Posts by: James Dacey

In pictures: the opinions of Physics World readers

By James Dacey

Love it, or love to hate it, one thing that social media has undoubtedly achieved is to break down some of the barriers between professional journalists and their readers. Gone are the days when we had to rely almost exclusively on guesswork and intuition when it came to picking the issues that matter the most to our readers. Of course, we have always received “proper” letters in the days and weeks following the publication of Physics World to inform us when readers were pleased (or slightly less approving!) of the words they had read. But these days, the feedback starts pouring in almost as soon as our online articles are published, courtesy of our 170,000 Facebook fans and 50,000 Twitter followers. If our readers’ hackles are raised by certain articles and issues, then believe me – we know about it very quickly.

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Physics technologies that could change the world

By James Dacey

Last night, the Nobel Laureate Andre Geim gave a talk in Bristol – hosted by Physics World ­– in which he told a lovely anecdote about the difference between fundamental research and the development of new technologies. Geim, who shared his Nobel in 2010 for his experiments with graphene, described an occasion during a holiday when he took a boat tour to watch dolphins. To the joy of Geim and the crew, these graceful animals glided up alongside the boat as if they were pining for human interaction. The physicist joined the others in reaching over the side of the boat to touch these magnificent beasts, and for a few minutes everyone delighted in the moment.  Then suddenly the paradise was lost. To his shock, Geim heard the voice of a little boy behind him: “Mum, can we eat them?”

The point Geim was making was that, for him, it is enough to marvel at the wonder of graphene without necessarily “eating it” by turning it into commercial products. Geim does appreciate, however, that every so often a fundamental discovery does come along (as in the case of graphene) where the potential spin-offs are simply too delicious to resist. The tale of the boy and the dolphin was Geim’s poetic way of saying that he is going to stick with the pure physics, while it is the job of others to speculate about the potential technological uses of his research.

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From the dark universe to graphene

By James Dacey

In just over an hour’s time, I’ll be hopping on my bike and cycling to the top of a steep hill where the Nobel laureate Andre Geim will be found practising his lines. Sir Andre Geim is delivering a talk at the University of Bristol as part of a series of lectures to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Physics World. In Random Walk to Stockholm, Geim is going to be discussing his work on graphene that led to him sharing the 2010 Nobel prize with Konstantin Novoselov. He will also try to explain why this “wonder material” is attracting so much attention today.

For the small percentage of you who live close to Bristol, there are still tickets left for the event, which starts at 18:00 local time. I am planning to publish an audio recording of the lecture on this website after the event, for those of you who cannot attend tonight.

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Higgs MOOC sees spike in interest after Nobel

Peter Higgs and François Englert,

Peter Higgs (left) and François Englert, winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics. (Courtesy: Dirk Dahmer; CERN)

By James Dacey

The story goes that on the morning of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics announcement, Peter Higgs had popped out for a leisurely lunch at a local pub without telling his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. It meant that the Nobel prize committee in Stockholm was left scrabbling around trying to contact Higgs on several numbers, to no avail. We heard from François Englert in the slightly awkward phone conversation that customarily follows the prize announcement. But there was still no sign of the elusive Prof. Higgs.

Well fear not, because we will finally get to hear from the man behind the boson about his crowning achievement, via a free online course offered by the University of Edinburgh. The Discovery of the Higgs Boson is a seven-week course “about developments at the Large Hadron Collider, particle physics and understanding the universe”. Registration is already open for the massive open online course (MOOC), which starts on 10 February. It will feature interviews with Higgs himself and filmed lectures by a team of particle physicists at the University of Edinburgh, along with additional material including notes and further videos for more advanced students.

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3D printing, Ada Lovelace and controversial bloggers

By James Dacey

One of the more inspiring stories we have come across this week was the tale of a resourceful inventor in the West African nation of Togo. Kodjo Afate Gnikou has managed to build a 3D printer at the meagre cost of $100 by mainly using parts he found in a scrap yard in the capital city Lomé. The story is described on inhabitat.com, which says the machine has been constructed from broken scanners, computers, printers and other e-waste.

On the subject of 3D printing, Wired magazine ran a story about how the UK supermarket chain Asda is planning to trial a 3D printing service at its store in York. They will be offering customers the chance to take a break from their shopping to have a full body scan, which will be used to create miniature dolls of themselves. Prices apparently start at £40 and Asda boasts about how lifelike these dolls can be: “The technology produces highly realistic ‘mini me’ figurines at whatever scale you like!”

Portrait of Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada Lovelace (1838)

From a shop in York to the next story that involved celebrations all round the world. Tuesday was Ada Lovelace Day 2013. The annual celebrations, which are now in their fifth year, are held to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The annual event was founded in 2009 by the social technologist and writer Suw Charman-Anderson “as a response to online discussions about the lack of women on stage at tech conferences”.

This year events included a mass Wikipedia “editathon” at the University of Oxford in an attempt to raise the profile of women’s contributions to science, as described in this article in the Guardian.

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Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2013

By James Dacey

Portrait of Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada Lovelace (1838)

Science songs in London and a series of “lightning talks” in the Equadorian capital Quito are among the many events being held today around the world to mark Ada Lovelace Day 2013. The annual celebrations, which are now in their fifth year, are held to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The day’s namesake Ada Lovelace is often referred to as the world’s first computer programmer. Born in 1815, Lovelace was a child of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, and was raised by her mother who encouraged her daughter to develop an interest in science, logic and mathematics. Lovelace excelled and became friends with the mathematician Charles Babbage at the University of Cambridge, who had already started drawing up plans for his famous calculating machines.

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NASA badly hit by government shutdown

Photo of NASA headquarters

NASA headquaters, Washington DC. (Courtesy: NASA)

By James Dacey

US citizens woke up this morning to the unbelievable news that their federal government would be shutting down all its “non-essential” services after the two houses of Congress failed to reach an agreement on a new budget. What this means in practice is that hundreds of thousands of federal employees will now face unpaid leave – and NASA’s workforce is among the most badly affected.

A staggering 97% of NASA’s 18,134 employees have been granted leave of absence, according to the Office of Management and Budget, quoted in the New York Times. This is the highest percentage of all the federal departments and agencies to be affected by the shutdown. Other federal workers affected include 94% of the 16,205 employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, along with 69% of the 13,814 working within energy.

“Due to the gov’t shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience,” read a rather understated tweet from NASA earlier today. Within the past few hours, the NASA website has also shutdown indefinitely.

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Vintage snaps from space history

By James Dacey

1966 Lunar Orbiter picture of the Earth and Moon

1966 Lunar Orbiter picture of the Earth and Moon. (Courtesy: UCL)

If you look incredibly closely you may just be able to make out John Lennon’s flares or the England football team lifting the World Cup. This portrait of our planet from 1966 is part of the first collection of photos of the Earth taken from beyond the Moon. It was taken by a camera on board Lunar Orbiter I, the first US spacecraft to orbit the Moon, which helped pave the way for the Moon landings at the end of the decade.

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NASA asked, so we waved at Saturn

By James Dacey

Wave at Saturn collage

Wave at Saturn collage. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On 19 July the Cassini spacecraft turned back to face Earth from its location by Saturn and captured this humbling photo of our planet as a tiny dot behind Saturn’s rings. As part of the event, NASA encouraged people to snap pictures of themselves waving at Venus and to share these via social-media sites. Now, 1400 of these images have been used to create this collage, which includes people from more than 40 countries and 30 US states.

“While Earth is too small in the images Cassini obtained to distinguish any individual human beings, the mission has put together this collage so that we can celebrate all your waving hands, uplifted paws, smiling faces and artwork,” says Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

NASA has, however, released a larger version of the “Wave at Saturn” collage where you can zoom in to make out individual images. It is well worth doing so, as you quickly come across the whole spectrum of gestures from the gentle wave to the Vulcan salute.

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Particle art lights up Victorian ice well

By James Dacey

Photograph of art installation Covariance

Covariance includes 28,000 glass beads and 36,000 diamantés. (Courtesy: Richard Davies)

“The finished work is everything I had hoped for and more – it takes my breath away!”

That was the reaction of artist Lyndall Phelps upon seeing her physics-inspired installation in London, which will open to the public this Saturday. Entitled Covariance, the work was inspired by the SuperKamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan – reflecting the machinery of particle detectors and the way in which particle physicists visualize their data. The kaleidoscopic artwork is housed in a Victorian ice well beneath the London Canal Museum, in reference to the subterranean location of many large particle-physics experiments.

Phelps is an artist who often creates works inspired by science, where she looks in particular for the personal and emotive themes that can exist within academia. For this latest project, she worked in collaboration with Ben Still, a particle physicist from Queen Mary, University of London. The pair was commissioned to work on the project by the Institute of Physics (IOP) as the first in a programme of artists-in-residence called Superposition.

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