luca Pappalardo)

(Courtesy: Paolo Cintia and Luca Pappalardo)

By James Dacey

The FIFA World Cup is under way in Brazil as the national teams from 32 nations battle it out on the pitch for the most prestigious prize in football. It is also an exciting month for football fans across the world as everyone suddenly becomes an expert on the game. Offices, bars and cafes around the world echo with the sound of post-match analysis.

This post-match dissection has now been taken to another level by a pair of computer scientists at the University of Pisa in Italy. At the request of Physics World, Paolo Cintia and Luca Pappalardo have carried out a network analysis of the opening match of the tournament, which saw the hosts Brazil defeat Croatia by three goals to one. Cintia and Pappalardo have viewed the match as if it were an evolving network where players represent nodes that interact by passing the ball to each other along “edges”.

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Capturing science on film

People watching an outdoor screen in Sheffield

People enjoying an outdoor screening in Sheffield’s Peace Gardens.

By James Dacey, reporting from Sheffield

For the past few days I’ve been back to the place where I grew up: the city of Sheffield in the north of England. It’s famed for its steel production and snooker, but I’ve been in town for what is billed as the world’s most exciting documentary and digital media festival: Sheffield Doc/Fest. There has been an eclectic mix of films and audio documentaries from around the world to enjoy but I’ve been focusing on a strand of the festival dedicated to “Ideas & Science”.

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Meeting the last man to walk on the Moon

Photo of Eugene Cernan

Eugene Cernan speaking at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

By James Dacey, reporting from Sheffield

“I wanted to make a film about an old space cowboy” is how British director Mark Craig introduced his new film on Sunday afternoon here at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The Last Man on the Moon takes a fresh look at the the Apollo era through the story of Eugene Cernan, who was the last person to set foot on the lunar surface when he did so in 1972 as commander of Apollo 17.

The documentary interleaves a profile of “Gene” Cernan with NASA archive footage and special effects, focusing on the personal stories of the astronauts and their families. To give you a flavour, the film opens in the present day with close-ups of Cernan’s facial reactions at a rodeo event as he admires the spectacle and the bravery of the men being thrown around on the back of bulls. Later in the film, Cernan recounts his experiences of being rotated rapidly in space during the Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 missions.

Immediately after the showing, Cernan and Craig stayed for a Q&A session and the audience gave an extended standing ovation as the 80-year-old astronaut walked to the front of the auditorium. I was fortunate to catch up with the pair this morning to get some insights into the inspiration for the film and how it was adapted from the book Cernan co-authored in 1999.

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British scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds share their life stories

By James Dacey

What does it mean to be a scientist from an ethnic minority background? Is it harder to get career breaks and to reach the top of a field? Can your background actually be a source of inspiration? Is it even useful to anyone to be discussing these questions?

These are among the issues touched upon in a new series of video interviews with 10 British scientists with minority ethnic heritage. The interviews were conducted by researchers at the British Library as part of a larger audio history project commissioned by the Royal Society called Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science. You can watch all 10 interviews on the Royal Society website.

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What makes an equation beautiful?

By James Dacey

Earlier this year I wrote about a psychology experiment that revealed that mathematicians appreciate beautiful equations in the same way that people experience great works of art. In the experiment, which conjures up a slightly comical scene, mathematicians were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to view a series of equations. When the subjects looked at equations they had previously rated as beautiful, it triggered activity in a part of the emotional brain associated with the experience of visual and musical beauty. The formula most commonly rated as beautiful in the study, in both the initial survey and the brain scan, was Euler’s equation, eiπ+ 1 = 0.

Inspired by this study, we have put together this infographic to dissect the Euler identity and try to understand why so many mathematicians are enamoured with this little equation. Let us know what you think of the infographic and what you think are the most beautiful equations. Either post a comment below this article, or let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #BeautifulEquations.

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Student behaviour in the MOOCosphere

Students in a lecture hall

Does student behaviour online mirror the traditional classroom? (Courtesy: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia)

By James Dacey

I’ve written a few times recently about the rise of massive open online courses, or “MOOCs” for short. If this trend in education has so far passed you by, MOOCs are online courses generally offered free of charge by some of the leading universities in the world. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers courses in classical mechanics and electricity & magnetism, and the University of Edinburgh has recently launched a course about the discovery of the Higgs boson.

MOOCs tend to combine video lectures with assignments such as problem sets and extended projects. In many ways, the course formats mirror or complement traditional classroom-based education, incorporating features such as forums where students can discuss the course content amongst themselves. Some of the science courses even include online “practicals” by way of virtual laboratories. But despite the proliferation of MOOCs in the past few years, very little research has been carried out on the way that students are actually engaging with the courses.

Now, a group of researchers in the US has done the first relatively detailed study of student behaviour in the MOOCosphere. The study is described in a paper published on the arXiv preprint server with lead author Ashton Anderson, a computer scientist at Stanford University. Anderson and his team examined the behaviour of the student population in courses offered by Stanford through Coursera, one of the major MOOC providers. The courses were on the topics of machine learning and probabilistic graphical models. After reading the study, it seems to me that the “take away” message is that MOOC students have many different motivations for taking these courses and as a result they behave in an assortment of ways, distinct from classrooms in the real world.

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Medical scanning demystified

Diffusion MRI scan of the brain

Diffusion MRI scan reveals the connections in the brain. (Courtesy: NIH/The Human Connectome Project)

By James Dacey

Many of you reading this will have experienced (or at least known somebody else who has experienced) a medical scan of some type. Even if you have a background in physics, these procedures can seem mysterious and even slightly menacing, not helped by the clinical designs of the equipment and some of the sounds they make. A new series of online courses offered by an academic collaboration in Scotland has been designed to demystify the world of medical-imaging techniques by presenting the science and technology in non-technical ways.

The courses include introductions to ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and computerized tomography (CT). “The material was designed for non-specialists with an interest in science who might want to understand a bit more about medical imaging: school teachers, pupils, patients, relatives of patients,” says Dave Wyper, director of the Scottish Imaging Network: A Platform for Scientific Excellence (SINAPSE).

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Five celebrities who are quantum physicists in disguise

 By James Dacey

Charlotte Church

(CC-BY Keven Law)

This week the Welsh pop star Charlotte Church (right) has released her latest EP entitled Four. In a conversation with New Scientist, Church explained that the EP’s opening track “Entanglement” was in fact named after the quantum-mechanical phenomenon known affectionately to physicists as “spooky action at a distance”. She has since told BBC Wales that she may well take her interest in science to the next level by studying for a physics degree.

There are of course several really famous people who are more directly connected with physics, having studied the subject in some form before going on to become luminaries in other fields. Examples include the Queen guitar-god Brian May, and arguably the most powerful woman in the world the German chancellor Angela Merkel. But Church is one of a new brigade of celebrities who are discovering the joys of physics after having already reached stardom for other abilities. The armchair psychologist might suggest that learning about the mechanics of the cosmos offers a refreshing alternative to the shallow nature of life that often comes with the celebrity lifestyle, or at least our view of it as presented by the media.

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Bananaman, fusion boy, an astronaut and more

By James Dacey

The Red Folder is bulging this week with some weird and wonderful physics stories from around the Web. Here is a round-up of some of the best we have stumbled across.

One of the more eye-catching articles this week included the surreal image of Stephen Hawking posing for a picture with a bunch of men all dressed as Bananaman. In case you’re not familiar with this brilliant character, Bananaman is a comedy super hero created in the 1980s by British cartoonists who valued the importance of nutrition. When Eric Wimp – an ordinary British schoolboy – eats a banana he turns into our hero, a fully grown man in a blue and yellow suit with special powers to rival both Batman and Superman. Anyway, I digress. According to the Telegraph, the 10 besuited chaps in question were on a stag do in Cambridge. They were lost (perhaps a few too many banana liqueurs?) when they turned a corner and spotted the world-famous cosmologist getting out of a car. The result was a group shot with far more a-peel than any of those self-indulgent Oscars selfies that have been doing the rounds this week. Please accept my apologies for that bad pun.

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