Posts by: James Dacey

Mary Somerville to appear on new Scottish banknote

Portrait of Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville lived to the age of 91.

By James Dacey

Alice Prochaska, the principal of Somerville College, Oxford, told me yesterday that she is “absolutely thrilled” that Mary Somerville (1780–1872) will appear on a new £10 Scottish banknote. Prochaska believes the decision will help to give the Scottish polymath, whose work led to the discovery of Neptune, the wide recognition she has not yet received. Somerville will be the first woman other than a royal to appear on a Scottish banknote.

The decision had been announced earlier this week by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), following a somewhat bungled public vote. On 1 February, RBS launched a week-long Facebook poll to determine whether Somerville, the engineer Thomas Telford or the physicist James Clerk Maxwell should adorn the new note, which will be issued in the second half of 2017. Having led comfortably throughout, Somerville was overtaken at the eleventh hour by Telford, following a suspicious flurry of votes mainly from outside of the UK. This triggered a three-day stewards’ inquiry before the bank declared Somerville the winner on Wednesday.

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Who is your favourite female scientist?

Poster for IOP campaign

By James Dacey

Tomorrow is the inaugural International Day of Women and Girls in Science as declared by the United Nations (UN). It’s a chance to celebrate women’s achievements in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to address the under-representation and inequality that women and girls face in many STEM fields.

One way you can take part on the day is to write the name of your favourite female scientist on this printable poster. Take a photo of yourself holding the poster and share it on Twitter including #WomenInSTEM. This social-media initiative is the idea of our colleagues at the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, who have lots of information about their ongoing diversity programmes on their website. I’ll be sharing the name of Mary Somerville, the Scottish polymath who predicted the existence of Neptune.

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Curiosity findings puzzle Mars rover team

Marias pass

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the Marias Pass. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

By James Dacey in San Francisco

Rocks rich in silica have been discovered on the surface of Mars, bearing a resemblance to environments on Earth that support microbial life. It’s the latest finding from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, presented today in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

After landing in the Gale crater region of Mars in 2012, NASA’s car-sized rover spent the first couple of years exploring the planes around the elevated region known as Mount Sharp. Since 2014 the rover has started exploring the mountain itself, working its way up from the base.

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Are reticent climate researchers ‘failing humanity’?

AGU Fall 2015

By James Dacey in San Francisco

Droves of delegates poured into the Moscone Center in San Francisco today for day one of AGU Fall 2015 – the largest Earth and space-science meeting in the world, with a whopping 24,000 delegates expected over the week. Having arrived from the UK on Saturday night, the jet-lag has kicked in with a vengeance today, so a couple of the conference coffees were definitely in order this morning. I’m just taking a break now after an interesting session about communicating climate change, and whether those researchers who don’t engage in the public debate are “failing humanity”.

The room was packed to the rafters, no doubt down to the profile of the speakers. First up was James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who has been outspoken in his criticism of the recent COP21 climate discussions, or at least the lack of concrete proposals to cut carbon emissions. Hansen restated his beef with the deal and argued that the only workable solution is for authorities to collect a carbon fee at source, such as charging domestic mines for the weight of carbon they sell. This, he believes, is the most effective way to make renewable energy and low-carbon options more viable. Not one to pull his punches, Hansen described US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s idea that China will be able to curb much of its carbon missions using carbon capture and storage (CSS) technologies as “pure unadulterated bullshit”.

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Designing smarter cities

 

By James Dacey in Berkeley, US

This weekend politicians at the COP21 summit in Paris signed a landmark legal agreement to keep global temperature rises at bay by curbing carbon emissions. The tricky next question of course is: how are we actually going to do this? In this short video, civil engineer Arpad Horvath of the University of California Berkeley explains that one of the aspects will be a fundamental rethink of our urban infrastructures. Horvath believes we need to move towards “smart cities” with smaller carbon footprints at all levels – from greener individual buildings, to more sustainable transport networks.

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Can physics reveal the secrets of Egypt’s pyramids?

By James Dacey

“Just because a mystery is 4500 years old doesn’t mean it can’t be solved.” That is the tagline of a major new project to uncover the secrets of Egypt’s pyramids without damaging a single stone.

Map of locations of the pyramids in the Scan Pyramids project

Study locations. (Courtesy: Scan Pyramids)

Scan Pyramids – launched by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities – will deploy an arsenal of non-invasive technologies to probe the structure of four pyramids from Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty (from 2575 BC to 2465 BC). On the Giza plateau, about 20 km south-west of Cairo, it will study the Pyramid of Khafre, along with the Pyramid of Khufu, aka the “Great Pyramid of Giza”, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Meanwhile, on the site of Dahshur, around 40 km south of the Egyptian capital, it will investigate the North and South pyramids. (Click to expand the map.)

Despite their global fame and familiarity, these ancient monuments still hold many mysteries. Chief among them is the question of how the ancient Egyptians managed to build these huge edifices. The Great Pyramid of Giza was originally 150 m tall and weighed 5 million tonnes, yet it was constructed in just 25 years. Egyptologists also believe that these pyramids could be concealing hidden chambers, which could house tombs and secret treasures.

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Going underground to discuss alien life

 

By James Dacey

“Genuinely, it could be our generation that first finds life on another planet,” declared astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell last Thursday during a public talk in London. Dartnell was speaking about the possibility of life beyond Earth and what those organisms might be, based on our understanding of life here on Earth. The choice of venue ­– a pedestrian tunnel near King’s Cross Station bathed in neon lights – brought an appropriate alien vibe to the evening. Part of the reason for choosing the site is because if humans were to one day colonize Mars we would need to spend the first few years living underground to avoid the lethal radiation.

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Physics World special report on Mexico is out now

 

By James Dacey

Today is Mexico’s Independence Day, marking the Grito de Dolores – the day in 1810 when the Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo called on his congregation in the small Mexican town of Dolores to revolt against the Spanish colonial government. This “Cry of Dolores” is seen as the flash point that triggered the Mexican War of Independence.

Modern-day Mexico is still a place with its fair share of turmoil, as the government faces increasing pressure over its inability to deal with drugs, violence and corruption. One area that is starting to look more positive, however, is Mexico’s science base – the administration of president Enrique Peña Nieto has vowed to double Mexico’s investment in science and technology to 1% of GDP and has already sanctioned increases in 2013 and 2014.

To shine a light on what the Mexican physics community is up to, this month sees the publication of a new free-to-read Physics World special report on physics in Mexico. We believe that physicists in Mexico are doing engaging work that deserves to be more widely known. In choosing our coverage for the report, we have not only focused on the challenges for the Mexican community, but also hope to give you a flavour of the rich culture and geography of this most colourful of countries.

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Playing the cosmic piano

 

By James Dacey

Researchers at CERN are renowned for their musical side-projects. Notable examples include the album released by scientists at the ATLAS detector in 2010, and the “Large hadron rap“, which currently has almost 8 million hits on YouTube. And of course don’t forget the pop-star-turned-physicist Brian Cox who had the UK chart-topping hit “Things can only get better” in the 1990s with his band D:Ream.

Following in this musical tradition, a duo of Mexican researchers has invented a “Cosmic Piano” inspired by the technologies used at the ALICE particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The instrument’s inventors Arturo Fernández Téllez and Guillermo Tejeda Muñoz hold positions at CERN and the University of Puebla in Mexico. They hope the device can demonstrate both the science and the art of the work being carried out at particle-physics facilities.

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Keep it brief

Academic paper with letter dice

(Courtesy: iStockphoto/MichaelJay)

By James Dacey

“Brevity is a great charm of eloquence,” said the great Roman orator Cicero. A new study published today suggests that researchers would be wise to follow Cicero’s advice when it comes to choosing a title for their next academic paper. Data scientists at the University of Warwick in the UK analysed 140,000 papers and found that those with shorter titles tend to receive more citations.

Similar studies have been carried out in the past leading to contradictory results. But Adrian Letchford and his colleagues have used two orders of magnitude more data than previous investigations, looking at the 20,000 most cited papers published each year between 2007 and 2013 in the Scopus online database. Publishing their findings in Royal Society Open Science, Letchford’s group reports that papers with shorter titles garnered more citations every year. Titles ranged from 6 to 680 characters including spaces and punctuation.

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