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Tag archives: Facebook poll

Should scientists speculate openly in the mainstream media about new science results?

By James Dacey

Read all about it! (Courtesy: iStockphoto/DNY59)

Read all about it! (Courtesy: iStockphoto/DNY59)

The first science results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) present a mixed bag for both scientists and journalists. On the one hand, they show that the machinery of this high-profile $1.5bn mission is actually working. And as my colleague Michael Banks reported earlier today, the excess of positrons, confirming previous measurements, represent an important step in the hunt for dark matter. But on the other hand, this was not a moment to break out the champagne at the celebration of new physics. In reality, it was an important step in testing the precision of the instrument, as well as a reminder that we all need to be patient while we wait for more data.

Given the scale and scope of the AMS mission, it is not surprising that the scientists involved in analysing these first results are keen to share their excitement with the general public. One way they have been doing this is by talking to the media and speculating about the significance of the findings. I find it really interesting to look at how the results have been covered in the headlines of the mainstream media. The BBC ran with “Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer zeroes in on dark matter”. Over the pond, the New York Times went for “Tantalizing New Clues Into the Mysteries of Dark Matter”, adopting the classic science-writing metaphor of a detective story. Both parties presented these early results as an exciting development in a gripping plot to uncover one of the long-standing mysteries of the cosmos.

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What is the most common problem with academic presentations?

By James Dacey

Man delivering a lecture; image courtesy of iStockphoto/Cimmerian

Whether you love giving them or loathe the entire experience, everyone has to deliver a presentation at some point during an academic career – be they student or professional researcher. It might be the presentation of your results to supervisors and peers. Or it might be an outreach talk to explain your research to people who have probably never heard of you or your very interesting academic niche. There is no magic formula to giving a successful presentation, but instinctively I think we all know when it’s gone well. Likewise, I think we all know when we could have spent a bit more time whipping those slides into shape, or when we perhaps should have put a bit more thought into the appropriateness of that risqué joke.

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Should more leading scientists engage in public service?

By James Dacey

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. (Courtesy: Fermilab)

Richard Feynman – undoubtedly one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century – died 25 years ago this year. To mark the passing of this physics and cultural icon, the BBC and the Open University have teamed up to produce two television programmes about Feynman’s life and work. The first programme aired in the UK on Monday, a docudrama called The Challenger portraying the role Feynman played in the investigation into the causes of the Challenger disaster. Readers in the UK can watch the programme here. Later this year, the BBC will broadcast a documentary about Feynman’s life.

I enjoyed Monday’s drama. I thought William Hurt did an excellent job of playing a smart and humane Richard Feynman, without over-cooking the “eccentric bongo-player” aspects of Feynman’s personality. Hurt certainly earned his wages, as the plot focused almost exclusively on how the Nobel laureate navigated his way through the alien world of high-level US politics, with all its game-playing and vested interests. My only criticism would be that because the film was so intensely focused on Feynman’s moves and responses, we didn’t really get to know any of the supporting characters.

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Which astronomical objects do you find the most fascinating?

By Tushna Commissariat

Artist's impression of a quasar

An artist’s impression of one of the most distant and brightest quasars ever seen. (Courtesy: NASA)

This week marks 50 years since astronomer Maarten Schmidt’s discovery of the quasar, using the giant Palomar Observatory telescope. Quasars or quasi-stellar objects are a kind of active galactic nucleus that astronomers believe are powered by supermassive black holes and are scattered throughout the universe. They have always fascinated me, being some of the brightest, most distant and highly red-shifted astronomical objects in our universe. Over the years, thousands of quasars have been identified and they have dramatically influenced our ideas about the scale of the observable universe and have helped astronomers shed some light on the early universe.

In fact, just this week an international team of researchers announced the discovery of an extremely rare triple quasar system – only the second one observed to date. These systems are considered to be extremely rare and are difficult to spot. By combining multiple telescope observations and advanced modelling, the team – led by Emanuele Farina of the University of Insubria in Como, Italy – was able to discover the triplet quasar, called QQQ J1519+0627. The researchers say that light from the quasars has travelled nine billion light-years to reach us, meaning that it was emitted when the universe was only a third of its current age. Advanced analysis confirmed that what the team found was indeed three distinct sources of quasar energy and that the phenomenon is extremely rare.

So in light of these exciting findings, in this week’s Facebook poll we are asking you to pick your favourite astronomical objects.

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The life of which 20th-century physicist would make the most gripping basis for a children’s novel?

By James Dacey

Boy reading magical book

Some books are magical. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Valeriy Lebedev)

Today is World Book Day, a celebration of the stories, the characters, the authors and above all the joy of whiling away the hours with a great book. The main aim of the day – which is organized by UNESCO and marked in more than 100 countries – is to encourage children and young people to develop a passion for reading.

Children’s novels have brought us some truly memorable characters over the years, from the classics such as Snow White and Peter Pan, to the more contemporary such as Harry Potter and Lyra Belacqua. The most captivating characters are often the ones we can identify with. We live and breathe their adventures, and we feel their emotional reactions to the unfolding drama. But at the same time, these characters are not the same as us; they are far larger than that. They possess qualities that we can only imagine we had – be it searing intelligence, staggering courage or even magical powers.

The authors who dream up these weird and wonderful characters can sometimes seem to possess their own magical powers of creativity and imagination. But time and again when writers talk about their creations, you hear them say that their inspiration comes from their personal relationships or encounters with intriguing people in the real world. We all know of people who seem to be larger than life, and the world of physics in no exception. This line of thought has been the source of inspiration for this week’s Facebook poll.

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Who would get your vote for best onscreen portrayal of a physical scientist?

By James Dacey

Still from Dracula vs. Frankenstein

From Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971).

It’s film awards season, as Hollywood megastars such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence have been showered in praise by the industry for their performances in some of the year’s biggest blockbusters. Personally, I had a funny inkling that Django Unchained might pull off a surprise victory in the Best Picture category at the Oscars, but the powers that be decided that it wasn’t to be.

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Has Steven Chu been a good US energy secretary?

By James Dacey

Photo of Steven Chu

Nobel laureate Steven Chu. (Courtesy: DOE)

The Nobel laureate Steven Chu has recently announced that he is to resign from the role of US energy secretary. He will step down from the post at the end of February having served throughout the entire four years of Barack Obama’s first presidential term. During his reign, Chu has received strong plaudits from many Democrats and environmentalists. Obama has credited Chu for increasing the nation’s use of renewable energy while reducing its dependence on oil imports.

Others, however, have been critical of Chu. He is accused of specific failures such as the initiatives that led to the downfall of Solyndra – a solar-cell manufacturer that went bankrupt after receiving $535m in Department of Energy loan guarantees. A more general criticism when Chu was appointed was that he had very little political experience to carry out such a critical role in the governance of the US.

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What’s the most important feature of a successful science blog?

Producing a blog with a typewriter

The good ol’ blog, a stalwart of Web 2.0. (iStockphoto/malerapaso)

 By James Dacey

The dramatic rise in traffic on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in recent years could have left the good “old-fashioned” blog looking a bit like a frumpy relic of the noughties. But I’m convinced that this is not yet the case.

While it is true that we science writers are becoming Face-Twits in our droves, it seems that many of us still see the blogosphere as an important forum for discussion and debate. I view it as a place where you can express yourself candidly in a more freeform style, and do so without stripping away all the complexities of an issue to nothing more than a witty 140-character soundbite #BitterJournoTakesSwipe@Twitter.

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Has today’s science rendered philosophy obsolete?

By Hamish Johnston
Facebook poll

In their 2010 book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow expressed the opinion that philosophy was dead as a useful vocation – and that it was now scientists who must address the big questions such as “How was the universe created?”.

Of course this is not the first time that scientists – primed by the many triumphs of their craft, particularly in the last few centuries – have put down philosophy, and the debate about its usefulness will continue.

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In your interpretation of quantum physics, do objects have their properties well defined prior to and independent of measurement?

By James Dacey

Facebook poll

Last week my colleague Hamish Johnston wrote about a fascinating survey carried out recently in the quantum research community. Physicists, philosophers and mathematicians were asked to give their responses to a series of questions about the foundations of quantum mechanics. Topics covered aspects of the subject from Einstein’s views on the topic to the prospects of a practical quantum computer. The survey is described and analysed in this accompanying paper posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Perhaps the most fascinating outcome of the survey was the extent of variation in responses to the questions about interpretations of quantum mechanics. This is perhaps surprising given the fact that the modern theory of quantum mechanics has been knocking around now for the best part of a century.

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