Posts by: Margaret Harris

Sláinte to science


By Margaret Harris

I didn’t make it over to Ireland in mid-July for the big 2012 European Science Open Forum (ESOF) conference/science party in Dublin, so I was pleased to see one of ESOF’s more unusual offshoots land in my in-tray this week.

2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines is a lightweight little book with some hefty thinking inside it. As the title implies, the book contains 20 short poems about science – each written by a different poet from the island that gave the world such scientific luminaries as John Bell, William Rowan Hamilton and George Stokes. The poems’ subject matter ranges from the cosmic to the whimsical to the mundane, and two of the entries are composed of six lines in Irish Gaelic paired with six-line English translations. One that I particularly like (even though – or perhaps because – my pronunciation skills aren’t up to speaking it in the original) is called “Manannán”, and author Gabriel Rosenstock has provided the following translation:

Ladies and gentlemen
Allow me to introduce Manannán:
A microchip which is planted in the brain
Enabling us
To speak Manx

The book has been edited by Iggy McGovern, a physicist at Trinity College Dublin, so naturally, physics features in a number of the poems. One of the most inventive of these is Maurice Riordan’s “Nugget”, which is about – yes, really – the gold-covered lump of plutonium that Los Alamos scientists occasionally used as a doorstop during the Manhattan Project. Two others try to capture the sense of wonder found in gazing up at the night sky (with or without a telescope). All in all, it’s a lovely little book for anyone interested in Ireland, poetry or science – or better yet, all three.

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The nomadic life of a particle physicist

Fermilab podcast

By Margaret Harris

When I heard that Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator was going to be shut down, my first thought wasn’t about the race to discover the Higgs boson, or the shutdown’s implications for CERN and the rival Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Instead, it was “What will happen to the scientists?”.

One of the great things about being a science journalist is that, once in a while, you get the chance to find answers to questions like this. So when Physics World sent me to Fermilab last autumn to learn more about the lab’s scientific plans for a post-Tevatron future, I added a few personal questions to my interviews, such as “What are you going to do now?” and “What was the day of the shutdown like?”.

You can hear a few of the answers in this podcast, which is drawn from more than nine hours of interviews with 25 different physicists. Most of the interviews were conducted at Fermilab, but I also did a few at CERN, because I wanted to hear from people who had followed the “energy frontier” as it moved from the Tevatron to the LHC. As one of these emigrants explained to me, being a particle physicist is sometimes a little like being a surf bum: “you go where the waves are good, where the beam is good”.

You can listen to the podcast here, or download it via this link.

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Double gongs for discoverers of Kuiper belt

By Margaret Harris

It’s been a good week for the astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu.

On Tuesday, the pair – whose discovery of the Kuiper belt of small, icy objects back in 1992 quickly reshaped our understanding of the outer solar system – learned that they had won this year’s Shaw Prize in Astronomy. This is a pretty big deal. The nine-year-old Shaw prizes are a relatively new kid on the scientific-awards block, but the astronomy prize already has a prestigious track record: previous winners include both last year’s dark-energy Nobel laureates (Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt) and the exoplanet pioneers Geoff Marcy and Michael Mayor. Oh yes, and each Shaw prize is also worth a cool $1m, which is a fair whack even in this age of inflation and economic uncertainty.

hands smll.jpg
But Jewitt and Luu’s week wasn’t over yet. Earlier today, Norway’s Kavli Foundation announced that Jewitt and Luu had also won its big astro gong: the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. They’ll share this honour – and its attendant $1m prize pot – with a third astronomer, Michael Brown, who followed up on Jewitt and Luu’s Kuiper-belt observations by discovering some of the region’s largest objects, including the Pluto-sized body known as Eris.

So what happens when you win two major science prizes in a week? I contacted Jewitt and Luu shortly after the prizes were announced, and although neither had much time to talk – “I am not being snooty, it’s just that all the deadlines are converging right now,” Luu explained in an e-mail – Jewitt said it was “very flattering” that two independent prize committees had come to the same decision about their work. Their long and ultimately successful search for objects beyond Neptune’s orbit had, he added, triggered an “explosion” of research into planet formation and the evolution of the outer solar system. For example, subsequent studies of the Kuiper belt have shown that it is the source of most of the comets that pass the Earth, since the proximity of Neptune’s gravitational well alters the trajectory of nearby objects and scatters them into the inner solar system.

As for what the pair plan to do with the prize money, Luu – who began her award-winning work as a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now a technical member of staff at the institute’s Lincoln Laboratory – said that was a tough question, and winning a second prize made it even tougher. However, she added that “it is a good problem to have, so I am certainly not complaining”.

Jewitt, who was Luu’s PhD advisor and is now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, took a slightly more direct view. “Like many people, I’m massively in debt,” he told “The prize[s] might help there, but I haven’t decided yet.”

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Metallurgy and the Armada

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.

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Quantum man, revisited

By Margaret Harris

Lawrence Krauss

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

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Pass the wasabi

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.

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Drawing noise and speaking out

Cartoon of a noisy magnetic system

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.


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Majorana fermions and rat brains

Crowd outside the session on Majorana fermions

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.


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Consider a spherical person

Map of obesity rates in the US in 2004 and 2008

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!

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Common ground for physicists

Photo of Boston Common sign

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…

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