Posts by: Margaret Harris

Finding innovation in space

Photograph of Carlton House Terrace

Way to go: Carlton House Terrace. (CC BY-SA 2.0 Richard Croft)

By Margaret Harris

I have a mental block about Carlton House Terrace. This elegant little street in central London is home to several of the UK’s national academies, including the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), and I’m sure I’ve visited it at least half a dozen times. Yet somehow, whenever I emerge from Charing Cross underground station in the middle of Trafalgar Square, I never know which way to go next.

Fortunately, this is the 21st century, so when the usual disorientation struck me yesterday on my way to an “Innovation in Space” event at the RAEng, I simply pulled out my smartphone. Within seconds, an app told me exactly where I was (plus or minus a few metres) and how to walk from there to 3 Carlton House Terrace. Minutes later, I was safely ensconced in the seminar room, nodding in agreement as the event’s chair, Sir Martin Sweeting, explained how space-related innovations – including, ahem, the network of satellites that make up the Global Positioning System (GPS) – have become an integral part of our daily lives.

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Something more concrete

A sample of asphalt to which steel-wool fibres have been added, making the material magnetic

A sample of asphalt to which steel-wool fibres have been added, making the material magnetic.

By Margaret Harris at the AAAS Meeting in Washington, DC

Although Thursday’s LIGO result was extremely exciting, I’m afraid I can only spend so much time pondering ripples in the fabric of space–time before I start yearning for something a little more…concrete. Like, well, concrete. And asphalt. And cement. These decidedly ordinary materials were the stars of two of the most fascinating talks I’ve seen at the AAAS meeting here in Washington DC over the past two days.

First up was Erik Schlangen, a civil engineer at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who develops “self-healing” materials. One of his projects (which you can watch him demonstrate in a TED talk) involves mixing porous asphalt with fibres of steel wool. The resulting conglomerate is magnetic (that’s a magnet sticking to it in the photo), which means that microscopic cracks in it can be repaired using induction heating. The heat melts the bitumen in the asphalt, allowing it to re-fuse, but the surrounding aggregate remains relatively cool – meaning that cars can be driven over asphalt road surfaces almost as soon as the repair is complete.

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Science that goes ‘chirp’ in the night

LIGO leaders at the press conference (l-r): executive director David Reitze, spokesperson Gabriela González, Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne

LIGO leaders at the press conference (from left): executive director David Reitze, spokesperson Gabriela González, Rai Weiss and Kip Thorne.

By Margaret Harris at the AAAS meeting in Washington DC

Not with a bang, but a chirp.

That’s how the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) kicked off on Thursday, thanks to the spectacular news that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has, for the first time ever, directly observed the ripples in space–time known as gravitational waves. As our news story explains, LIGO’s twin interferometers picked up the waveform produced as two black holes spiralled into each other, emitting gravitational waves at frequencies and amplitudes that rose sharply with time, like the chirp of a cricket.

The LIGO researchers announced their discovery at a packed press conference in downtown Washington, DC. The excitement in the room was palpable, even though, as it turned out, most of the journalists present already knew what they were about to hear. This actually isn’t unusual. It’s common practice for scientific journals to send new research papers to journalists a few days ahead of publication; the idea behind this so-called embargo system is that it gives journalists time to report accurately on complex science stories.

What was unusual was that this time, there was no embargoed paper. Instead, there was a vigorous rumour mill casting out information in a messy, somewhat underhand and highly anisotropic way. This is rather interesting, and I wish that LIGO’s Gabriela González hadn’t dismissed the journalist who asked about it with an incredulous “The facts are so beautiful – why do you talk about rumours?”

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More data needed on the STEM ‘shortage’

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

(Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

“Science has always been the Cinderella amongst the subjects taught in schools…not for the first time our educational conscience has been stung by the thought that we are as a nation neglecting science.”

Sounds like something David Cameron or Barack Obama might have said last week, right? Wrong. In fact, it comes from a report by the grandly named Committee to Enquire into the Position of Natural Sciences in the Educational System of Great Britain, which presented its findings clear back in…1918.

I came across this quotation thanks to Emma Smith and Patrick White, a pair of education researchers at the University of Leicester who have spent the past few years studying the long-term career paths of people with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Smith and White presented the preliminary findings of their study at a seminar in Leicester yesterday, and one of the themes of their presentation – reflected in the above quote – was the longevity of concerns about a shortage of STEM-trained people, especially university graduates. As Smith pointed out, worries about the number and quality of STEM graduates are not new and, historically, reports of a “STEM crisis” have been as much about politics as they have economic supply and demand.

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Solving your scientific identity crisis

By Margaret Harris

What kind of scientist are you? In a world where astronomers are getting into (exo)biology, geologists file their programming manuals next to their rock hammers and three physicists shared a chemistry Nobel prize for work with medical implications, it can be hard to keep track. But fear not. For behold, in the midst of this glorious interdisciplinary muddle (and, for many readers, the holiday season), we bring you tidings of great clarity. As it turns out, your scientific identity crisis can be solved with a simple flowchart.

The idea for the flowchart came last summer, when physicist Eugene Hickey submitted his ideas on sorting the geoscientists from the cosmologists to Lateral Thoughts, Physics World’s column of humorous and otherwise off-beat essays about physics and physicists. Hickey began his essay by observing that in his university (the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, near Dublin, Ireland) the interdisciplinary spirit has even trickled down to undergraduate level. For example, to create a materials-science degree, “the right physicist met up with the right chemist [and] decided to bolt together the best elements of both disciplines into a coherent bundle”. Students taking this degree, he added, “spent half their time in each department, like some sort of joint custody arrangement”.

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Top physics books of 2015

By Margaret Harris

PW book logo 2015Well written, scientifically interesting to physicists, and novel: these are the criteria used to select Physics World’s annual list of the year’s top physics books. We’ve done this every year since 2009, and over the past few weeks, we’ve been at it again, sifting through the 52 books reviewed in the magazine in 2015 and separating the best from the rest (most of which, I should add, are also very good – we try not to review bad books).

This is never an easy task, and as usual, the selections in our shortlist have been influenced by the views of external experts: the physicists, science writers and science historians who read and reviewed books for Physics World magazine throughout 2015. Their reviews (and, in a few cases, their private opinions) helped us decide which books deserved a closer look, and we thank them all for their contributions.

Deciding on a winner, however, is a privilege we reserve for ourselves, and with so many great books to choose from, it has been both a privilege and a challenge this year. We’ll be announcing our “Book of the Year” in a special edition of the Physics World podcast later this month, but in the meantime, here are the candidates:

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Leaping across the innovation divide

Glasgow's Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of G)

Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of Strathclyde)

By Margaret Harris in Glasgow

If you’re the first speaker after lunch at a conference, how do you make sure your audience stays awake and engaged?

For Oliver Ambacher – who occupied the dreaded post-prandial slot during Wednesday’s applied photonics conference at Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC) – the answer is simple. You pretend to jump off a cliff.

Ambacher, the director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics in Freiburg, Germany, made his leap (actually, several leaps of varying lengths) to illustrate one of the toughest challenges in applied physics: the yawning gap between what academic researchers can provide, and what industry scientists need to turn that research into innovative products. This gap is sometimes called the “valley of death”, and Ambacher’s point was that the risks of leaping across it are generally higher on the industry side. “If I, whose heart is still in physics, jump into the valley of death, I lose funding, maybe a project,” Ambacher explained. “But somebody from industry, they may lose their job. So they cannot jump so far.”

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Horsing around with some innovative physics

Photograph of three physicists, Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater, holding their IOP Innovation Award

(Left to right) Physicists Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater of Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging celebrate their success in the IOP Innovation Awards.

By Margaret Harris

Imagine you’re a veterinarian and a trainer asks you to take a look at a horse. The animal, a champion showjumper, is limping slightly but there is no obvious injury. Exploratory surgery would probably do more harm than good, and the alternative – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – isn’t risk-free either. You’d need to put the horse under a general anaesthetic, and you know horses don’t react well to that; in fact, around 0.5% suffer serious injuries while coming round afterwards. And that’s assuming you can even find a scanner big enough to fit a horse. What do you do?

This might sound like a fairly niche dilemma, but for Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging it has become the basis for a thriving business – a business, moreover, that has just won an IOP Innovation Award for the successful application of physics in a commercial product.

At the awards ceremony – which took place last night in the Palace of Westminster, London, just down the hall from the House of Commons chamber – I caught up with Hallmarq’s operations and technical director, Steve Roberts. After sketching out the scenario of the veterinarian and the injured horse, Roberts, a physicist, explained that Hallmarq’s MRI scanner fits around the horse’s leg. This means that equine patients can simply be led into it, sedated but conscious. Sophisticated error-correction and image-processing software helps the scanner compensate for the horse’s movement, and in 15 years of operation, Roberts estimates that veterinarians have used Hallmarq’s machines to scan more than 60,000 horses.

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Solarquest, Pluto and the importance of New Horizons

A photo of the board game Solarquest, which contains images of all nine planets, several of their moons, and a path between them

The Solarquest board, complete with planets, moons and artificial satellites.

By Margaret Harris

Last night, in honour of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, I pulled out my copy of Solarquest. This classic board game was a childhood favourite of mine, and it’s basically Monopoly in space: instead of buying properties named after streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey (or London, if you’re British), you buy planets, moons and artificial satellites. Then, when your fellow players land on an object you own, you charge them rent.

Such nostalgia is all well and good, I hear you say, but what’s it got to do with New Horizons or Pluto? Well, Solarquest’s inventors clearly took their science seriously. By board game standards, there’s quite a lot of physics in it. For example, you can’t leave a planet unless you roll a number high enough to overcome its gravitational pull, and its Monopoly-like property deed cards include facts about each planet and moon as well as their prices.

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Settling scientific disputes in public

Poster advertising the Science in Public 2015 event
By Margaret Harris

Here’s a Tuesday quiz for you. If you disagree with a colleague about something scientific, what should you do? Your choices are:

(a) Nothing. This is science, and the truth will win out no matter what I do;
(b) Take them aside and explain, privately, why you think they are wrong. Then, if they still disagree with you, get even by writing snarky anonymous reviews of their papers;
(c) Organize a panel “discussion” and tear them to shreds in front of all your colleagues;
(d) Take your case to the public by writing a popular-science book explaining the superiority of your own theory.

Okay, this is a trick question: I’m not sure any of those options is really a good idea (although I’m sure they’ve all been tried). I’d like to focus on the last one, though, because it was the subject of an interesting talk at the Science in Public conference, held last week in Physics World’s home city of Bristol.

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