You get an ology, you're a scientist

Lots of students are doing public exams at the moment.

One of them (thanks James) sent me this:

From Randall Munroe's hugely entertaining xkcd - a site which not only offers "romance, sarcasm, maths and language", but also makes very clever use of img tags if you mouseover his cartoons.

All of which led me back to this tv ad from the late 1980s

The ad, created by agency J Walter Thompson, is priceless and was the watercooler moment of its time - making "you got an ology" a veritable catch phrase.

The ad also has a wonderful outro:

"It's the teachers who are wrong. You know, they can't mark. A lot of them can't see..."

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Mice may be key to theory of everything

Roger Highfield reports in the Daily Telegraph on an ambitious new government-funded project on particle physics in Oxfordshire. Good to see. Rutherford Appleton Labs are just down the road from us - and Prof Ken Long is a friend who has lectured at Radley in the past.

Britain has moved a step closer to building a billion-pound factory in Oxfordshire that will bombard the Earth with ghostly particles to probe profound cosmic mysteries. A team at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory wants to use the factory to send the subatomic particles called neutrinos to Italy, and even 5,300 miles through the Earth to an underground laboratory in Japan, to understand the mechanisms of the Big Bang and how our universe was created.

Last week, the ambitious plan obtained Government backing when Science Minister Lord Sainsbury announced a GBP9.7 million investment in the "Muon Ionisation Cooling Experiment" (Mice) at the Rutherford, which will help develop ways to mint neutrinos. Because Mice was designed with the help of 140 physicists from around the world, it will obtain significant contributions from abroad. Although modest, the project marks the first step in developing a UK bid to host the international factory.

Mice will be attached to Rutherford's existing Isis facility, which smashes protons into a target to make neutrons. The protons can instead be used to produce particles called muons, which decay to form neutrinos, and in this way Mice will pave the way for the scheme to bombard the planet with the particles.

Read on here or at Telegraph Connected: "Mice may be key to theory of everything".

Continue reading "Mice may be key to theory of everything" »

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Scales tip with tiniest mass yet

Simple Harmonic Motion...

US scientists have managed to measure the mass of a cluster of xenon atoms at just a few billionths of a trillionth of a gram - or a few zeptograms.

The record measurement is in the mass range of individual protein molecules, and the detection was made using sensitive scales developed at Caltech.

Similar techniques could pave the way for sensitive devices for use in medical and environmental testing.

Details were presented at the annual American Physical Society convention.

The scales use a small blade that vibrates in a magnetic field that generates a voltage in an attached wire.

When atoms or molecules are placed on the blade's surface, they weigh it down. The atoms are added as a very fine "spray".

Because the device is cooled, the molecules condense on the bar and add their mass to it, lowering its frequency and [reducing] the voltage [induced in] the wire.

Link: BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Scales tip with tiniest mass yet.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Counting electrons one by one

This is important - the quantum world is slowly becoming visible...

Physicists in Sweden have counted individual electrons in an electrical current for the first time. Jonas Bylander, Tim Duty and Per Delsing at Chalmers University of Technology in Goteborg directly measured the oscillations associated with single electrons in a one-dimensional chain of superconducting "islands" connected by tunnel junctions. The technique could lead to the development of a new standard for electric current (J Bylander et al. 2005 Nature 434 361).

Single-electron tunnelling events have been observed in experiments with tunnel junctions before now, but the electrons making up the current have never been directly counted one by one. In a tunnel junction two conducting islands of material are separated by thin insulating layers, through which the electrons can quantum mechanically tunnel. Since like charges repel, the electrons are forced to tunnel one by one through the junction.

Link: Counting electrons one by one (March 2005) - News - PhysicsWeb.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

A New Unit for Mass?

If several scientists get their way, a 2.2-pound hunk of metal -- the international prototype of the kilogram -- may soon be out of style.

Like its six basic-units-of-measurement siblings before it -- including the meter -- the kilogram may be moving toward a new definition based on a universal constant. The kilogram has long been understood to equal the mass of its prototype.

Work has been underway for about 25 years to switch the kilogram from being defined by a physical model to corresponding instead to a constant. A paper to be released Monday proposes redefining the unit via fixing the values of one of two well-known universal constants. The choices offered up are Avogadro's constant or Planck's constant; the former measures the amount of carbon-12 atoms in 0.012 kg of that element, while the latter is used to explain the sizes of quanta, which are tiny electromagnetic energy packets.

In 1889, a cylinder of a platinum-iridium alloy was declared the international standard of measurement for the kilogram by the first General Conference on Weights and Measures. It's kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, or BIPM) in France, and several copies were distributed around the world.

Although the main model has only been removed a few times for cleaning, it can pick up deposits from surrounding air. Over time, several copies' masses are generally increasing relative to the model, said Edwin Williams, a paper co-author and research physicist with the quantum electrical metrology division of the United States' National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.

It's unclear if the principal cylinder's mass is increasing or decreasing, scientists said, because it is the object used to measure others. Still, this poses a concern. Another worry is the possibility of the main model's destruction, come a natural disaster.

Link: Wired News: Kilogram Poses Weighty Problem.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Underground search for 'God particle'

Nature is much smarter than us. It might come up with a real surprise and that would be much more interesting - much more satisfying - Professor Jim Virdee, Imperial College London

At the foot of the Jura Mountains, where Switzerland meets France, is a laboratory so vast it boggles the mind.

But take a drive past the open fields, traditional chalets and petite new apartment blocks and you will look for it in vain. To find this enormous complex, you have to travel beneath the surface. One hundred metres below Geneva's western suburbs is a dimly lit tunnel that runs in a perfect circle for 27km (17 miles).

The tunnel belongs to CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research. Though currently empty, over the next two years an enormous experiment will be installed here.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a powerful and impossibly complicated machine that will smash particles together at super-fast speeds in a bid to unlock the secrets of the Universe.

By recreating the searing-hot conditions fractions of a second after the Big Bang, scientists hope to see new physics, discover the sought-after "God particle", uncover new dimensions and even generate mini-black holes.

When completed, two parallel tubes will carry high-energy particles called protons in opposite directions around the tunnel at close to the speed of light. The tunnel's huge circumference provides only the slightest of bends. Nevertheless, 5,000 superconducting magnets are needed to steer and focus the particles around the tubes.

"When the coils are energised there is one jumbo jet - 500 tonnes - pushing outwards," says LHC project leader Lyn Evans. Along the way, the proton beams will pass through enormous experimental instruments called detectors where they will cross.

When some of these protons collide at high energy, smaller, heavier particles can appear amongst the debris. When the LHC is turned on in the latter half of 2007, physicists will scour this crash wreckage for signs of the Higgs boson. The Higgs is nicknamed the God particle because of its importance to the Standard Model, the theory devised to explain how sub-atomic particles interact with each other.

The 16 particles that make up this model (12 matter particles and 4 force carrier particles) would have no mass if considered alone. So another particle - the Higgs boson - is postulated to exist to account for this omission.

Link: BBC Science/Nature.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Oh help... what are we doing (3)

This story isn't quite as bad as it seems once you note the proposed expansion to applied Physics courses...

Newcastle University is to close its pure physics courses because of a lack of funds and falling numbers of applications from students. The announcement comes only days after Exeter University announced it was closing its chemistry department.

The Institute of Physics said the decision was regrettable [and] is calling on the government to review the way it funds university science courses.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke has drawn up a list of subjects of national importance - including the sciences - and is asking the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to investigate whether more should be done to protect them.

The 30 students who started Newcastle's pure physics courses - BSc and MPhys - this year will be the last to do so. However, the university will continue - and may even expand - its applied physics courses it says.

A statement said: "Consideration is now being given to expanding areas of applied and interdisciplinary physics, such as nanotechnology and materials sciences, which are generally regarded as more attractive to students and have greater potential for generating research income."

The head of Newcastle's faculty of science, Professor Malcolm Young, said: "It is essential that we move with the times in the sciences and I am delighted at the progress we are making," he said. "I believe we will emerge with a much stronger portfolio of physics and chemistry teaching and research programmes which will be recognised as being more relevant to the world we live in today."

Physics at Newcastle scored a 4 in the 2001 research assessment exercise (RAE), which determines how much money departments get. But the bulk of research funding goes to departments around the country rated as 5 or 5*. However, nanotechnology was "flagged" as a 5-star subject within physics in the RAE.

A spokesman for the Institute of Physics, Professor Peter Main, said Newcastle's decision was "regrettable". He said a third of the UK's physics departments had closed in the past 10 or 12 years and more might follow.

Link: BBC NEWS | Education | Newcastle axes physics courses.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Is this the answer to God, the universe and all that?

Guardian Unlimited, David Adam

They call it the God particle: a mysterious sub-atomic fragment that permeates the entire universe and explains how everything is the way it is. Nobody has ever seen the God particle; some say it doesn't exist but, in the ultimate leap of faith, physicists across the world are preparing to build one of the most ambitious and expensive science experiments the world has ever seen to try to find it.

At a summit meeting in Beijing yesterday, 12 experts from countries including Britain, Japan, America and Germany announced they have agreed on a blueprint for the new experiment - a gigantic atom smashing machine called the international linear collider. Now they must convince their respective governments to meet the anticipated ?3bn price tag.

Buried underground away from vibrations on the surface, the collider would accelerate particles from opposite ends of a 20-mile tunnel at near-light speeds and smash them into each other head-on. One stream of particles would be electrons; the other would be positrons, their antimatter partner.

The scientists hope the resulting cataclysmic explosion of heat, light and radiation will recreate the conditions found in first few billionths of a second after the big bang. And when that happens, they hope the God particle, otherwise known as the Higgs boson, will show itself.

Continue reading "Is this the answer to God, the universe and all that?" »

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Teleportation goes long distance

BBC Science, Paul Rincon

Physicists have carried out successful teleportation with particles of light over a distance of 600m across the River Danube in Austria.

Long distance teleportation is crucial if dreams of superfast quantum computing are to be realised.

When physicists say "teleportation", they are describing the transfer of key properties from one particle to another without a physical link.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Rules for a Complex Quantum World

Scientific American

An exciting new fundamental discipline of research combines information science and quantum mechanics - By Michael A. Nielsen

Over the past few decades, scientists have learned that simple rules can give rise to very rich behavior. A good example is chess. Imagine you're an experienced chess player introduced to someone claiming to know the game. You play a few times and realize that although this person knows the rules of chess, he has no idea how to play well. He makes absurd moves, sacrificing his queen for a pawn and losing a rook for no reason at all. He does not truly understand chess: he is ignorant of the high-level principles and heuristics familiar to any knowledgeable player. These principles are collective or emergent properties of chess, features not immediately evident from the rules but arising from interactions among the pieces on the chessboard.

Scientists' current understanding of quantum mechanics is like that of a slow-learning student of chess. We've known the rules for more than 70 years, and we have a few clever moves that work in some special situations, but we're only gradually learning the high-level principles needed to play a skillful overall game.

Read on at

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston