By Margaret Harris
One quirk of working for Physics World is that most staff members are assigned a British newspaper to skim each day in search of science news. The exact rationale determining which of us gets what paper is not entirely clear, but for whatever reason, I have ended up with that venerable mouthpiece of British conservatism, the Daily Telegraph.
As a result of this arrangement, I have become a connoisseur (if that’s not too flippant a word) of the Telegraph‘s obituaries page. My favourites are the obituaries of eccentric aristocrats straight out of P G Wodehouse, but the Telegraph‘s writers also have a nice line in honouring little-known heroes of World War II – and every now and then, I come across an obituary with a connection to physics.
Take yesterday’s entry on Sydney Wignall, an adventurer and marine archaeologist who died on 6 April at the age of 89. Wignall was best known for leading a 1955 expedition to the Tibetan Himalayas that ended with his capture and torture by Chinese troops, who suspected him (accurately, as it turned out) of being a spy. Later in life, however, he was instrumental in excavating two wrecked ships from the ill-fated Spanish Armada. In the course of this project, Wignall discovered that an inadequate understanding of materials science probably contributed to the Armada’s defeat.
To understand how, you first need to appreciate that when the Armada sailed in 1588, marine gunnery was still in its infancy. In fact, a proper science of ballistics would not appear until 150 years later, when a British military engineer, Benjamin Robins, began a systematic study of cannon-ball trajectories using Newtonian mechanics. To make matters worse, the stone, lead and iron shot available to 16th century gunners were anything but uniform. This non-uniformity meant that a cannon loaded in the same way, with the same amount of gunpowder (another notoriously non-uniform quantity), by the same people, elevated to the same angle and fired at the same point in the ship’s rolling motion would almost certainly not deliver its deadly package to the same place.
Wignall’s contribution was to show that Spanish gunners faced an extra difficulty. By performing X-ray analyses on shot brought up from wrecks on the sea floor, Wignall’s team was able to demonstrate that Spanish craftsmen had routinely poured cold water into the moulds after the shot was cast. This sped up the manufacturing process, but it also caused the outer layers of the shot to contract and become brittle. In addition, the archaeologists found that some of the Spanish 7-inch-diameter iron shot was partly composed of recycled 3-inch shot. These smaller metal spheres would melt only imperfectly during casting, which meant that the final product had a very non-uniform density and was unstable in flight.
It is probably for historians, not physicists or materials scientists, to determine how much this poorly made Spanish shot contributed to the Armada’s defeat. But it is pretty clear that it would have been, as a minimum, a source of immense frustration for the Spanish gun crews, who repeatedly watched their perfectly aimed shots veer away from their targets for no apparent reason – all for the want of better metallurgy.
By Margaret Harris
Yesterday’s edition of the Physics World online lecture series saw the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss hold forth on one of his favourite subjects: the life and science of his intellectual hero, Richard Feynman.
Krauss has won awards for his work in science communication, and his biography of Feynman, Quantum Man, garnered Physics World‘s own Book of the Year gong for 2011, so it was no surprise to “see” almost 300 of you tuning in yesterday to learn more. But if you weren’t able to watch the lecture live, don’t worry: you can still watch Krauss’s talk on demand here, complete with images of Feynman’s calculus notebooks (a real highlight for me, personally) and Krauss’s eloquent explanation of how Feynman’s beloved first wife, Arline, shaped his way of thinking.
With Feynman as the subject, there were sure to be plenty of questions from audience members at the end of the lecture, and inevitably there wasn’t time for all of them. However, Krauss has now sent us written answers to a few of the most interesting ones, and I’ve pasted his replies below. Enjoy!
Audience member: Do you feel that only scientists like Feynman and Sagan who have an “outgoing” nature that augments the brilliant science they do will be remembered or revered in this day and age?
Lawrence Krauss: Ultimately, I think not. Their names will be most recognized by laypeople in the near term perhaps, but in the long run I believe scientists are remembered for their contributions to changing the way we think about the universe. It takes time for that historical perspective to be obtained, but I believe it arises eventually.
What would you regard as Feynman’s most negative characteristic?
I explain this in more detail in Quantum Man, but I think his persistent desire to redo everything himself (a plus) also meant that he did not follow the work of others as well as he should have. As the American theoretical physicist Sidney Coleman put it, “the other people are not all jerks”, and had Feynman been more aware of this other work, in a number of key areas, he could have had more breakthroughs than he did.
Feynman expressed regret at not reconsidering his involvement with the Manhattan Project after Germany was defeated, but do you think he felt guilt about the technology he helped to create?
I think he ultimately decided he was not responsible for the ills of the world, or what people did with his work. John von Neumann convinced him of this.
Did Feynman believe in any particular physical interpretation of quantum mechanics?
He developed his own, and as for philosophical questions, he avoided them as he got older – rightly, I believe. Amusingly, he said he never really understood quantum mechanics, which is one of the reasons he was hoping for a quantum computer, as that might reveal the quantum world in a way that would have given Feynman a more intuitive understanding.
As with most scientific presentations, it seems as if this one was preaching to the converted. How can we best reach out to a non-scientific audience?
I find it helps to use hooks that relate to things people are already interested in. I used Feynman the “character” as a hook to learn about his science; I used Star Trek as a hook to get people interested in modern physics in my first book; and most recently I have used the religious question of why there is “something rather than nothing” as a hook to teach about modern cosmology.
What area of physics did you talk about when you met Feynman? Also, can we have more details of the weekend you spent with him as an undergraduate?
I was talking about his lecture, which was about the theory of the strong interaction, quantum chromodynamics. I have written about the weekend a bit in the book, and I will leave it at that. My favourite Dirac joke is in the book, too.
Lawrence Krauss’s book Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (2011 W W Norton) is available now in hardback
By Margaret Harris
Bristol’s St Nicholas Market is an eclectic place, packed with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and shops selling everything from novelty T-shirts and herbal remedies to sheet music and sewing supplies. Today, however, it was even more eclectic than usual, since one of the customers at the curry house was Makoto Imai, the Japanese psychiatrist who won an Ig Nobel prize in 2011 for his role in inventing a wasabi-based smoke alarm.
Imai was accompanied by Ig Nobel organizer Marc Abrams, a friend of Physics World whom I met at a scientific conference back in 2009. They’re touring the UK right now as part of National Science and Engineering Week, putting on a show about the Ig prizes and other examples of science that – as Abrams explained to the slightly bemused Bristolian who shared our table at lunch – “first makes you laugh, and then makes you think”.
The wasabi smoke alarm is a good example. Wasabi is Japanese horseradish, otherwise known as that deceptively mild-looking green paste that comes with sushi. As anyone who has ever tasted it will know, a little bit of wasabi goes a very long way, and it turns out that a mere whiff of it can be enough to wake people from a deep sleep. In a creative leap worthy of Archimedes, Imai and his colleagues at Shiga University in Japan realized that this potent odour could make a very effective warning signal for people with deafness, who would not hear conventional sirens and might miss flashing lights if they were fast asleep. And so the wasabi smoke alarm was born.
From the outside, the alarm – which Imai obligingly got out of his bag to show me – is an unassuming grey box about as long as an A4 page and one-third as wide. Inside are the circuits needed to receive a signal from a modified ordinary smoke alarm, some batteries and a small but forbiddingly labelled aerosol can containing allyl isothiocyanate, the active ingredient in wasabi. The alarm has a radius of about 2.5 m, Imai told me, which makes it perfect for mounting above your bed. He also explained that, strictly speaking, it’s not an odour that wakes you up – it’s more of a sharp tickling sensation in the back of the throat that makes you cough.
Sadly I didn’t get a chance to try out the alarm at lunch – our fellow market-goers might have objected – and tonight’s Bristol Ig Nobel show featuring Imai is already sold out. However, I understand that Imai will be donating one of his devices to the Science Museum in London, and there are still tickets available for other UK Ig events later this week in Edinburgh and Dundee.
Cartoonist Flash Rosenberg’s drawing of “noise in a magnetic system.”
By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting
This year’s APS meeting has been one of the biggest ever, with nearly 11,000 attendees and 54 parallel sessions. It’s impossible to capture the totality of such a huge conference, but here are a couple of snapshots.
One of the most entertaining talks I saw was given by a cartoonist, Flash Rosenberg. Rosenberg makes videos that pair her quick sketching skills with a scientific voice-over: as the scientists speak, she draws what they are saying. Rosenberg spoke during a session on communicating science to the public, and towards the end of her talk she offered to illustrate audience members’ research questions.
Understandably, several of them leaped at the chance. For the first question – “How do bubbles form in nuclear fuel?” – Rosenberg began by drawing nuclear fuel as an unhappy-looking gremlin. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera to capture the hilarious conclusion of her sketch, but another audience member has posted a video of it here (turn the sound up – it’s worth it).
I was better prepared for the second question, which was “How do you measure noise in a magnetic system?”. As you can see in the image above, Rosenberg’s idea of a noisy magnetic system is a couple whose quiet romantic dinner is being interrupted by loud music. Cute.
An over-capacity crowd greeted Leo Kouwenhoven’s talk on Majorana fermions
By Margaret Harris
The hottest talk of the APS March Meeting so far took place yesterday, when Leo Kouwenhoven revealed that his group at TU Delft in the Netherlands may have observed Majorana fermions in one-dimensional nanowires.
Majorana fermions have a curious property – they are their own antiparticles – and particle physicists have been looking for fundamental Majorana fermions for decades. A few years ago, condensed-matter physicists got in on the act too, seeking evidence of Majorana-like behaviour in fermionic quasiparticles such as those formed by electrons in superconductors. But so far, no-one has ever found conclusive evidence that such particles exist – so if this nanowire result holds up, it would be quite the coup for Kouwenhoven and his group.
Unfortunately, Kouwenhoven’s talk was so popular that the crowd overflowed into the hallway outside, and with conference centre staff talking anxiously about fire regulations, it proved impossible for me to squeeze in (Eugenie Reich of Nature was luckier – you can read her summary here. So instead, I headed to the room next door, where Krastan Blagoev of the US National Science Foundation was delivering an inspiring talk on the kinetics of metastatic cancer.
Obesity rates in the US in 2004 and 2008. (Courtesy: Lazaros Gallos)
By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting
The data on obesity are pretty unequivocal: we’re fat, and we’re getting fatter. Explanations for this trend, however, vary widely, with the blame alternately pinned on individual behaviour, genetics and the environment. In other words, it’s a race between “we eat too much”, “we’re born that way” and “it’s society’s fault”.
Now, research by Lazaros Gallos has come down strongly in favour of the third option. Gallos and his colleagues at City College of New York treated the obesity rates in some 3000 US counties as “particles” in a physical system, and calculated the correlation between pairs of “particles” as a function of the distance between them. This calculation allowed them to find out whether the obesity rate among, say, citizens of downtown Boston was correlated in any way to the rates in suburban Boston and more distant communities.
It wouldn’t have been particularly surprising if Gallos’ team had found such correlations on a small scale. The economies of Boston and its suburbs are tightly coupled, for one thing, and their demographics are also not so terribly different. But the data indicated that the size of the “obesity cities” – geographic regions with correlated obesity rates – was huge, up to 1000 km. In other words, the obesity rate of downtown Boston was strongly correlated not only with the rates in the city’s suburban hinterland, but also with rates in far-off New York City and hamlets in northern Maine.
This correlation was independent of the obesity rate itself – there are “thin cities” as well as obese ones – and also far stronger than correlations in other factors, such as the economy or population distribution, would suggest. The exception, intriguingly enough, was the food industry, which also showed tight correlations between geographically distant counties.
Gallos isn’t claiming that the food industry is causing obesity. He also doesn’t discount the importance of food choices and genetic factors: what you eat and who you are will clearly play a big role in determining whether or not you, as an individual, will become obese. However, he points out that our genes haven’t changed that much since the US obesity epidemic began in the 1980s, and neither, presumably, has our willpower. The difference, he says, is that on a societal level, increasingly large numbers of us are living in an “obese-o-genic” environment, and “the consensus is that the system makes you eat more”.
Gallos says he’ll post this research on arXiv sometime in the next few days [UPDATE 29/2/12: here's the link to the paper]. In the meantime, I’ll be testing his hypothesis personally in the obese-o-genic environment of a major scientific conference, complete with multiple breakfasts, receptions and lunches. Pass the pastries, please!
Boston Common and the Park Street Church, part of the city’s “Freedom Trail”.
By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting in Boston
The American Physical Society’s March Meeting doesn’t really kick off until tomorrow morning, but with many of the 6000+ delegates arriving a day early, we’re rapidly heading towards a critical mass of physicists here in Boston. Even the good citizens of New England’s largest city are starting to notice the influx; as I was walking along the “Freedom Trail” of historic landmarks earlier today, I met a park ranger who estimated that I was 10th physicist he’d spoken to that afternoon.
Anyway, from tomorrow until Thursday I’ll be swapping sight-seeing trips for talks on a wide range of physics topics. Many of the sessions are devoted to superconductivity, which remains a popular field a quarter of a century after the famous “Woodstock of Physics” March Meeting when the first high-temperature superconductors took centre stage.
Physicists with a keen interest in graphene will face some particularly tough decisions on which talks to attend, with 39 separate sessions devoted to carbon’s newest and sexiest (well, unless you prefer diamonds or buckyballs) allotrope.
There’s also some intriguing-sounding interdisciplinary sessions on the physics of cancer and the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear incident. And finally, I’m hoping to learn more about the latest nifty experiments in my PhD field of atomic and molecular physics.
First, though, I need to go eat some of Boston’s famous seafood…
By Margaret Harris
I went to the University of Surrey last week for a science careers evening, and as I was chatting to some students afterwards, one of them asked a fascinating question. “We’re always hearing that the UK needs more graduates in STEM fields,” she said, using the ever-present acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “But if that’s true, why are so many of us struggling to find jobs?”
I’ve been asking myself the same question for some time. As Physics World’s careers editor, I receive many upbeat press releases touting the importance of STEM disciplines in building the knowledge economy, pulling the country out of recession and so on. But I have also watched, with impotent sympathy, as some of my scientifically trained friends search in vain for jobs. So what is wrong with this picture?
By Margaret Harris
Last autumn I visited Fermilab to learn more about the US particle-physics lab’s plans for the future now that its flagship particle accelerator, the Tevatron, has closed for good.
I’m hardly a professional photographer, but it’s easy to take good photos in a place as beautiful as Fermilab, with its spacious Midwestern skies, iconic structures, and famous herd of American bison. But even if pretty pictures aren’t your thing, the photos also illustrate some of the changes going on at the lab, with the empty, slightly forlorn-looking CDF control room contrasting sharply with the buzz of activity in Fermilab’s neutrino-research areas.
In other Fermilab news, the Chicago-based composer Mason Bates apparently found the lab’s soundscape as inspiring as its landscape. Bates is the composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and last year he visited Fermilab to record material for a new composition called Alternative Energy. According to the website for the symphony, the piece blends ambient noises from the lab with percussion and orchestra, and it had its première on Thursday 2 February. You can watch a video of Bates making his recordings here.
By Margaret Harris
Congratulations to Andrew Palfreyman of San Jose, California, for winning the Physics World Quiz of the year 2011. This annual feature tests your knowledge of great and small events that occurred in the physics community over the past 12 months, from the shutdown of Fermilab’s Tevatron to the discovery that building a nuclear reactor in your kitchen is a great way to get arrested (who knew?).
We received quite a few entries this year, and about a dozen of them came from alert readers like Palfreyman who got every question right. If you didn’t win this year, better luck next time; in the meantime, though, here are the answers.
A. Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator
C. The Allen Telescope Array
D. Jane Fonda
1. Studying how the Sun and aerosols affect the Earth’s climate
3. Lake Baikal, Russia
4. Subaru 8 m telescope
5. “Heavenly Palace”
6. B (Mobile phones)
7. C (A degree and a PhD)
8. A (Writing research papers)
9. B (String theory)
10. A (They are part of a microgravity experiment)
11. B (David Cameron)
12. A (Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
13. E (Michael Gove)
14. D (John Ellis)
15. C (Athene Donald)
16. B (25)
17. C (The bars contained elevated levels of lead)
18. A (Building a nuclear reactor in his kitchen)
19. C (Jupiter)
20. D (Galileo Galilei)