Posts by: James Dacey

How mussels stretch but don’t snap

PW-2013-08-02-blog-mussel

Mussel attached to a rock in the Boston area. (Courtesy: Zhao Qin)

By James Dacey

Ask any old sea dog and they will tell you the same thing – mussels are resilient little blighters that’ll cling onto yer ship no matter how fast ye sail. The secret behind the ability of mussels to remain tightly attached to surfaces has now been uncovered by a group of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

Whereas barnacles fix themselves tightly to the surfaces of rocks, mussels deploy a different form of adhesion. They dangle from surfaces by a series of fine filaments known as byssus threads made from a protein closely related to collagen – a major constituent of skin and bones. The biological explanation for this behaviour is that it allows the mussels to glide through the water increasing the amount of nutrients they can absorb.

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Close encounters of the muon kind

Photo of g-2 magnet

G-2 electromagnet at the Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. (Courtesy: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab)

By James Dacey

Don’t worry, the aliens haven’t landed. The people in this photo are watching with excitement shortly before this giant electromagnet completed its 5000 km journey on Friday to arrive at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory just outside Chicago. The 15 m-wide ring that weighs more than 15,000 kg has been travelling for the past five weeks by land and sea from its previous home on Long Island in New York State.

The giant electromagnet has served as part of the Muon g-2 experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. This experiment – to describe it crudely – is designed to measure how muons wobble in a magnetic field, as many believe this will provide clues to new physics beyond the Standard Model. This experiment is now relocating to Fermilab, which offers a more intense and pure beam of muons than the Brookhaven lab.

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Carbon map of Panama leads the way

Carbon map of Panama

The first high-res national carbon map. (Courtesy: Carnegie Airborne Observatory)

By Madeleine Fowler, who is doing a work experience placement at Physics World

Panama is a country of diverse ecosystems and complex landscapes, with vegetation ranging from grasslands and scrublands to dense forests. This makes it the perfect location for scientists to experiment with different methods of measuring above-ground carbon density – carbon that is locked up in vegetation.

Scientists have now mapped the above-ground carbon density of the entire country, which is a first in the world of carbon mapping. Field data and satellite data were integrated with high-resolution airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data.  This made it possible to create the first carbon map that could quantify carbon stocks in a local area as small as one hectare. What’s more, it can do this over millions of hectares.

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Never before have we felt so small

Photo of Earth from NASA's Cassini mission

The Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings, the Earth and our Moon in the same frame. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

By Madeleine Fowler, who is doing a work experience placement at Physics World

It is hard to believe while standing among 7 billion other people on this huge and diverse planet we call home that it is not the centre of the universe in the same way that it is the centre of our lives. From the point of view of an ordinary person such as myself, the stars and the other planets seem almost to rotate around us as we go about our everyday lives. But as we all know, this is not the case. In this photo of the Earth taken on 19 July by the Cassini Interplanetary Spacecraft, approximately 900 million miles away, the Earth and the Moon occupy less than one pixel of the photograph. So perhaps we are not quite as important as we thought. Not a big fish in a small pond, but a very small fish in an infinite pond.

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Watch the Physics World Hangout about the physics of cancer

By James Dacey

A little earlier today we hosted a Google+ Hangout about the July issue of Physics World – a special issue about an emerging new research field called the “physics of cancer”. In case you were unable to join us for the live event (or would like to enjoy it all over again), you can watch it again via this YouTube recording.

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Hang out with Physics World as we discuss the physics of cancer

By James Dacey

Cover of Physics World July 2013 special issue on "physics of cancer"

Physics World July 2013 special issue on the physics of cancer.

Tomorrow we will be hosting a Google Hangout about the July issue of Physics World – a special issue on an emergent field known as the “physics of cancer”.  If you have not read the issue already, it is available as a free PDF download.

I will be joined in the Hangout by Matin Durrani, the editor of Physics World, and Louise Mayor, the magazine’s features editor, and the three of us will be discussing the themes and issues raised by the magazine. We would also like to hear from you on this topic. So please send us your questions about the issue by posting a comment below this article.

You will be able to watch the Hangout live, on both the Physics World Google+ page and the Physics World YouTube channel. The Hangout will be taking place this Friday at 12.15 p.m. local time, which corresponds to the following times:

UTC 11:15

London (BST) 12.15 p.m.

New York (EDT) 7.15 a.m.

Mumbai (IST) 4.45 p.m.

Sydney (EST) 9.15 p.m.

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CERN teams up with EUROVISION to inspire the next Peter Higgs

By James Dacey

Illustration of children learning about science

CERN is seeking to inspire tweens in science. (Courtesy: iStockphoto)

I must confess that I was not aware of this partnership, and I must admit it’s not a partnership I would have seen coming. CERN has teamed up with the organization behind the Eurovision Song Contest, in awarding grants to two multimedia companies to develop content that can spark the scientific curiosity of “tweens”.

Okay, let’s back up a second and define a few terms in this equation. Tweens are described by CERN as children aged 8 to 12; not quite teenagers but no longer big babies either. My teacher friends will shoot me down in flames for this cod-pedology but I guess this age group is old enough to be excited by science but not yet old enough to start truly engaging with scientific concepts.

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Should governments provide funds for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

Photo of the Lovell Telescope

The Lovell Telescope was used during the SETI Institute’s Project Phoenix.
(Courtesy: Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester)

By James Dacey

Are we alone in the universe? It’s the age-old question that took on a whole new significance once we had built the tools to transmit and receive radio waves across interstellar distances. With the advent of radio telescopes, we had finally acquired the faculties to listen for the signs of an alien race trying to make contact. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence – better known as SETI – took a giant leap forwards in 1984, when the SETI Institute was founded in California. This institute is the nerve centre of SETI activities and it is funded almost entirely from private sources.

But while SETI activities have been strongly associated with the US, the movement has been international since its outset. Here in the UK, perhaps the most significant contribution has probably been the country’s involvement in Project Phoenix, which between 1998 and 2003 used the 76 m Lovell Telescope (pictured above) at Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester.

It seems that the desire among British scientists to search for aliens is still alive and well, as a bunch of academics has recently set up the UK SETI Research Network. The group held its first formal activity last Friday (5 July), during three SETI sessions at this year’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM2013) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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Launch your own personalized lunar mission

By James Dacey

Photo of thin spacecraft

Photograph of a prototype Pocket Spacecraft: Thin-Film Scout

If you’re looking for a gift idea for a budding Buzz Aldrin then you might want to read on. A new crowd-funding initiative is offering the general public the chance to launch and control our own miniature missions to the Moon. Apparently, we are being given the chance to personalize our own “pocket spacecraft” that will hitch a ride on a commercial rocket before breaking free and spiralling down onto the lunar surface.

The project is the brainchild of some of the people behind the first space mission funded on KickStarter – a website that allows creative ventures to raise funds from the public. That initial project, called KickSat, offered people the chance to launch miniature satellites into the Earth’s atmosphere. It was a success and the mini satellites will be launched via a NASA mission later this year. This latest project is also being run through KickStarter and this time round we can send our space machines to the Moon.

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What is the greatest asset a physicist could bring to our understanding of cancer?

By James Dacey

 

Image of metastatic cancer cell

Confocal microscope image of a metastatic breast cancer cell. (Courtesy: Shawn Carey/Cynthia Reinhart-King)

When you think about the types of scientist involved in the study of cancer you probably wouldn’t immediately think of physicists. But a burgeoning field of research referred to as the “physics of cancer” is seeing physical scientists bring new tools and fresh perspectives to this most complicated of diseases. The July issue of Physics World – which can be downloaded for free – is a special issue that looks at some of the most fascinating experimental and theoretical work in this field.

After taking a look at the issue you might want to take part in this week’s Facebook poll:

What is the greatest asset a physicist could bring to our understanding of cancer?

Fresh pair of eyes on a longstanding problem

Ability to identify key variables within a complex system

Focus on physical properties such as forces and fields

Other (please suggest as a comment here or on our Facebook page)

To take part please visit our Facebook page.

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