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Tag archives: science and society

How the banjo got its twang, love in the time of science, award-winning astro images and more

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the head. (Courtesy: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the round head. (CC BY-SA 3.0 / DMacks)

By Tushna Commissariat and Hamish Johnston

Folk and country music often blends the sharp twang of a banjo with the mellow and sustained tone of a guitar.  While the two instruments appear to be very similar – at least at first glance – they have very different sounds. This has long puzzled some physicists, including Nobel laureate David Politzer, who may have just solved this acoustical mystery.

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Extraterrestrial espressos, quantum card-games, misunderstood science and more

Cartoon photo of astronaut enjoying espresso in space

Mmm…ISSpresso in space. (Courtesy: Lavazza)

 By Tushna Commissariat

Most of us can’t get our day started without a fortifying cup of coffee and astronauts are just the same. To help those on the International Space Station meet their caffeine cravings, Italian coffee king Lavazza has designed and built an espresso machine that will work in space! Called “ISSpresso” the machine will be blasted off into space in the possession of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who will also be the first Italian woman in space. You can read all about the ISSpresso and its supreme blends on the Wired website.

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Meeting the last man to walk on the Moon

Photo of Eugene Cernan

Eugene Cernan speaking at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

By James Dacey, reporting from Sheffield

“I wanted to make a film about an old space cowboy” is how British director Mark Craig introduced his new film on Sunday afternoon here at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The Last Man on the Moon takes a fresh look at the the Apollo era through the story of Eugene Cernan, who was the last person to set foot on the lunar surface when he did so in 1972 as commander of Apollo 17.

The documentary interleaves a profile of “Gene” Cernan with NASA archive footage and special effects, focusing on the personal stories of the astronauts and their families. To give you a flavour, the film opens in the present day with close-ups of Cernan’s facial reactions at a rodeo event as he admires the spectacle and the bravery of the men being thrown around on the back of bulls. Later in the film, Cernan recounts his experiences of being rotated rapidly in space during the Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 missions.

Immediately after the showing, Cernan and Craig stayed for a Q&A session and the audience gave an extended standing ovation as the 80-year-old astronaut walked to the front of the auditorium. I was fortunate to catch up with the pair this morning to get some insights into the inspiration for the film and how it was adapted from the book Cernan co-authored in 1999.

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A day in the life of an astronaut, Hawking’s football conclusions, politics and science and more

Image from Tim Dodd's Everydat Astronaut photo series

“Good morning world” (Courtesy: Tim Dodd)

By Tushna Commissariat

For most of us, the life of an astronaut is one of excitement and adventure. Indeed, the mere thought of being a “real live astronaut” brings out the gleeful inner child in many, and photographer Tim Dodd is much the same. After purchasing a Russian high-altitude space suit from an online auction website, Dodd put together a series of photographs titled “A day in the life of Everyday Astronaut”, my favourite of which you can see above. Do take a look at the rest of the excellent series on Dodd’s website and follow him on Instagram for even more of the same.

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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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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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BICEP2′s findings trigger new kind of ‘inflation’

The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole

Sunrise over the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Tushna Commissariat

Scientists and laypeople the world over were intrigued by the announcement made by the BICEP2 collaboration earlier last month, when it claimed to have detected the primordial “B-mode polarization” of the cosmic microwave signal (CMB). Many researchers have hailed it as the first evidence for cosmic inflation – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe our universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang.

Indeed, after a quick search of the arXiv preprint server, I found nearly 172 papers based on the BICEP2 data that have been written since the team’s announcement on 17 March. Some 200 individual citations to the original BICEP2 paper can also be found on the server.

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Earth’s cousin, alien intelligence, Galileo’s game and more

Illustration of Kepler-186f

Artist’s illustration of Kepler-186f. (Courtesy: NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early last week, astronomers announced that they had found the first Earth-sized exoplanet that is comfortably within the habitable zone of its parent star, using NASA’s Kepler telescope. The new planet, dubbed Kepler-186f, is a close cousin of the Earth as it has a radius that is only 10% larger than that of the Earth, meaning that it could have liquid water on its surface, allowing for the tantalizing possibility of some form of life to exist upon it. At last count, Kepler has now discovered and confirmed 1706 exoplanets.

So it was rather interesting to come across two stories that looked at the implications of life beyond our planetary neighbourhood. Paul Gilster, who writes the Centauri Dreams blog had a rather interesting post on how artists and illustrators need to work with scientists to depict each new exoplanet, to make the images look visually stunning, while still being scientifically accurate. Gilster also talks specifically about the image (see above) that illustrates the newly found Kepler-186f.

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Hi-tech giants eschew corporate R&D, says report

IBM's latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

IBM’s latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

By Hamish Johnston

“Think” has been motto of the US-based computer giant IBM since it was coined in the early 20th century by founder Thomas Watson. Many would argue that IBM has succeeded over the past 100 years because physicists and other scientists were given the freedom to think while working at the company’s research labs. And science has benefitted too, with three Nobel prizes won or shared by physicists working at the firm’s labs. Even more impressive is that a whopping seven physics Nobels have been awarded to physicists at Bell Labs – originally Bell Telephone Laboratories.

But the days of these corporate “idea factories” are over according to a new study published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Entitled Physics Entrepreneurship and Innovation (PDF), the 308-page report argues that many large businesses are closing in-house research facilities and instead buying in new expertise and technologies by acquiring hi-tech start-ups.

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3D printing food, ‘Top 10′ lists, teenage nuclear physicists and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Over the past few years, 3D printing has captured the imagination and interest of scientists and the public alike. Now, a €3 million EU-funded project known as “PERFORMANCE – PERsonalised FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs” is adapting 3D printing technology to food in order to create easily digestible sustenance that is not only nutritious but also looks and tastes like the real thing. The proposed printer would work like its conventional inkjet counterpart – except the cartridges would be filled with liquefied food instead of ink! While that may not sound like the most appetising way of eating your five-a-day, it might come as a relief for those who suffer from a condition known as “dysphagia” that makes swallowing food difficult. You can read more about the proposed scheme on the EU’s Horizon magazine website and take a look at the video above.

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