Posts by: Margaret Harris

My first experience of peer review

(Courtesy: Shutterstock/Lorelyn Medina)

(Courtesy: Shutterstock/Lorelyn Medina)

By Margaret Harris

My first experience of being peer reviewed did not begin well. Here’s the opening of the referee’s report:

“The purpose of publication is to disseminate knowledge to other people who may be able to use it. Since the model dramatically fails the authors’ own experimental tests more than half of the time, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to use it. I therefore recommend against its acceptance, here or anywhere else.”

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When a water slide goes wrong

By Margaret Harris

A couple of years ago, I came across what I thought was a funny (and physics-related) video about a water slide. The slide is called “Verrückt”, which my German-speaking colleagues translate as “mad” or “crazy”, and it caught my attention because it was being built at an amusement park in my home town of Kansas City. As the video shows, the slide experienced a few problems during its testing phase.

“When the rafts are loaded with more than 1000 pounds, the slide becomes unsafe,” says the video’s announcer as the test raft goes airborne. “We’re going to have to redesign the entire slide,” an unnamed official adds.

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Open science, accessible science?

Photo of a woman in a black jacket and grey trousers, standing with the aid of crutches, preparing to walk into a large convention centre

Preparing to navigate the exhibit hall at the European Science Open Forum on crutches

By Margaret Harris

As I prepared to travel to Manchester earlier this week for the 2016 European Science Open Forum (ESOF), I had an unwanted extra item on my to-do list: working out, in detail, whether it was physically possible for me to attend.

My problem was my foot: a few weeks ago, I broke it, and as ESOF approached, it became clear that my injury wouldn’t heal in time. I was wary of trying to do a conference on crutches, but the reassuring responses to my queries (yes, my hotel had accessible rooms; yes, the venue for the conference, Manchester Central, was “very accessible”) convinced me that it would be okay. So I headed off to Manchester last Sunday for two days of science talks – and got an eye-opening lesson on what it’s like to attend a scientific conference with a physical disability.

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Lateral Thoughts: Playing favourites

(Courtesy: iStock/hidako)

(Courtesy: iStock/hidako)

By Margaret Harris

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. Click to read the first, second and third posts.

As the editor in charge of Lateral Thoughts – Physics World’s long-running column of humorous or otherwise offbeat essays on physics – I am sometimes* asked whether I have a favourite. It’s an interesting question, and back in 2014, when I was writing a series of posts for this blog about how Lateral Thoughts had changed over the (then) 25-year history of Physics World, I promised to answer it.

This, however, proved easier said than done. In the weeks that followed my foolish pledge, the Physics World inbox (pwld@iop.org) received a whole series of Lateral Thoughts essays that could have been my “favourite”. One of them, published in May 2014, was John Swanson’s discourse on the quantum nature of the 20:08 train from Bristol Parkway. Another, which appeared in June 2014, contained Chris Atkins’ gloriously straight-faced analysis of the physics of Poohsticks. A third, in July 2014, saw kung-fu expert Felix Flicker explore an unexpected connection between the mathematics of spinors and the art of escaping from an armlock. Then, in August 2014, John Evans pondered various physics-based ways of improving his running – such as refining his aerodynamic profile by developing a beer belly. (Evans, incidentally, went on to write a Lateral Thought on cycling in October 2015, and this month we published his essay on swimming. This means he’s now completed a lateral-thinking triathlon. Congratulations!)

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Playing poker with robots on Mars

Photo of a rover prototype sitting on sand under red light inside a dome with a simulated starry sky

A prototype of the ExoMars rover trundles around inside the “space dome” at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

By Margaret Harris

How do you keep an astronaut alive, sane and (ideally) happy during a mission to Mars? The world’s space agencies would very much like to know the answer, but gathering data is tricky. The International Space Station (ISS) makes a good testbed for experiments on the physical effects of space travel, but psychologically speaking, ISS astronauts enjoy a huge advantage over their possible Mars-bound counterparts: if something goes badly wrong on the station, home is just a short Soyuz ride away. Martian astronauts, in contrast, will be on their own.

For this reason, space agencies have become interested in learning how people cope in extreme environments here on Earth, particularly in locations where rescue is not immediately possible. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) sent Beth Healey, a British medical doctor, to spend the winter of 2015 at Concordia Research Station, a remote base in the interior of Antarctica. During the continent’s nine-month-long winter, temperatures at Concordia can plunge as low as –80 °C, making it inaccessible even to aeroplanes, which cannot operate at temperatures below –50 °C. So once the last flight left in February 2015, Healey and the 12 other members of the overwintering team were stuck there until November.

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On the frontline of the ‘reproducibility crisis’

Significant. (Click to view full cartoon. Courtesy: xkcd/Randall Munroe)

Significant. (Click to view full cartoon. Courtesy: xkcd/Randall Munroe)

By Margaret Harris

The “reproducibility crisis” in science has become big news lately, with more and more seemingly trustworthy findings proving difficult or impossible to reproduce. Indeed, a recent Nature survey found that two-thirds of respondents think current levels of reproducibility constitute a “major problem” for science. So far, physics hasn’t been affected much; the crisis has been most severe in fields such as psychology and clinical research, which, not coincidentally, involve messy human beings rather than nice clean atomic systems. However, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to physicists. Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking to three physics graduates who have become personally involved in addressing the reproducibility crisis within their chosen profession: medicine.

Henry Drysdale, Ioan Milosevic and Eirion Slade are third-year medical students at the University of Oxford. All three earned their undergraduate degrees in physics, and they now make up one-third of COMPare – an initiative by Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) that tracks “outcome switching” in clinical trials. As Drysdale explained to me over coffee in an Oxford café, researchers who want to perform clinical trials have to state beforehand which “outcomes” they intend to measure. For example, if they are trialling a new drug to treat high blood pressure, then “blood pressure after one year” might be their main outcome. But researchers generally keep track of other variables as well, and often their final report focuses on a positive result in one of these other parameters (a dip in the number of heart attacks, say), while downplaying or ignoring the drug’s effect on the main outcome.

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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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