Posts by: James Dacey

Beauty is in the eye of the mathematician

Euler equation

Is the Euler identity the most beautiful equation of them all?

By James Dacey

If you have ever talked with your arty friends about the sense of “beauty” you feel from maths, you may well have been greeted with a sympathetic smile. Perhaps even with jeers of derision.  Well, next time you find yourself in that position you will have some scientific evidence to back up what you are saying. A group of researchers in the UK has demonstrated that getting your noggin around an equation can trigger the same part of the brain as staring at the Mona Lisa or listening to The White Album.

In an experiment described in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 15 mathematicians were presented with a series of 60 equations and asked to rate them for their beauty on a scale of –5 (ugly), through to +5 (beautiful). The same subjects were then hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to view the same list of equations. It turned out that when mathematicians viewed the 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.*

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Embracing the materials world

By James Dacey

Materials research is enjoying a new golden age. The hit parade of supermaterials that has been discovered in the relatively recent past is extensive. It includes the likes of high-temperature superconductors, quantum dots, bucky-balls, nanotubes, aerogels, silver nanowires and graphene. Meanwhile, new approaches to the commercialization of materials – such as the recent Materials Genome Initiative in the US – are improving the processes by which new materials are transferred from the science lab to practical applications in the real world.

In conjuction with these new discoveries, materials scientists have also made dramatic improvements to the tools they have available for studying and manufacturing materials. Here, the list of advances is seemingly endless. Researchers can now simulate, image and analyse materials with far more accuracy than ever before. Developments in production methods – such as the advent of 3D printing – are also enabling researchers to scale up their new materials with greater ease.

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Super Bowl, super-chilled leeches, a black hole cake and more

Picture of a black hole cake

(Courtesy: Quantum/Mathelete/Buzz)

By James Dacey

Fire and ice will mix together in a sporting cauldron this Sunday. The Seattle Seahawks are taking on the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and all weather forecasters agree that it’s going to be rather chilly. In fact, some have criticized the National Football League (NFL) for electing to play the game in a stadium without a roof, rather than opting to stage the match under cover. Bear in mind, the Super Bowl is the sporting event of the year in the US and people take it very seriously indeed. To address some of the concerns, The Huffington Post published this article to analyse how the mechanics of the game can change under cold conditions. The entertaining article considers everything from the reduced bounciness of the ball, to the increased propensity of helmets to break due to changes in material pliability.

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Uncovering the truth in social media

Illustration of viral social-media

Truth and lies in the web of social media. (Courtesy: Shutterstock)

By James Dacey

“On 27 August…Mars will look as large as the full Moon.”

This was a sentence from a widely circulated e-mail in 2005, in the lead up to one of the closest encounters between Earth and Mars in recorded history.

That our neighbouring planet could appear as prominent as the Moon is, of course, complete claptrap. Since the “Mars hoax” first appeared in 2003, it has re-emerged several times over the past decade.

The Mars hoax is an example of a “meme”, a piece of content or an idea that is spread virally across Internet networks. These days, memes such as this can spread with increasing speed and reach, thanks to the ever-growing expansion of social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Now, however, researchers at MODUL University Vienna are setting out on the ambitious task of assessing the truthfulness of information that goes viral on social-media sites. The folks behind the project, called PHEME, say that one of their major aims is to acquire an improved understanding of the types of dubious information that are most likely to spread across networks.

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Making sense of physics information

Graphic showing a connected world

(Courtesy: iStockphoto)

By James Dacey

Physicists today are faced with a multitude of options when it comes to accessing and sharing information with each other. Research collaborations are becoming increasingly international, bringing both opportunities and challenges with communication. There are ever-growing numbers of ways of accessing journal papers. And it seems that every other day sees the arrival of some shiny new social-media site for sharing and discussing the latest developments.

IOP Publishing (which publishes physicsworld.com) has teamed up with the Research Information Network (RIN) to try to improve our understanding of how information practices are changing in the physical sciences. You can help shape that understanding by taking our short survey. If you need a little sweetener, you will also be given the chance to enter a prize draw where you can win a $500 bursary to attend the academic conference of your choice. All in, the survey should take you about 10–15 minutes.

I caught up with Ellen Collins, a social researcher at RIN, to find out a bit more about what the project is designed to achieve.

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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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