Category Archives: General

Seven lessons from Sean Carroll

Photo of Sean Carroll at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival

Sean Carroll in full flow at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival.

By Matin Durrani in Cheltenham

I made the short journey yesterday from Bristol to the regency spa town of Cheltenham, which this week is hosting its annual science festival. One of the largest such events in the UK, it’s been running since 2002 and has a packed programme of A-list speakers and topics ranging from genetics to geology, from cocktails to cake, and from the human brain to the Higgs boson.

My main reason for attending the festival, though, was to meet Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, whose book about the search for the Higgs boson (called The Particle at the End of the Universe ) was picked by Physics World last year as one of our top 10 books of 2013. Carroll was in the Gloucestershire town to give a one-hour talk about the Higgs, although the festival organizers were clearly working him hard as he also spoke in separate lectures on dark matter and dark energy, and on his role as a science adviser to Hollywood. (Carroll’s worked on films including Thor, Avengers Assemble and TRON: Legacy and even played a tiny role on TV’s The Big Bang Theory – stay tuned for more on that in our upcoming audio interview with him.)

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SPHERE opens its ‘all-seeing’ eye

SPHERE images the dust ring around HR 4796A (Courtesy: ESO/J-L Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium)

The dust ring around HR 4796A. (Courtesy: ESO/J-L Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium)

By Tushna Commissariat

While the fiery shades of the image above may seem familiar to fans of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, pictured above in exquisite clarity is a ring of dust that surrounds the near-by star HR 4796A. The young, hot star – located a scant 240 light-years from Earth – has been of significant interest to astronomers since the circumstellar ring of debris was detected, thanks to an excess of infrared emissions from the star. While there have been many other images of the HR 4796A system, this particular image has been obtained by the new Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE), which was installed in May this year on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Thanks to the instrument, not only is the dust-ring clearly outlined, but the glare of the bright star at the centre of the picture has been supressed. This has provided a much clearer view of the whole system, which researchers think also harbours an exoplanet or two.

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Cosmic blunders that have held back science

Big enough already: Portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

Big enough already: portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam. (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

By Hamish Johnston

Can you name 10 blunders that have held back the progress of modern astronomy? Avi Loeb of Harvard University can, and he lists them in an essay entitled “On the benefits of promoting diversity of ideas”, which is posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Loeb argues that a common flaw of astronomers is to believe that they know the truth even when data are scarce. This, he argues, “occasionally leads to major blunders by which the scientific community makes the wrong strategic decision in its research plans, causing unnecessary delays in finding the truth”.

The first example he gives is the 1909 pronouncement by Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, that telescopes had reached their optimal size and that there was no point trying to make them any bigger.

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Adventures in Antarctica

By Matin Durrani

It’s the depths of winter in Antarctica right now, but in the new issue of Physics World magazine, there’s a chance to feast your eyes on some stunning images of scientific research in the White Continent, taken a few months ago by photojournalist Enrico Sacchetti.

Sacchetti’s photographs are amazing and in the article he explains his experiences of travelling to Antarctica and taking pictures in what is one of the world’s harshest environments.

“As soon as I stepped off the C-130 [plane], the alien nature of Antarctica was truly jolting…Almost completely absent of atmospheric pollution, the air was crystal clear,” Sacchetti writes.

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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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British scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds share their life stories

By James Dacey

What does it mean to be a scientist from an ethnic minority background? Is it harder to get career breaks and to reach the top of a field? Can your background actually be a source of inspiration? Is it even useful to anyone to be discussing these questions?

These are among the issues touched upon in a new series of video interviews with 10 British scientists with minority ethnic heritage. The interviews were conducted by researchers at the British Library as part of a larger audio history project commissioned by the Royal Society called Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science. You can watch all 10 interviews on the Royal Society website.

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So, do you fancy winning $3m?

Money talks – $3m is the proze. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/solvod)

Money talks – $3m is up for grabs in the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation’s  Breakthrough Prize. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/solvod)

By Matin Durrani

An e-mail arrived in my inbox this morning from Rob Meyer, who names himself “administrator” of the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, seeking nominations for the Breakthrough Prize, which is worth a tasty $3m, and for the $100,000 New Horizons Prize, which is aimed at “young researchers”.

In case you’ve forgotten, the foundation was funded by the Russian investor Yuri Milner, who did a degree in physics at Moscow State University before making squillions investing in start-up companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

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What makes an equation beautiful?

By James Dacey

Earlier this year I wrote about a psychology experiment that revealed that mathematicians appreciate beautiful equations in the same way that people experience great works of art. In the experiment, which conjures up a slightly comical scene, mathematicians were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to view a series of equations. When the subjects looked at equations they had previously rated as beautiful, it triggered activity in a part of the emotional brain associated with the experience of visual and musical beauty. The formula most commonly rated as beautiful in the study, in both the initial survey and the brain scan, was Euler’s equation, eiπ+ 1 = 0.

Inspired by this study, we have put together this infographic to dissect the Euler identity and try to understand why so many mathematicians are enamoured with this little equation. Let us know what you think of the infographic and what you think are the most beautiful equations. Either post a comment below this article, or let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #BeautifulEquations.

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CERN gets set for LHC restart

An engineer working on the CMS detector at CERN

Taking it lying down: an engineer working on the CMS detector at CERN.

By Michael Bishop in CERN, Geneva

As CERN ramps up its preparations for “Run 2″ of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the start of 2015, many are wondering where the next big discovery will come from and whether it will emulate the success, and popularity, of the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

There appears to be no hangover from that landmark event and a genuine excitement among the scientists at CERN, which I witnessed first-hand earlier this week during a two-day tour of CERN’s facilities organized by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Many of the UK-based scientists that I spoke to during the tour showed a remarkable enthusiasm for the experiments they were working on and confessed to expecting similar, if not bigger, discoveries when the particle collider starts smashing protons together at higher energies.

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Scientists face discrimination when choosing a PhD

By Hamish Johnston

One of the most important decisions any aspiring scientist must make is what they should study for their PhD. Therefore, any advice that they receive from established academic researchers is of great value – and many academics are very generous with their time when it comes to mentoring up-and-coming researchers.

But do academics tend to reach out to some groups of people while ignoring others? That’s the subject of a study by three business-school professors – Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola and Dolly Chugh – who wanted to know if a person’s gender or ethnic origin affects their chances of booking an appointment with an academic to discuss their future.

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