Category Archives: General

What makes the perfect song?

By James Dacey

There was a telling moment early on at the event I attended last night when science writer Philip Ball was asked to name his “perfect song”. With a slightly bemused look, Ball picked a tune that I’m pretty sure few in the audience had heard of – “The Most Wanted Song”, which was co-written by a neuroscientist to incorporate the musical elements that people find most pleasing to the ear. Give the tune a listen and you’ll realise that it is a horrible saccharine track that you’ll quickly want to turn off. Of course, the point of the song – and Ball’s choice – was to ridicule the idea that you can create beautiful music with a formula.

Ball was part of a panel discussion at the Royal Opera House in London on “What makes the perfect song?”. He was joined by physicist-turned-opera singer Christine Rice and musicologist Maria Witek, and the event was chaired by the physicist, broadcaster and former pop star Brian Cox. While the panellists were unanimous in their belief that music is a complex emotional thing that cannot be fully explained by physics, they did have some fascinating insights into the science of song.

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A visit to an island called Nuuk

Blurred, shadowy photo image of a human figure in a boat

Anaïs Tondeur in collaboration with Jean-Marc Chomaz, Paul Syrillin, 2014, shadowgram, 11 × 24 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery.

By Margaret Harris

The story of Nuuk began in the early 18th century when a French naval officer landed on a barren, ice-covered island and noted its coordinates in his logbook. The island, he reported, was volcanic in nature, but little else was known about it; indeed, later visitors to its supposed location found no sign of land. Rediscovered in the 20th century, Nuuk was soon visited by a series of scientific expeditions, one of which noted that the island’s surface area was shrinking. An observation station was set up on a prominent headland, but in 2012, it abruptly ceased transmitting; satellite images later revealed that Nuuk had vanished entirely beneath the ocean surface. Coincidentally, the final signal from Nuuk arrived just as the 34th International Geological Congress was meeting in Australia to discuss the emergence of a new, human-influenced geological age: the Anthropocene.

Nuuk and the various forces that contributed to its demise are the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently on show (until 29 November) at the GV Art gallery in London. Lost in Fathoms is a collaboration between an artist, Anaïs Tondeur, and a physicist, Jean-Marc Chomaz, who specializes in fluid dynamics. To develop her ideas about Nuuk, Tondeur spent a year in residence at Chomaz’s Laboratoire d’Hydrodynamique at the Ecole Polytechnique in France, while other parts of the exhibition grew out of a summer school in Cambridge, UK, that focused on fluid dynamics, sustainability and the environment.

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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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Space bonanza to land in Manchester

Starlight graphic

The Age of Starlight will catch both the eyes and the minds of the audience. (Courtesy: ESO/P D Barthel)

By James Dacey

Whatever punters make of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) next year, they certainly won’t be able to accuse it of thinking small. Among the first commissions announced today is a “world-first show about the origin of the universe and everything within and without it”.

The Age of Starlight will be presented by the physicist and TV personality Brian Cox, who will tell the story of the unlikely events that have led to our existence. Details of the show are still scarce but we do know that the space bonanza will feature computer-generated imagery created by the Oscar-winner Tim Webber and the special-effects team behind the film Gravity. The event will be brought to life with technologies developed by Magic Leap, a Florida-based IT company that specializes in “magical” computing solutions.

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Last chapter in Rosetta’s Philae lander story…for now

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta's NAVCAM from 10 km away. (Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta’s NAVCAM from 10km away.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

By Tushna Commissariat

Last week was exciting and exhausting for anyone involved in space exploration and astronomy, after scientists working on the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) made history when their “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But soon after celebrating Philae’s successful landing, a dramatic story unfolded. With a bumpy triple landing, harpoons that did not fire and tether the probe, as well as a final resting spot that lay in the shadows, which meant its solar panels received very little sunlight, Philae’s tumultuous story captivated the interest of thousands of people across the globe.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as Philae’s batteries slowly drained of power, thousands mourned. “So much hard work..getting tired…my battery voltage is approaching the limit soon now,” Tweeted the Philae crew, and yet, the lander’s story was ultimately happy and successful. Although it spent only 57 “active” hours on the comet, ESA mission scientists were happy to report that the lander had indeed completed the entirety of its primary science mission.

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Rosetta’s Philae starts drilling into comet surface

The view from Philae’s final landing spot

View of a lifetime: Philae safely on the surface of Comet 67P.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

By Tushna Commissariat

It had clearly been a long and busy 24 hours for members of the Rosetta mission at the European Space Agency (ESA) as they gave the latest updates in today’s Google+ Hangout. On Wednesday the mission made history as its “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But there has been a great deal of drama and uncertainty since then, as it emerged yesterday that the lander’s final resting spot was more than 1 km away from where it was meant to arrive. Also, Philae is thought to be precariously positioned in the shadows on the far side of a large crater, where its solar panels cannot get enough light to operate as planned. Despite these hurdles, the lander’s many instruments have been functioning well and sending data back to Earth, via the Rosetta orbiter.

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‘Anomalous weak values’ are nonclassical, and here is the proof

The weak value of an observable A can be nonsensical

The weak value of an observable A can be nonsensical.

By Hamish Johnston

Last month we reported on a quirky paper in Physical Review Letters entitled “How the result of a single coin toss can turn out to be 100 heads” by Christopher Ferrie of the University of New Mexico and Joshua Combes of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

The paper addresses “anomalous weak values” in quantum mechanics, a phenomenon that was first identified in 1988 by Yakir Aharonov, Lev Vaidman and colleagues at Tel Aviv University. A weak value is the result of a weak measurement on a quantum system. This is done by making repeated gentle measurements on the quantum states of identical particles. The result of each measurement only has a tiny correlation to the quantum state of the particle so the wave function of the particle does not collapse into that state. However, by making the measurement on many particles, a weak value providing useful information about the state can be obtained.

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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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A 21st-century discourse on quantum mechanics and space–time

Image of Nima Arkani-Hamed

Revealing the secrets of space–time? (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics)

By Tushna Commissariat

If you fancy a bit of late-night quantum mechanics, make sure that tonight you tune into the live webcast of “Quantum Mechanics and Spacetime in the 21st Century” – a lecture that by physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed as part of the Perimeter Institute’s Public Lecture Series. Arkani-Hamed, who won the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize in 2012, says that he hasn’t “been this excited about physics in a very long time”. He will talk about how the most recent advances in quantum mechanics shed new light on our understanding of the universe’s fabric of time and space. In the past, Arkani-Hamed has shown how the weakness of gravity, compared with the other fundamental forces of nature, might be explained by the existence of extra dimensions of space. He has also recently been involved in the 2013 documentary Particle Fever, about the search for the Higgs boson.

The webcast will begin at 11.45 p.m. GMT (7 p.m. EST) and you can send questions to Arkani-Hamed by tweeting @Perimeter and using the hashtag #piLIVE. Take a look at a short teaser video for his talk below and tell us what you think about it in the comments section.

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Celebrating the life and work of John Bell

By Matin Durrani

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a now-famous paper in the journal Physics by the Northern Irish physicist John Bell, in which he proved that making a measurement on one particle could instantaneously affect another particle – even if it’s a long way off.

Photo of John Bell with apple.

Food for thought: John Bell’s theorem is 50 years old. (Courtesy: Peter Menzer)

As our regular columnist Robert P Crease writes in the November issue of Physics World magazine, that kind of instantaneous effect, which proved the concept of entanglement, was not something that Bell was originally keen on. In fact, Bell had actually set out to prove the opposite – that it was possible, using “hidden variables”, to have a theory of physics that could keep things nice and “local”, and so avoid what Einstein had dubbed “spooky action at a distance”.

But Bell reversed his thinking. “I made a phase transition in my mind,” he told Crease shortly before his death in 1990 aged 62.

Yesterday (4 November) marked the 50th anniversary of the day that Bell’s paper arrived at the journal’s offices and today (5 November) sees the opening of an exhibtion at the Naughton Gallery on the campus of Queen’s University Belfast, from which Bell graduated with a first-class degree in mathematical physics in 1949.

Entitled “Action at a distance”, the exhibition runs until 30 November and promises to “explore Bell’s life and the artistic response to his legacy by artists from across the world”. There is also an accompanying series of lectures from Andrew Whitaker, Maire O’Neill, Mauro Paternostro, Artur Ekert and Anton Zeilinger.

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