Archive for the physics Category

Dark Horizons for Blue Skies

Posted in physics, science with tags , , , , on September 11, 2008 by Philonous

I read and listened today to David King, Chief Scientific advisor to the British government from 2000-2007 saying that there is no space in scientific funding for so called ‘blue skies research’.

Blue skies research is essentially research for curiosity’s sake, trying to gain greater understanding of some part of the nature of reality. As such, it generally has no immediate applications at its conception, although it is responsible for the theories that lie as the bedrock supporting applied science, engineering and economics.

One example of blue skies research is into discovering the very nature of physical interaction in the universe, be it on the grand scale of cosmology or the minute scale of particle physics. The Large Hadron Collider which was switched on yesterday at CERN is a good example of the blue sky. David King bemoaned the spending of 500m pounds on the LHC, saying

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial.”

Coming from a leading scientist, this comes across as patently ridiculous and rather confusing. Ok, so I might be a little biased being a pure mathematician (how much more blue sky can you get?) and feeling as if we’re getting very little funding already. This application driven point of view seems ridiculously closed minded and incredibly short sighted. Particle physics has so far produced such (presumably useless according to DK) devices as the transistor, the computer display, radiotherapy, x-rays… In fact, most of the major advances that characterise the 20th century are due in no small part to spin-offs of particle physics experiments.

Science in the UK seems hopelessly doomed when Chief scientific advisers can be so incredibly anti-science. Given this, it was incredibly gratifying to see David King (above right) berated by Brian Cox (above left), the poster boy of UK particle physics (and a Professor in the High Energy Physics department at Manchester) on Newsnight last night. He put forward the remark that on the one day in which fundamental scientific research is actually covered in the media, it was ridiculous for the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to be pouring cold water on the achievement.

If you’re reading this Prof King (haha!), I suggest that you quit your job as chief scientific advisor to UBS and spend all of your time tackling climate change before suggesting that blue sky researchers should change their focus and jeopardise modern science in the process.

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Will the world end on Wednesday?

Posted in news, physics, science, tech on September 8, 2008 by Philonous

So… I’m sure you’ve all heard about CERN’s new black hole machine (technical term) that could potentially end the world on Wednesday. Actually it’s a Large Hadron Collider to you ley people.

One camp thinks we’ll be fine, and even if they do make a black hole, it will be a baby one that won’t hurt us. The other camp thinks the world will get eaten up and we’ll all disappear. On Wednesday.

Makes me think of all the other prophecies and ideas that have predicted our doom- the Mayan Calendar, Nostradamus, even Mother Shipton (of Yorkshire fame).

I don’t really feel worried. Maybe it’s because I’m stressed about moving, and if the world ends, I can’t do anything about it, AND I won’t have to pack anymore- that’s not all that bad.

Also, I know someone who just worked at CERN last week (shout out to Andrew, husband of Molly) so this makes me a lot less worried. Seems more like a 9-5 job then doomsday device.

Speaking of Doomsday, I watched it on Saturday (I’m a big Neil Marshall fan- The Descent was brilliant, and I’d be happy to tell you why). Some people (my husband) think its too mental but I really enjoyed it, and not just because I have a thing for women who kick ass. Thanks to a virus, Scotland is walled off again (a la Hadrian’s Wall- how brilliant is that) and left to die. The virus resurfaces in London, about 25 years later, so they decide to go back into Scotland and find a cure in the survivors. The survivors are split between a tribal Mad Max culture (based in Glasgow, and strikingly similar to today’s residents) and a ‘civilised’ medieval kingdom, taken up residence in an old castle, using the armour, ways of life, etc.

I think both completely plausible. I defy you to find a museum curator who doesn’t secretly fantasize about using their museum collections to revert to a historic way of life. When the floods happened in Yorkshire last year one museum hauled out an antique fire truck to help pump the water.

So, in preparation for our impending doom, why not watch it on Wednesday?

By The Lodger

Magnetic Movie

Posted in art, culture, film, physics, science with tags , , , on July 28, 2008 by Philonous

This video is a project from NASA’s artists in residence, Semiconductor. As you may imagine (although it took me a little while to realise) all of the magnetic fields drawn in the picture are computer generated rather than physical streams of particles. Having something of an interest in science myself, I wonder what the aim of this artwork is supposed to be, if indeed it has one. There can be no doubt that these magnetic phenomena are incredibly beautiful in many ways, as is most of physics, but is producing such a movie slightly underselling the real science behind these pretty images? Perhaps not. I must admit being a cynic of the first water, but in my mind, this reminded me very much of videos I’d been shown at school in physics lessons or perhaps on BBC2 as part of Open University programmes. There’s no doubt that this film is diverting, but in this light, it seems slightly odd for Semiconductor to have been elevated to the status of ‘artist’. But then I’m a cynic.