Posts by: James Dacey

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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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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