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Tag archives: out and about

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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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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Pushing the frontiers of precision

High Precision Laboratory

The €25m Precision Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany. (Courtesy: MPI-FKF)

By Michael Banks in Stuttgart, Germany

“There is nothing like this in Germany,” states Klaus Kern, a director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany, as we walk around the institute’s Precision Laboratory, which opened in 2012 at a cost of €25m.

Kern took me on a guided tour of the the centre, which he has been involved with since its conception in 2008, during a break from attending a symposium celebrating the life of Manuel Cardona, a former institute director who passed away earlier this year.

The building is unique, not only in Germany but worldwide, as it offers researchers a space in which to do experiments that are seismically, acoustically and electrically isolated from the environment.


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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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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 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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