Sixty Valentines

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all and, once again, let’s celebrate with a new video from the great Sixty Symbols project about the forces of attraction:

(come on, it’s nearly as good as getting a card!)


Pleas for the future of physics education

Two interesting videos were posted yesterday on the problems with the current state of high school physics education. The first is an open letter to Barack Obama from Minute Physics, pleading for the US physics curriculum to include results more recent than the Civil War:

In the second Nottingham academics, and regular contributors to the Sixty Symbols video series, give their views on the situation in the UK:

Personally I found the concepts taught in my school physics courses much easier to grasp once my teachers explained them using the proper maths (mainly calculus!)

Periodic impact

Engaging the public in science is something lots of us are passionate about but how do you measure its impact? This might seem like an unimportant question, but it’s something that funding agencies are increasingly interested in, as they understandably want to check their money isn’t being wasted. It’s also a question addressed by the team behind the popular Periodic Table of Videos project in a commentary published in Nature Chemistry.

Periodic Videos is the forerunner of and cousin to the Sixty Symbols project which I’ve blogged about several times here before. It started out with videos for each element in the periodic table and then expanded to include things as diverse as Einstein’s blackboard, Nobel Prizes, Creme Eggs and Kate Middleton’s engagement ring.

The videos are hosted on YouTube, and the authors initially thought that they could use its statistics for things like page views or subscribers to pin down their elusive impact factor. However, they realised that they couldn’t rely on the YouTube numbers because they didn’t know how accurate they are. Equally, the results could miss people who download the videos or who watch them when they’re embedded into other blogs.

The method that gave them the best impact information ended up being the simplest – they read the comments left below each video. Clearly if you want to know how something has affected an audience, you should just listen to what they say about it! This isn’t necessarily a scientific approach to the problem, but in this case, they seem to be the most accurate. The nicest thing about the comments is that people often ask questions, or make suggestions for new topics, neatly illustrating how engaged with chemistry they’ve become. There’s even a guy wanting advice on building smoke grenades for paintballing!

ResearchBlogging.orgHaran B, & Poliakoff M (2011). How to measure the impact of chemistry on the small screen. Nature chemistry, 3 (3), 180-2 PMID: 21336314

Playing catch-up

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It feels like its been a busy week in science, but unfortunately its been even busier for my particular astro bit of it. I’ve wanted to blog about so much stuff but not got round to any of it, so I’m going to put it all here, in one catch-up post!

The first, and most important, thing I have to mention is the Science is Vital campaign against cuts in science funding in the UK. Please go and sign their petition if you agree with me that science is vital to the economy, to our health, to just about our entire way of living. There’s also a rally planned for this Saturday in London which disappointingly I can’t make, but I think there’s going to be a good turnout, given the amount of #scienceisvital activity on Twitter.

The campaign is also currently asking scientists to write about “What don’t we know yet”, to show what questions could remain unanswered if funding is cut (check out The e-Astronomer for a good list of the outstanding astronomy problems). One group of scientists who set out to solve some of the more unusual conundrums are this year’s crop of Ig Nobel Prize winners, awarded “..for achievements that first make people laugh then make them think”. We now know, to pick a few, that asthma can be treated be riding rollercoasters; that its best to promote people at random; that swearing does actually help to relieve pain, and that fruit bats have rather more interesting personal lives than previously suspected.

One of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for physics is also an Ig Nobel laureate (with some interesting previous co-authors). He was awarded one for his work on levitating frogs and the other for pioneering work on the manufacture of graphene (I’m sure you can guess which is which!) To find out how sticky tape is involved (and what the Nottingham connection is) watch this neat video from the Sixty Symbols project:

The other big news of last week was the potential identification of the first Earth-like extrasolar planet, Gilese 581g, orbiting in the Goldilocks Zone – the region in a planetary system where liquid water is possible which means that life could exist there. Unfortunately the story was dominated by a quote from one of the astronomers involved, who said that his “…own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent” which is a bit optimistic given that very little is currently known about it. There’s a good discussion about this over on Universe Today.

The media are also involved in the last of the things I want to catch up on. Last Tuesday the Metro newspaper published this small article:

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t find a version of it online! In case you can’t read it, the text says:

X-Ray Vision
The largest ever X-ray telescope is scheduled to launch in 2021. US, European and Japanese scientists believe it will give the most detailed insight ever into the dawn of time. The 1,300 sq. metre International X-Ray Observatory will be able to identify 3million new black holes. Some of these may even be supermassive black holes which probably developed before the first stars.

When I first read this I was really annoyed by the errors it contains, the biggest of which is the suggestion that scientists are planning to launch a telescope into space that’s bigger than the floor plan of my flat! However, in this case, the journalists aren’t really to blame. After I complained about the story on twitter @chrisenorth sent me a link to the original press release, which isn’t very good at clearly explaining the facts of the project.

In case you’re wondering the x-ray telescope in question (IXO) will actually have an effective 3 sq. metre collecting area. The 1,300 sq. metre figure will be the total surface area, but this will consist of stacks of nested silicon wafers, because x-rays are detected through grazing incidence techniques.

So, that’s me all caught up. It’s been an interesting week – if you thought so too, don’t forget to sign the petition and hopefully there’ll be lots more interesting weeks to come!

Don’t put your hand in the LHC…

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Quick post to plug two newish videos from the always interesting Sixty Symbols project in which scientists from Nottingham University discuss some of the symbols we use in physics and astronomy. This time however they’re trying something new – answering questions sent in by their viewers on topics ranging from the irritating astronomer/astrologer mistake to what would happen if you put your hand in the beam of the Large Hadron Collider (the answer to that one’s in the second video)!


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It’s Valentine’s Day and, in the spirit of all things heart-shaped, here’s the Universe’s contribution via some friends of mine from the excellent Sixty Symbols project:

It’s good to know that even galaxies have someone to merge with!