Category Archives: The Red Folder

Spiralling temperatures, physics legacies, the science of mac and cheese

Spiralling global temperatures

Ring of fire: spiralling global temperatures. Created by climate scientist Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading.

 

By Tushna Commissariat

As we face up to the realities of global warming and see the effects of climate change become apparent, it’s more important than ever that people the world over truly grasp its impact. With this in mind, University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins has created the above animated spiral, which shows how the global temperature has changed over the past 166 years. Using data from the Met Office’s Hadley Centre observations datasets, Hawkins’ animation presents data in a a clear and artistic way. “The pace of change is immediately obvious, especially over the past few decades. The relationship between current global temperatures and the internationally discussed target limits are also clear without much complex interpretation needed,” says Hawkins, who is based at the university’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science. Take a look at his webpage to learn more about the project and for a list of specific weather events that are noticeable in the data.

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Climate change and chaos, the many faces of physics, spider-silk superlenses and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

In case you have ever wondered why so many theoretical physicists study climate change, physicist Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford in the UK has a simple answer: “because climate change is a problem in theoretical physics”. Indeed, Palmer, who won the Institute of Physics’ 2014 Dirac medal, studies the predictability and dynamics of weather and climate, in the hopes of developing accurate predictions of long-term climate change. The answer, according to Palmer, lies at the intersection between chaos theory and inexact computing – which requires us to stop thinking of computers as deterministic calculating machines and to instead “embrace inexactness” in computing. Palmer talked about all this and more in the latest public lecture from the Perimeter Institute in Canada – you can watch his full talk above.

When someone says the word “physicist”, what image or persona comes to mind? That is the question the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) was hoping to answer with its recent member survey based on diversity, titled “What Does a Physicist Look Like?” The Institute’s main aim with this diversity survey, which about 13% of its members responded to, was “to understand the profile of our members and gain some insights into who they are – diverse people with different ages, ethnicities, beliefs and much more”. You can read its entire results here.

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The most expensive object on Earth, publish or perish, and a physics Magna Carta

Gold coast: the Hinkley Point C power station will be build next to existing reactors in Somerset (Courtesy: CC BY-SA 2.0/ Richard Baker)

Gold coast: the Hinkley Point C power station will be built next to existing reactors in Somerset. (CC BY-SA 2.0 Richard Baker)

By Hamish Johnston

What will soon be the most expensive object on Earth? The answer, according to Greenpeace, is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station that is slated for construction in south-west England. According to the BBC, the environmental group reckons the station will cost £24bn ($35bn) whereas EDF – the company that will build it – puts the construction cost at £18bn. In contrast, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN cost a mere £4bn. While the price tag on Hinkley Point C – which should produce 3.2 GW of electricity by 2024 – is eye watering, building a reactor on the cheap is not really an option.

Still, Hinkley Point C will not be the most expensive object ever built by humans. That honour goes to the International Space Station, which the BBC says cost nearly £78bn. There’s something comforting in knowing that the single highest expenditure ever has been on science – maybe civilization isn’t doomed after all.

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Physics saves humanity, the large rainfall collider and other environmental highlights on Earth Day

Gravity's pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

Gravity’s pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

By James Dacey and Hamish Johnston

Today is Earth Day, so let’s temporarily rename this regular Red Folder column as the Green Folder. Either way, today we’re going to focus on the Earth and environmental issues. The official website of Earth Day – an initiative now in its 46th year – has details about the various initiatives and events taking place around the world today.

First, let’s pay tribute to a physicist whose work had a profound influence on the climate and energy debate in the UK and beyond. Sir David Mackay died on 14 April aged 48 following a battle with cancer. Mackay is remembered among other things for his pragmatic approach to energy and his 2008 book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (free access) was hailed for its rigour and refreshing absence of rhetoric. Mackay’s writings attracted the interest of the British government who appointed him as chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2009, a post he held for five years. Ever prolific, Mackay was blogging about his experiences right up until two days before his death.

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Riding a laser beam to Alpha Centauri, how the Sun pushes on the Earth and 22 kinds of space tape

Photograph of Yuri Milner (left) and Stephen Hawking

Stars in their eyes: Yuri Milner (left) and Stephen Hawking. (Courtesy: Bryan Bedder)

By Hamish Johnston

What to do if you have millions of dollars lying around and a keen interest in physics? The physicist turned Internet tycoon Yuri Milner has already spent some of his fortune rewarding leading scientists and funding research. His latest project is called “Starshot” and involves spending a cool $100m on sending a spaceship to Alpha Centuri – the closest star system to Earth at just 40 trillion kilometres away.

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The toll of a year in space, running a marathon on the ISS, skip-diving at CERN and more

By Tushna Commissariat and Michael Banks

“A year here is a really really long time,” says astronaut Scott Kelly in an interview (watch the video above) that he did on board the International Space Station (ISS) just a month before he returned to Earth in March this year. The retired astronaut is talking about the very real effects of spending a long period in space, specifically citing both the physical effects as well as the “psychological stress” involved. “During my time in orbit, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained my heart. Every day I was exposed to 10 times the radiation of a person on Earth, which will increase my risk of developing a fatal cancer for the rest of my life. Not to mention the psychological stress, which is harder to quantify and is perhaps as damaging,” he says.

The comments were part of the announcement of his upcoming memoir, Endurance: My Year in Space and Our Journey to Mars, which will be published later this year. Despite the damming tone, Kelly is still a staunch supporter of manned spaceflight and missions such as those to Mars, he just has a much clearer view on the realities involved. Read more about his announcement over at the GeekWire website.

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Thwarting an alien invasion, pi in the sky, listening to the LHC and more

A guide laser

Not bright enough: this adaptive-optics laser would have to be a million times brighter to cloak the Earth. (Courtesy: ESO/G Hüdepohl)

By Hamish Johnston

Sometimes, the biggest laughs on April Fools’ Day come from the stories that read like hoaxes but are actually true. One such item is a proposal by David Kipping and Alex Teachy of Columbia University in the US, who have come up with a way of hiding the Earth from aggressive civilizations on distant planets (at least I think this is real, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were an elaborate hoax!).

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How to cook the perfect steak, Bill Nye gets tangled about entanglement and the challenges of going to Mars

Steaks on a grill (CC BY 2.0 _BuBBy_)

The wrong way: where is the liquid nitrogen and duck fat? (CC BY 2.0 _BuBBy_)

By Hamish Johnston

How do you cook the perfect steak? Materials scientist Mark Miodownik of University College London has the answer. To cook his medium-rare steak (pink in the middle with a seared coating on the outside), Miodownik first seals the steak in a vacuum bag and places it in a warm water bath until it reaches 55 °C. He then dips it in liquid nitrogen for 30 s to chill the outer layer without freezing the middle. If that wasn’t unconventional enough, he then throws it into a deep-fat fryer containing duck fat. The result? “A lusciously seared steak, medium rare all the way through. And not a pan in sight!” says Miodownik. The BBC has put together a nice animation of the recipe: “What’s the weirdest way to cook a steak?”.

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‘New boson’ buzz intensifies at CERN, fire prevention in space and Neil Turok on a bright future for physics

The ATLAS detector at CERN

ATLAS under construction: has the experiment gone beyond the Standard Model? (Courtesy: ATLAS)

By Hamish Johnston

Excitement levels in the world of particle physics hit the roof this week as further evidence emerged that physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may have caught sight of a new particle that is not described by the Standard Model of particle physics. If this turns out to be true, it will be the most profound discovery in particle physics in decades and would surely lead to a Nobel prize.

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Lilting to the LIGO tune, Fukushima five years on and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Looks as if LIGO’s gravitational-wave discovery is still rocking all over the world, as you can now groove to the dulcet tones of singer and physicist Tim Blais, who runs the acapellascience channel on YouTube. With some help from the Perimeter Institute in Canada, the singer has created his latest “nerd-pop” parody, titled “LIGO Feel That Space” (sung to the tune of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face”). After you listen to the catchy tune above, take a look at this interview with Blais on the Perimeter website to find out just how he creates his songs and how he went from physicist to a viral YouTuber.

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