Posts by: Margaret Harris

Promoting better science journalism

By Margaret Harris

Some people fear public speaking more than illness or death. I’m not one of them, but I’ll admit to some qualms on Monday morning, when I travelled to the University of Westminster to speak about science to a group of journalism students.

As I rode the Metropolitan Line train up to Westminster’s Harrow campus, I wondered what sort of speaker the students were expecting. I was giving the talk as part of a Royal Statistical Society (RSS) programme to train journalists in basic statistical principles and how science works; however, unlike most of the people involved in the programme, I am neither a professional scientist nor a statistician. Moreover, the official RSS curriculum places a strong emphasis on statistics and scientific practices in medical science, which isn’t exactly my strong suit either. So while I knew the programme was aimed at helping non-specialists understand basic concepts like risk, the scientific method and the role uncertainty plays in science – all topics that I’m fairly comfortable with – I couldn’t help feeling like a bit of an imposter.

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Prizewinning book gives materials science a chance to shine

By Margaret Harris

Mark Miodownik

Mark Miodownik last night.

Materials scientist and first-time popular-science author Mark Miodownik was all smiles last night as his book Stuff Matters scooped one of the UK’s top non-fiction awards, the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. The book, an engaging and often highly personal look at some of the everyday materials that make modern civilization possible, was the unanimous choice of the five-member judging panel, coming top in a strong shortlist that also included a history of general relativity, a memoir about cancer and an analysis of the role played by physicists in Nazi Germany.

Miodownik picked up his award – a rectangular prism that looked like glass but was, he informed us, actually made of acrylic – at the end of a ceremony in which he and four of the other shortlisted authors appeared on stage at the Royal Society’s London headquarters to read passages from their books. Earlier in the evening, there had been an audible buzz in the room as Miodownik read from the introduction of Stuff Matters, in which he describes how, as a teenager, he was slashed with a razor blade during an attempted mugging, and how he became obsessed with materials and their properties afterwards. (He is now a materials engineer at University College London.)

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The STEM employment paradox, revisited

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

Unemployment rates among new STEM graduates are higher than average. (Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

Why, at a time when we hear so much about the UK’s shortage of scientific and technical skills, do unemployment rates among new science graduates remain stubbornly higher than average? This question has been bugging me for some time. Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post about it, suggesting that the answer might be a mismatch between what universities teach and what employers need. But that answer never really satisfied me, so for the graduate careers section in this month’s Physics World, I’ve examined the subject more carefully.

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Aliens and atheists

By Margaret Harris

Press releases are supposed to be attention-grabbing, but occasionally, I come across one that really goes the extra mile. That was the case this morning when – my eyes still a bit bleary, my coffee still un-drunk – I spotted a real doozy in my in-box.

“Are the world’s religions ready for ET?” the headline asked.

Some might regard this question as unimportant. Even if you care about the official views of religious groups (and many people – including some religious people – do not), their opinions about life on other planets are surely less relevant to daily life than their guidelines on, say, human morality. After all, if extraterrestrial life does exist, it is an awfully long way away: the nearest star system to ours, Alpha Centauri, is more than four light-years off, and astronomers do not regard it as a good candidate for habitable planets. So, if extraterrestrial life is ever discovered, the Earth’s religions will have plenty of time to get used to it before it causes them any practical problems down at the local synagogue, mosque, temple or church (“Baptismal Ceremony ET: For alien life forms unable to answer for themselves”).

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Choosing physics, or not

By Margaret Harris

I’ve been mulling over this topic for a while, but a pair of blog posts this week has finally prompted me to write about it. One of them, entitled “Why I won’t be studying physics at A-level” appeared yesterday in the education section of the Guardian newspaper. In it, the anonymous female author lists a number of reasons why she is leaving physics, including a lack of female teachers and an “uninspiring” GCSE physics syllabus that “seemed out of touch compared with the stem cells and glucoregulation we were studying in biology”. There’s plenty to debate there already, but to me, the following paragraph was the most striking:

“I don’t dislike physics; neither do I find it boring or particularly difficult. But I do enjoy my other subjects more, so when it came to choosing between physics and geography for my fourth AS-level I opted for the latter. I thought it would be good to take a humanities subject to balance out the sciences.”

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The cure is success

Photograph of Jim Gates

Jim Gates. (Courtesy: John T Consoli, Cheltenham Science Festival)

By Margaret Harris

Last Sunday I went up to Cheltenham for the final day of the town’s annual Science Festival. My plan was to meet the University of Maryland theorist Jim Gates before lunch and then stay to hear his lecture on science and policy.

I was already somewhat familiar with Gates’ research thanks to a feature he wrote for Physics World in June 2010. I could also have made an educated guess about his activities as a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). However, I knew very little about his personal history before his evening lecture, when he was interviewed by the physicist and science presenter Jim Al-Khalili.

Gates was born in 1950 and grew up during a period when African-Americans faced severe institutionalized discrimination across the US. However, being from a military family helped insulate him from some of the worst effects, and he told the audience that he didn’t feel the full impact until his family moved to Florida after he turned 11. For the first time, he attended a racially segregated school, and there, he said, he had “the very curious experience of having to learn how to be black”.

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A mixed bag of science books

By Margaret Harris

The longlist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books has been announced today, and, with a few exceptions, I’m not impressed.
Logo for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

I’ll begin with the exceptions. Of the six books on the 12-strong longlist that have come across my desk as Physics World’s reviews editor, two of them – Philip Ball’s Serving the Reich and Pedro Ferreira’s The Perfect Theory – fully deserve to be in contention for the £25,000 prize. I reviewed Ball’s book myself and found it fascinating, and although Physics World’s review of Ferreira’s book won’t be published until July, I can reveal that the reviewer found it “timely, expert and highly readable”. I also gave a pass mark to Brian Clegg’s Dice World, which is a good, serviceable treatment of a topic – quantum randomness – that deserves more love than it gets. Congratulations to all three authors.

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Particle man meets universe man

By Margaret Harris

When particle physicist Jon Butterworth and cosmologist Pedro Ferreira took the stage last night at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, they did so as representatives of the two pillars of modern physics. Butterworth, a leading member of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, spoke about the discovery of the Higgs boson and the effort to understand the nature of matter on the quantum level. Ferreira, a theorist at the University of Oxford, focused on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which describes the behaviour of colossal objects such as galaxies and black holes.

The equations of quantum mechanics and general relativity are famously incompatible, but far from starting a Harry Hill-style confrontation (“FIIIIGHT!”), the advocates of the two theories shared the stage amiably, fielding questions from audience members and talking about their respective new books (Smashing Physics for Butterworth, The Perfect Theory for Ferreira). You can hear Ferreira and Butterworth’s responses to some common (and not-so-common) questions in the clips below.

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Lateral Thoughts: Voices from history

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War. (Courtesy: US Army)

By Margaret Harris

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

As part of Physics World’s 25th anniversary celebrations, I’ve been reading through the archive of “Lateral Thoughts”, the magazine’s column of humorous or otherwise off-beat essays about physics. My goal is to get a better feel for the topics that have amused and preoccupied Physics World readers over the past quarter-century, and to understand how the community has changed.

While most Lateral Thoughts have focused on the world of physics, the archive shows that every now and then, the wider world intrudes. The results can be fascinating, sobering and sometimes even disturbing. Consider the essay “Soft zlotys for western hardware”, in which the metallurgist Jack Harris describes taking a research trip behind the Iron Curtain to Poland. “In science, as in other areas, I was struck by how little real contact there was with Russia,” Harris wrote. His Lateral Thought was published in July 1989. Two months later, Poland defied its puppet-masters in Moscow by electing its first non-communist government since the Second World War.

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Personal reflections on Plutopia

By Margaret Harris

As Physics World’s reviews editor, I come across a lot of books that interest me intellectually. But with Kate Brown’s book Plutopia – the subject of this month’s Physics World podcast – my interest is personal, too.
The human side of plutopia

Brown’s book tells the story of two cities, Richland in the US and Ozersk in the former Soviet Union, that were built to house workers at the nearby Hanford and Maiak plutonium plants. Brown calls these cities “plutopias” because high wages and subsidies meant that residents enjoyed a better standard of living than their neighbours outside the secure zones. Such benefits, in turn, fostered an atmosphere of loyalty and solidarity that helped keep the plants’ horrendous environmental records under wraps.

This sounded familiar to me because my childhood had a decidedly “plutopian” flavour.  Although I didn’t grow up in an “atomic city” like Richland or Ozersk, my father worked for a defence contractor for 39 years, and his plant’s generous vacation allowance meant that we took longer holidays than most American families. We had good health insurance, too, which may have saved my life as a teenager. But after reading Plutopia and speaking to Brown for the podcast, I found myself wondering whether such benefits were a fair trade for working, as my father and thousands of others did, in a mostly windowless building that was surrounded by razor wire and contaminated with beryllium dust.

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