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Tag archives: out and about

A question of responsibility

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

The first 45 minutes of Amy Smithson’s talk here at the 2014 AAAS meeting were interesting but not especially controversial. Smithson, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC, began by speaking about her role in combating the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons over the past two decades, and how this made her persona non grata for both conservative Republicans and the Clinton White House during the 1990s. After drawing parallels between Iraq in the late 1980s and Syria today, she outlined some of the tactics that “bad guys” like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad have used to circumvent international weapons treaties and delay their enforcement.

At that point, Smithson changed tack. Warning that she was about to become “the skunk at the party”, Smithson turned her fire on the scientific community. Policy-makers, she observed, can’t make weapons of mass destruction on their own. For that, they need scientists, and over the past 60 years, “hundreds of thousands of scientists” have obliged by working on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

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Bad weather? Blame Santa

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

If you’re fed up with floods in England, sick of snow in the US or mystified by mild temperatures in Scandinavia, blame it on Santa Claus. That’s the message coming from atmospheric scientist Jennifer Francis, whose “Santa’s revenge” hypothesis suggests that the weather weirdness that we’re currently seeing at middle latitudes could be linked to recent warming in the Arctic.

Francis’ theory begins with the polar jet stream, the high-altitude “river of air” that flows over parts of the northern hemisphere. This jet stream owes its existence to the temperature differential between the Arctic region and middle latitudes: because warm air expands, that temperature differential produces a “hill” of air with (for example) England at the top and Greenland at the bottom.  The Earth’s rotation means that air doesn’t flow straight down this hill; instead, it curves around, producing the west–east flow seen in animations like the one in this video from the NASA Goddard Science Visualization Studio.

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Burning the midnight gas

Satellite image showing dots of light from flared natural gas in North Dakota

The light from natural gas flares burning in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field can be seen from space. (Courtesy: NASA Earth Observatory)

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

The environmental risks of shale-gas production are real, but the things people worry about most aren’t necessarily the ones that cause the most damage. That was the message of this morning’s AAAS symposium on “Hydraulic Fracturing: Science, Technology, Myths and Challenges”, which featured talks on the social implications of hydraulic fracturing as well as the risks of water and air contamination.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, involves drilling a well and filling it with a high-pressure mixture of water and other chemicals. These high pressures cause nearby rock formations to fracture, releasing trapped oil and gas.  According to the first speaker, energy consultant David Alleman, fracking and horizontal drilling have “revolutionized the energy picture in the US”:  a few years ago, the country imported 60% of the oil it consumed, but today the figure is just 30%.

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Cold city, hot science

Skyscrapers above a snowy field

Downtown Chicago rises above a snowy Grant Park.

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

It’s ice cold outside (–16 °C the last time I checked), but Chicago is still a hot ticket for scientists this week as the capital of the American Midwest prepares to host the 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

As usual, there are plenty of fascinating talks planned for the meeting, which runs from today through Monday. Looking through the schedule just now, I’m pretty sure I could fill all five days with seminars on scientific entrepreneurship, policy and communication – although if I did, I’d miss out on some great physics topics such as dark-matter detection, quantum cryptography and next-generation materials for batteries. Which would be a shame.

I’ll be posting regular updates throughout the conference here on the physicsworld.com blog, and I’ll also be live-tweeting a few of the talks (only the really interesting ones, I promise) as @DrMLHarris on Twitter. So check back soon for more on the 2014 AAAS meeting.

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Boson book scoops Royal Society prize

Sean Carroll, winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for science books

Sean Carroll, winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for science books.

By Margaret Harris

It’s been a good year for particle-physics prizes, and the Higgs-stravaganza continued last night in London as the cosmologist and author Sean Carroll walked away with the £25,000 Royal Society Winton Prize for his book The Particle at the End of the Universe.

Carroll’s book – which includes a behind-the-scenes account of how the Higgs boson was discovered, as well as explanations of the Higgs field and other concepts – was the “unanimous” choice of the prize’s five-member judging panel. Uta Frith, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at University College London and the judging panel’s chair, called The Particle at the End of the Universe “a real rock star of a book,” and cited Carroll’s energy and passion for his subject among the reasons why it beat out the five other books on the shortlist.

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The great physics bake-off

By Matin Durrani

Cakes from the Great Physics Bake Off

Cakes from the Great Physics Bake Off, with the overall winner second bottom on the left. (Courtesy: Chris Hodges)

And so to the physics department at Bristol University last night, which played host to “The Great Physics Bake Off” organized by PhD students Janina Möreke and Sara Carreira. The aims were simple: to showcase the cake-baking talent of the department, have some fun, and at the same time raise money for IOP for Africa – the scheme run by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, to boost physics education in some of the poorest countries in the world.

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New diamond centre cuts the ice

By Margaret Harris

An Element Six employee shows visitors some of the company's products

An employee shows visitors around Element Six’s new facility. Credit: Element Six

The Harwell Science and Innovation Campus added another jewel to its crown yesterday when the industrial-diamonds firm Element Six officially opened its £20m new R&D facility on the Oxfordshire site, which is already home to organizations such as the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the UK’s flagship synchrotron, the Diamond Light Source.

I’d heard about Element Six’s plans thanks to this article, which appeared in the careers section of June’s Physics World. The author, Stephanie Liggins, is a physicist who joined Element Six after completing her PhD at the University of Warwick, and towards the end of the article she mentioned that she would soon be moving to the company’s new Global Innovation Centre – which she described as “the world’s largest synthetic-diamond research and development facility”.

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Bright spots in the Euro-gloom

European Parliament in Brussels

European Parliament in Brussels. (iStockphoto/Franky De Meyer)

By Margaret Harris in Brussels

For an event built around celebrating Europe’s best scientific spin-out companies, the Academic Enterprise Awards got off to a downbeat start. “Europe is lacking growth, lacking jobs and lacking entrepreneurial appetite,” declared Joanna Drake, director of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within the European Commission. Such enterprises “have a difficult life, and this is getting worse, not improving” agreed the event’s second speaker, MEP Maria Da Graça Carvalho of Portugal.  Then there was Roland Siegwart, vice-president for research and corporate relations at ETH Zurich. In a splendid bit of understatement, he lamented the fact that many bright scientists at his university “have a somewhat not awake entrepreneurial spirit”.

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What happened to nuclear electrons?

By Hamish Johnston at the 2013 CAP Congress in Montreal

Sometimes I think that physicists can dwell too much in the past. Scientific papers, for example, often begin with a potted history of the field and it’s only in the second page that something new is mentioned.

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The first medical X-ray…

By Hamish Johnston at the 2013 CAP Congress in Montreal

Jean Barrette has one of the best jobs in the world as far as I am concerned. The retired nuclear physicist is curator of the McPherson Collection of physics instruments at McGill University here in Montreal.

jean-barrette-200px

Jean Barrette has a great job.

This morning in the “History of Physics” session at the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Congress, Jean gave a talk that featured many of the beautiful experiments – lots of brass and polished hardwood – in the collection.

The collection was made possible by the Canadian physicist Anna McPherson, who left a sizeable sum to the university when she died in 1979.

One of the highlights of the talk was what is surely the first-ever medical X-ray, which was taken in 1896 just six months after X-rays were first discovered. Taken at McGill, it shows a bullet lodged in the leg of a shooting victim.

During his talk, Jean asked for help in identifying a mysterious piece of apparatus in the collection that so far he had not been able to identify. Jean is going to send me a picture and I’ll post it in an upcoming blog entry.

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