Previous month:
September 2006
Next month:
November 2006

Scientists teleport two different objects - Oct 4, 2006 reports that Scientists have managed a significant development in teleportation; this is one of those stories that may begin to look really, really important in retrospect.

Beaming people in "Star Trek" fashion is still in the realms of science fiction, but physicists in Denmark have teleported information from light to matter bringing quantum communication and computing closer to reality.

Until now scientists have teleported similar objects such as light or single atoms over short distances from one spot to another in a split second.

But Professor Eugene Polzik and his team at the Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University in Denmark have made a breakthrough by using both light and matter.

"It is one step further because for the first time it involves teleportation between light and matter, two different objects. One is the carrier of information and the other one is the storage medium," Polzik explained in an interview on Wednesday.

The experiment involved for the first time a macroscopic atomic object containing thousands of billions of atoms. They also teleported the information a distance of half a meter but believe it can be extended further.


"It is really about teleporting information from one site to another site. Quantum information is different from classical information in the sense that it cannot be measured. It has much higher information capacity and it cannot be eavesdropped on. The transmission of quantum information can be made unconditionally secure," said Polzik whose research is reported in the journal Nature.

Quantum computing requires manipulation of information contained in the quantum states, which include physical properties such as energy, motion and magnetic field, of the atoms.

"Creating entanglement is a very important step, but there are two more steps at least to perform teleportation. We have succeeded in making all three steps -- that is entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback," he added.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Education Spending

The great imponderable in State education is where all the money actually goes...

There is a good breakdown of the headline figures from 2004 here which suggests that across the UK, funding for education is to rise to £77bn by 2007-08, up from £37bn in 1997 and £59bn in 2004.

If we rather generously assume that most people enjoy approximately 20 years of education (from, say, 3 to 23) - then we can calculate that approximately 25% of the population are in education of some sort (based on 20 years from 80 years life expectancy).

Which suggests that we distribute roughly £80 Billion across approximately 15 Million people each year. Approximately £5,000+ per head.

But as to where it all goes... well, apparently our own parliamentary Select Committee would like to know more as well.

MPs have questioned Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget pledge to raise state school funding to the levels enjoyed by the independent school sector.

Mr Brown said he wanted funding per state school pupil to rise from £5,000 to £8,000, as in independent schools.


As well as criticising Mr Brown, the select committee's investigation into government funding for education criticised the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for producing an annual report that failed to provide any comprehensive information on education spending.


The select committee's concerns echo those raised in July by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The institute [then] said that the lack of a date on Mr Brown's aspiration "left us little the wiser as to the outlook for spending per pupil". It estimated that it would cost £17bn to close the gap and that this would not be achieved before 2014.

[A DfeS spokesperson indicated that] by 2008, spending per pupil will have more than doubled from £2,650 to £5,750."

Link: BBC Education.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Lies, Damn Lies and rather fewer Scientists

The "stagnating and falling" number of traditional science graduates has been masked by a growth in topics such as sports science, says the Royal Society.

The institution also said suggested increases in maths and biology degrees were "apparent rather than real".

It criticised the way figures were gathered, citing changes to how those doing combined subjects were counted.


The new figures suggest that the popularity of subjects such a sports science, forensic science and psychology is masking a drop in those taking first degrees in biology, said the Royal Society.

While there had been an increase in graduates taking subjects categorised by Hesa as the "biological sciences", in 2004/5 biology students accounted for just 17% of this group - down from 31% in 1994/5.

Psychology degrees represent 47% of this grouping, up from 33% ten years previously. Sports science graduates had also risen nine percentage points since 1994/5.

And the rise in computer science students accounted for a general increase in degrees being awarded in the sciences - up from 31% of all degrees in 1994/5 to 37% in 2004/5 - said the institution.

Discrepancies in figures on maths and biology degrees had also been uncovered, according to the report.

While Hesa's annual figures had suggested a rise in maths graduates of more than 35% in the 10 years from 1994/5, the re-analysis indicated this growth was just 7.4%. Likewise a cited increase in biology graduates of 12.8% was only 1.7% when counted differently.

Link: BBC NEWS | Education | Science degree numbers 'masked'.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Tower of Babel: Machine shall speak unto Machine

If you think there is a lot of communication going on in the world at the moment, then you haven't understood the half-of-it...

The problem of compatibility between wireless devices is being addressed [by new developments in software].

Scientists are discussing what has been dubbed "Tower of Babel" technology - software that can converge different wireless gadgets into a single device.

The aim for Software Defined Radio (SDR) is to be able to translate and understand any kind of radio wave signal, such as 3G or wi-fi.


European space firm EADS-Astrium [is leading] research in this emerging field.

Francis Kinsella, a specialist engineer from the company, said: "If you were to go on a hill-walking trip, you might have a walkie-talkie to talk to friends who are not far away, a mobile in case of emergency, GPS, a Bluetooth connection and even a laptop or PDA with a wireless LAN connection.

"Every single one of these things is a radio, and they are all slightly different. But in the future, with Software Defined Radio, all you need is one thing that can do the job of all of these devices."

The idea behind SDR is that an aerial in the device picks up radio signals passing through the air waves. An analogue-to-digital converter transforms this signal into a digital format, which can be understood and manipulated by software onboard the device.

Currently, most devices rely on hardware, rather than software, to get at the information in radio signals.

Link: BBC Technology.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

The Tower of Babel: Nation shall speak Peace unto Nation

Appropriately enough, the BBC picks up on a New Scientist story about a "Tower of Babel" device that gives users the illusion of being bilingual.

My colleagues teaching Modern Languages are going to hate this but Douglas Adams would have loved it...

Users simply have to silently mouth a word in their own language for it to be translated and read out in another.

The researchers said the effect was like watching a television programme that had been dubbed.

The system, detailed in New Scientist, is not yet fully accurate, but experts said it showed the technology was "within reach".

The translation systems that are currently in use work by using voice recognition software. But this requires people to speak out loud and then wait for the translation to be read out, making conversations difficult.

But the new device, being created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, is different.

Electrodes are attached to the neck and face to detect the movements that occur as the person silently mouths words and phrases.

Using this data, a computer can work out the sounds being formed and then build these sounds up into words.

The system is then able to translate the words into another language which is read out by a synthetic voice.

The team currently has two prototypes: one that can translate Chinese into English and another that can translate English into Spanish or German.

The original story from New Scientist magazine, (issue 2575, 26 Oct 2006) offers some further insight into how the system works:

The team has developed a system that can recognise a potentially limitless lexicon. Their secret is to detect not just words but also the phonemes that form the building blocks of words. The system then uses these to reconstruct the word. To translate from English to another language, the user only has to train the system on the 45 phonemes used in spoken English.

The researchers use software that has been taught to recognise which phonemes are most likely to appear next to each other and in what order. When it encounters a string of phonemes it is unfamiliar with or has only partially heard, it uses this knowledge to come up with a range of sequences that make sense given the surrounding phonemes and words, assigns a probability to each one, and then picks the one with the highest probability.

It is worth noting that there is some related work being done here in England by Cambridge University's Machine Intelligence Laboratory.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Abundance, and Five Years of Blogging

An excellent article from Ross Mayfield (CEO of SocialText) on why sharing works.

When I sat down in my first economics class at UCLA, the professor wrote on the blackboard all we would learn, in really big letters:


I've been blogging for five years as of this month, and here's what I've learned:


I have discovered I have a lot to give.  And when I give, I notice others give more.

Some of them I've formed relationships with, and trust opens giving, but I have also learned to trust strangers to share in abundance.

Life is iterative, markets are not transactions and scarcity of attention is false.

Our learnings compound abundance and there may be no limit to what we can produce.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

In search of an International Education

The world turns but slowly...

The BBC report that Ministers are to consider whether state school pupils should be allowed to study International GCSEs.

IGCSEs involve less coursework and some consider them to be more challenging and better preparation for A-levels than traditional GCSEs.

Some private schools already teach them but state schools cannot because they only get funding for approved exams.

Schools Minister Lord Adonis said he wanted a debate within the education community on the use of IGCSEs.

State schools have been required to teach pupils GCSEs since they replaced O-levels 18 years ago.

They are not able to enter their pupils for IGCSEs because they only receive funding for approved exams - and these have not been accredited by the regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

My own school has already switched to IGCSE for Maths and Science.

The IGCSE is more rigorous, more demanding, more mathematical - and a better preparation for the current AS/A2 exams.

Of course the "dumbing down" of GCSE has led to a recent review of the AS/A2 specification which, unsurprisingly, is taking those papers down to meet the new intake... As a result many independent schools are looking at either International Baccalaureate - or the new Cambridge Pre-U exams.

No-one should be too surprised by these moves. It was never going to be possible to expand higher education to absorb 50% of the population without in some way diluting the education of the top 20%. That 20% was hardly going to take these changes lying down.

There is some history here as well; the independent sector has led British education for the past 200 years, with initiative after initiative.

One of the better examples is the ASE - The Association for Science Education - which can trace its origins back to 1900 with a letter written by four science masters from Eton College proposing a conference for Science Masters in Public Schools.

One of the issues raised in that letter was:

"the attainment of at least some clearer method of the teaching of Natural Science than exists at present, and …. by taking united action, do something towards emphasising the value of Science as a means of education".

As I say, the world turns but slowly...

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

The Barbarians are at the Gate: Another Physics Department to Close

Link: BBC NEWS, Reading closes physics department.

This has been the subject of much debate behind the scenes over the weekend.

It falls in line with the problems experienced by other threatened subjects - notably Physics, Chemistry and Modern Languages.

These are, of course, the very same subjects in which UK State school numbers have plummeted.

It seems to me that - amidst all the promises we see from Government - we need to DO SOMETHING about the underlying problems that this story may reveal.

Some 18 months ago (5 February 2005), Terence Kealey wrote an interesting article in the Spectator entitled Science is for Posh kids

In it, Kealey suggested that the demise of selective state education meant that science was now largely the preserve of privately educated children.

According to Kealey:

  • "the Independent sector now supplies some 40 per cent of all pupils specialising in science and maths at A-level"
  • "Physics is now second only to the classics for public-school bias at the older universities"
  • "there has been a sad deterioration in the 'science' taught at comprehensives"
  • "Few children with double science at GCSE proceed to study hard science at A-level"
  • "Biology - innumerate, descriptive and girl's blousey"
  • "79 percent of physics teachers in independent schools were qualified in physics"
  • "in state schools the proportion with qualifications was less than a third"
  • "Two thirds of state-school teachers of physics GCSE have no relevant degree"
  • "the only people whose children get a good education in science are those who can afford to go completely private"
Well, the proposed closure at Reading may be the next chapter of that story.

1. Have a look at the Access data for various Universities.

83% of Reading's intake come from State schools - compared to, say, 77% at York and 57% at Cambridge.

2. State schools have seen a disproportionate fall in students taking Physics. As The Independent reported (11 August 2006)

"The number of A-level exam entries in the subject has halved since 1982, the research from the University of Buckingham found. Just over 3.8 percent of 16-year-olds took A-level physics in 2004 compared with about 6 per cent in 1990.

The decline has hit all types of schools but independent schools and academically selective grammar schools have been less affected than further-education colleges.

The proportion of A-level physics students who go on to study the subject at university has remained roughly constant, at 8 per cent, with a further 2 per cent studying related courses such as materials science or

3. Professor Smithers, Buckingham University, reports that those fewer candidates are actually producing more A grade outcomes.

"The steep decline in A-level entries has been partly offset by an increase in the pass rate from 75.9 per cent in 1990 to 94.2 per cent in 2005. Nevertheless, the number of passes in A-level physics fell by 23.0 per cent between 1990 and 2005. But the number of A-grades actually increased by 27.2 per cent - up from 6,323 in 1990 to 8,042 in 2005"

4. But research shows that Independent schools take a disproportionate number of those 8,000 A grades in Physics - some 3,600 of them (45%).

5. Physics is "hard". Very hard. As are Chemistry and Modern Languages. Durham University has shown as much. Physics at University is not therefore an obvious choice unless you've done reasonably well at A Level Physics - however much the subject may "appeal".

6. So, ... deep breath... contentious conclusion... if you can't attract significant numbers of independent school candidates to your campus, then you are unlikely to recruit enough scientists to sustain expensive departments...

7. It is of course possible that the regressive nature of top-up fees etc has acted to make these matters worse.

All very sad.

PS: For a more amusing, and even more erudite analysis of these issues, see the wonderful article by Boris Johnson - published in The Daily Telegraph on 24 Aug 2006: Civilisation is built on Physics (alas), not on Business Studies

PPS. You might also enjoy reading Sir, can we do something easier? by Emma Brockes in the Guardian, 17 Aug 2006.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston