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Tag archives: science and society

How LIGO got the word out about gravitational waves

Tweeting to millions: LIGO made a social media plan before announcing the detection (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

Tweeting to millions: LIGO made a social-media plan before announcing the detection. (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

By Sarah Tesh

Nowadays, social media plays a big role in communicating science to the public. It has two important qualities – it’s free and it’s international.  A great case study for social media and science came last year when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first ever detection of gravitational waves. To tell us more about how the team grabbed the public’s attention (and got its work on Sheldon Cooper’s T-shirt in The Big Bang Theory), LIGO scientist Amber Stuver gave a witty talk at the APS March Meeting 2017 about the outreach strategy.

She began by telling us the story of that exciting detection day. Before the first detection, LIGO had published 80 papers on “detecting nothing”.  Yet on 14 September 2015 – the first morning of the first day of Advanced LIGO – the much-sought-after signal appeared. The first thing that had to be done was to check it wasn’t a fake. Having detected nothing for so long, those with the knowledge to do so would sometimes “inject” results to check the system worked and keep the scientists on their toes.

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Physics reveals the mysteries behind art

Artists' secrets: Charles Falco describes how artists used lenses (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Artists’ secrets: Charles Falco describes how artists used optical lenses. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Sarah Tesh in New Orleans, Louisiana, US

As a physicist who likes to sketch and paint, I love it when art and physics come together. I was therefore excited to see that the APS March Meeting had a variety of talks on the subject. Charles Falco from the University of Arizona in the US told us about his work with the famous artist David Hockney. On a trip to see the 15th century painting The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck, Hockney decided that the chandelier was too detailed to have been done freehand. So Falco and Hockney began looking at the intricate parts of paintings by artists through the ages and found that they essentially cheated.

Through focal length and depth-of-field calculations, Falco showed that artists had used optical lenses to project the complicated parts onto the canvas before painting them. They suggest that this has been happening since the 1400s and is a technique used by artists such as Hans Holbein (who painted the iconic portraits of Henry VIII) and Johannes Vermeer (whose work includes Girl with a Pearl Earring). Obviously, they still possessed huge amounts of skill, but it definitely makes me feel a bit better about my own skill level.

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Penguin spotting

Photograph of King penguins

A waddle of King penguins. (Courtesy: F Jones)

By Louise Mayor

Those of you who enjoyed Peter Barham’s Physics World feature “Penguin physics” might have – like me – come away enamoured of these little creatures, but not imagining that you could contribute to penguin research yourself.

Imagine my delight then when I discovered that the team behind British Science Week (BSW), which starts today, has teamed up with Penguin Watch, a citizen-science Zooniverse project that is calling for volunteers. The volunteer activity involves looking at photographs and, in each one, marking penguins, chicks, eggs and other animals such as humans. These crowd-sourced data will then then help the University of Oxford project Penguin Lifelines to better understand how threats to the ecosystem disrupt the dynamics of resident wildlife.

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Exoplanet christening, physics on the catwalk, ultrasonic wine

Whiskey aging barrels

Quick spirit: ultrasonic waves speed up the ageing process. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Bbadgett)

By Sarah Tesh

Last week NASA announced the major find of seven Earth-like exoplanets orbiting a nearby dwarf star. The news that at least three of the seven could possibly support life was reported far and wide. Yet, as with most astronomical finds, the planets do not have the most imaginative names. Simply named after the star they orbit, they are currently called TRAPPIST-1a to TRAPPIST-1h. So NASA took to Twitter with the request #7NamesFor7NewPlanets and the public delivered. Suggestions have included the names of lost astronauts, famous composers and ancient deities. But naturally, there were also some less sensible contributions, including the seven dwarfs, many Harry Potter references, dedications to Pluto and, obviously, Planet McPlanetface 1 to 7.

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Brooklyn’s pioneering approach to art and science

 Janna Levin outside the Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York 21 February 2017

Where art and science mix – astrophysicist Janna Levin outside Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York.

By Matin Durrani in New York, US

After spending four days in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I travelled down by train to New York (gotta love those comfy Amtrak seats and free WiFi). I first hooked up with mathematical physicist Peter Woit at Columbia University and then with science philosopher Bob Crease from Stony Brook University, who’s been a long-time columnist for Physics World.

I was keen to find out if they’d be interested in writing for the new Physics World Discovery series of ebooks and, while at Columbia, I had also hoped to put the same question to astrophysicist and author Janna Levin, who’s based in the physics department. Turns out, however, that Levin is on sabbatical, spending a year as “director of sciences” at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district. Curious to find out more about a centre that seeks to “make culture accessible to all”, I accepted her invitation to pay a visit.

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Science supporters protest in Boston

Stand up for Science rally in Boston, 19 February 2017

Gathering of minds – scientists at today’s Stand up for Science rally at Copley Square in Boston.

By Matin Durrani in Boston, US

Hundreds of scientists and science supporters gathered in Copley Square in Boston earlier today in a rally to underline the importance of science. The “Stand up for Science” event was organized to coincide with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is taking place a few blocks away.

To find out more about the aims and purpose of the rally, I hooked up with Geoffrey Supran (picutred below), who helped to organize the event. Having originally studied physics at the University of Cambridgein the UK, Supran obtained a PhD in materials science at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology and is now doing a postdoc in the history of science with Naomi Oreskes at nearby Harvard University.

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AAAS chief predicts “tough and uncertain times” for US science funding

physicist and former Congressman Rush Holt is the current president of the American Association for the Advvancement of Science at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston 17 February 2017

Not for me – president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Rush Holt says there’s “no chance” of him becoming Donald Trump’s science adviser but admits it would be hard to turn down if offered.

By Matin Durrani in Boston, US

Rush Holt is that rarity: a physicist who’s also been a politician, having spent 16 years as Democratic Congressman for New Jersey’s 12th congressional district from 1999 to 2015. Those two attributes make him well placed in his current role as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is holding its annual meeting here in Boston.

So when I sat down with Holt yesterday, our conversation naturally focused on the impact on science of Donald Trump’s election as US president. The bouffant-haired, former businessman and reality-TV star may have so far said little about the subject, but Holt believes that “tough and uncertain times” lie ahead for scientific funding. “I think we will be on a very austere budget for all non-defence discretionary activity,” he warns.

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3D neutrinos on your phone, Hamiltonian: an Irish Musical, is a March for Science a good idea?

 

By Hamish Johnston

How would you like to explore a giant neutrino detector in 3D from the comfort of your mobile phone? VENu is a new smartphone app that allows you explore the physics underlying the MicroBooNE neutrino detector at Fermilab. Developed by Alistair McLean of New Mexico State University and an international team of physicists, the app is used in conjunction with the Google Cardboard headset to provide users with a virtual-reality experience of MicroBooNE. VENu includes games that offer “brain teasing challenges” including working out how to spot a neutrino event in a busy background of cosmic-ray events. The app can be downloaded free of charge from the Apple Store and the Google Android Marketplace.

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Great wagers in physics, CERN’s pine marten gets stuffed, Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight

Flat out: Wallace saw him coming (Courtesy: PI)

Flat out: Wallace saw him coming. (Courtesy: PI)

By Hamish Johnston

I bet you can’t resist clicking on “Great wagers in physics history” – which has been compiled by Colin Hunter at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. A surprising number involve Stephen Hawking, whose record on winning is quite abysmal according to Hunter. Hawking’s fellow Cantabrigian Isaac Newton also enjoyed a flutter and accepted Christopher Wren’s offer of 40 shillings to anyone who could – in two months – derive a force law that explained Keplers laws of planetary motion. Newton succeeded, but ran overtime so he didn’t collect the cash. In the image above you can read about another wager involving a “flat-Earth theorist”.

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Mercury now orbits between Mars and Jupiter, fun with liquid nitrogen, 3D printing an asteroid

 

By Hamish Johnston

He may have taken the name of a planet, but the late rock star Freddie Mercury now has an asteroid named after him. 17473 Freddiemercury, is about 3.4 km in diameter and resides in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The designation was made by the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union and announced on Sunday by Mercury’s former Queen band mate and astrophysicist Brian May. In the above video, May gives some background to the naming, which was done to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Mercury’s birth. And if you watch to the end, you will see a clip of 17473 Freddiemercury streaking across the sky with Queen rocking in the background.

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