Let there be light: Florence Nightingale

This year, 2020, the word Nightingale has acquired new connotations. It is no longer just a word to refer to a passerine bird with beautiful and powerful birdsong, it is the name that NHS England has given to the temporary hospitals set up for the COVID-19 pandemic. In normal circumstances it is indeed a very good name to use for a hospital, but given the circumstances, it becomes more poignant. It is even more so considering the fact that this year, 2020, is the bicentenary go Florence Nightingale’s birth.

Florence Nightingale was born on 12th May, 1820 in Florence, Italy (hence the name!) and became a social reformer, statistician, and the founder of modern nursing. She became the first woman to be elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1874.

With the power of data, Nightingale was able to save lives and change policy. Her analysis of data from the Crimean War was compelling and persuasive in its simplicity. It allowed her and her team to pay attention to time – tracking admissions to hospital and crucially deaths – on a month by month basis. We must remember that the power of statistical tests as we know today were not established tools and the work horse of statistics, regression, was decades in the future. The data analysis presented in columns and rows as supported by powerful graphics that many of us admire today.

In 2014 had an opportunity to admire her Nightingale Roses, or to use its formal name polar area charts, in the exhibition Science is Beautiful at the British Library.

Florence Nightingale’s “rose diagram”, showing the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1858. Photograph: /British Library

These and other charts were used in the report that she later published in 1858 under the title “Notes in Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army”. The report included charts of deaths by barometric pressure and temperature, showing that deaths were higher in hotter months compared to cooler ones. In polar charts shown above Nightingale presents the decrease in death rates that have been achieved. Let’s read it from her own hand; here is the note the accompanying the chart above:

The areas of the blue, red & black wedges are each measured from the centre as the common vortex.

The blue wedges measured from the centre of the circle represent area for area the deaths from Preventible or Mitigable Zymotic diseases, the red wedged measured from the centre the deaths from wounds, & the black wedged measured from the centre the deaths from all other causes.

The black line across the read triangle in Nov. 1854 marks the boundary of the deaths from all other caused during the month.

In October 1854, & April 1855, the black area coincides with the red, in January & February 1855, the blue area coincides with the black.

The entire areas may be compared bu following the blue, the read & the black lines enclosing them.

Nightingale recognised that soldiers were dying from other causes: malnutrition, poor sanitation, and lack of activity. Her aim was to improve the conditions of wounded soldiers and improve their chances of survival. This was evidence that later helped put focus on the importance of patient welfare.

Once the war was over, Florence Nightingale returned home but her quest did not finish there. She continued her work to improve conditions in hospitals. She became a star in her own time and with time the legend of “The Lady with Lamp” solidified in the national and international consciousness. You may have heard of there in the 1857 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Santa Filomena”:

Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom,
And flit from room to room

Today, Nightigale’s lamp continues bringing hope to her patients. Not just for those working and being treated in the NHS Nightingale hospitals, but also to to all of us through the metaphorical light of rational optimism. Let there be light.

Science Communication – Technical Writing and Presentation Advice

The two videos below were made a few years ago to support a Science Communication and Group Project module at the School of Physics Astronomy and Mathematics at the University of Hertfordshire. The work was supported by the Institute of Physics and the HE STEM programme. I also got support from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. The tools are probably a bit dated now, but I hope the principles still help some students trying to get their work seen.

The students were encouraged to share and communicate the results of their projects via a video and they were supported by tutorials on how to do screencasts.

Students were also encouraged to prepare technical documentation and the videos for using LaTeX and structuring their documents with LaTeXwere very useful.

Technical Writing

This presentation addresses some issues we should take into account when writing for technical purposes.

Presentation Advice

In this tutorial we will address some of points that can help you make a better presentation either for a live talk or for recording.

Structured Documents in LaTeX

This is a video I made a few years ago to encourage my students to use better tools to write dissertations, thesis and reports that include the use of mathematics. The principles stand, although the tools may have moved on since then. I am reposting them as requested by a colleague of mine, Dr Catarina Carvalho, who I hope will still find this useful.

In this video we continue explaining how to use LaTeX. Here we will see how to use a master document in order to build a thesis or dissertation.
We assume that you have already had a look at the tutorial entitled: LaTeX for writing mathematics – An introduction

Structured Documents in LaTeX

The Year in Math and Computer Science

A reblog from Quanta Magazine:


Several mathematicians under the age of 30, and amateur problem-solvers of all ages, made significant contributions to some of the most difficult questions in math and theoretical computer science.

Youth ruled the year in mathematics. The Fields Medals — awarded every four years to the top mathematicians no older than 40 — went out to four individuals who have left their marks all over the mathematical landscape. This year one of the awards went to Peter Scholze, who at 30 became one of the youngest ever to win. But at times in 2018, even 30 could feel old.

Two students, one in graduate school and the other just 18, in two separate discoveries, remapped the borders that separate quantum computers from ordinary classical computation. Another graduate student proved a decades-old conjecture about elliptic curves, a type of object that has fascinated mathematicians for centuries. And amateur mathematicians of all ages rose up to make significant contributions to long-dormant problems.

But perhaps the most significant sign of youth’s rise was when Scholze, not a month after the Fields Medal ceremony, made public (along with a collaborator) his map pointing to a hole in a purported proof of the famous abc conjecture. The proof, put forward six years ago by a mathematical luminary, has baffled most mathematicians ever since.

A new Bose-Einstein condensate

Originally published here.

A new Bose-Einstein condensate


Although Bose-Einstein condensation has been observed in several systems, the limits of the phenomenon need to be pushed further: to faster timescales, higher temperatures, and smaller sizes. The easier creating these condensates gets, the more exciting routes open for new technological applications. New light sources, for example, could be extremely small in size and allow fast information processing.

In experiments by Aalto researchers, the condensed particles were mixtures of light and electrons in motion in gold nanorods arranged into a periodic array. Unlike most previous Bose-Einstein condensates created experimentally, the new condensate does not need to be cooled down to temperatures near absolute zero. Because the particles are mostly light, the condensation could be induced in room temperature.

‘The gold nanoparticle array is easy to create with modern nanofabrication methods. Near the nanorods, light can be focused into tiny volumes, even below the wavelength of light in vacuum. These features offer interesting prospects for fundamental studies and applications of the new condensate,’ says Academy Professor Päivi Törmä.

The main hurdle in acquiring proof of the new kind of condensate is that it comes into being extremely quickly.’According to our theoretical calculations, the condensate forms in only a picosecond,’ says doctoral student Antti Moilanen. ‘How could we ever verify the existence of something that only lasts one trillionth of a second?’

Turning distance into time

A key idea was to initiate the condensation process with a kick so that the particles forming the condensate would start to move.

‘As the condensate takes form, it will emit light throughout the gold nanorod array. By observing the light, we can monitor how the condensation proceeds in time. This is how we can turn distance into time,’ explains staff scientist Tommi Hakala.

The light that the condensate emits is similar to laser light. ‘We can alter the distance between each nanorod to control whether Bose-Einstein condensation or the formation of ordinary laser light occurs. The two are closely related phenomena, and being able to distinguish between them is crucial for fundamental research. They also promise different kinds of technological applications,’ explains Professor Törmä.

Both lasing and Bose-Einstein condensation provide bright beams, but the coherences of the light they offer have different properties. These, in turn, affect the ways the light can be tuned to meet the requirements of a specific application. The new condensate can produce light pulses that are extremely short and may offer faster speeds for information processing and imaging applications. Academy Professor Törmä has already obtained a Proof of Concept grant from the European Research Council to explore such prospects.

Materials provided by Aalto University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

1 Tommi K. Hakala, Antti J. Moilanen, Aaro I. Väkeväinen, Rui Guo, Jani-Petri Martikainen, Konstantinos S. Daskalakis, Heikki T. Rekola, Aleksi Julku, Päivi Törmä. Bose–Einstein condensation in a plasmonic lattice. Nature Physics, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41567-018-0109-9

Physicists are planning to build lasers so powerful they could rip apart empty space

Physicists are planning to build lasers so powerful they could rip apart empty space | Science | AAAS
Physicists are planning to build lasers so powerful they could rip apart empty space

By Edwin Cartlidge


A laser in Shanghai, China, has set power records yet fits on tabletops.


Inside a cramped laboratory in Shanghai, China, physicist Ruxin Li and colleagues are breaking records with the most powerful pulses of light the world has ever seen. At the heart of their laser, called the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility (SULF), is a single cylinder of titanium-doped sapphire about the width of a Frisbee. After kindling light in the crystal and shunting it through a system of lenses and mirrors, the SULF distills it into pulses of mind-boggling power. In 2016, it achieved an unprecedented 5.3 million billion watts, or petawatts (PW). The lights in Shanghai do not dim each time the laser fires, however. Although the pulses are extraordinarily powerful, they are also infinitesimally brief, lasting less than a trillionth of a second. The researchers are now upgrading their laser and hope to beat their own record by the end of this year with a 10-PW shot, which would pack more than 1000 times the power of all the world’s electrical grids combined.

The group’s ambitions don’t end there. This year, Li and colleagues intend to start building a 100-PW laser known as the Station of Extreme Light (SEL). By 2023, it could be flinging pulses into a chamber 20 meters underground, subjecting targets to extremes of temperature and pressure not normally found on Earth, a boon to astrophysicists and materials scientists alike. The laser could also power demonstrations of a new way to accelerate particles for use in medicine and high-energy physics. But most alluring, Li says, would be showing that light could tear electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, from empty space—a phenomenon known as “breaking the vacuum.” It would be a striking illustration that matter and energy are interchangeable, as Albert Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation states. Although nuclear weapons attest to the conversion of matter into immense amounts of heat and light, doing the reverse is not so easy. But Li says the SEL is up to the task. “That would be very exciting,” he says. “It would mean you could generate something from nothing.”

The Chinese group is “definitely leading the way” to 100 PW, says Philip Bucksbaum, an atomic physicist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. But there is plenty of competition. In the next few years, 10-PW devices should switch on in Romania and the Czech Republic as part of Europe’s Extreme Light Infrastructure, although the project recently put off its goal of building a 100-PW-scale device. Physicists in Russia have drawn up a design for a 180-PW laser known as the Exawatt Center for Extreme Light Studies (XCELS), while Japanese researchers have put forward proposals for a 30-PW device.

Largely missing from the fray are U.S. scientists, who have fallen behind in the race to high powers, according to a study published last month by a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine group that was chaired by Bucksbaum. The study calls on the Department of Energy to plan for at least one high-power laser facility, and that gives hope to researchers at the University of Rochester in New York, who are developing plans for a 75-PW laser, the Optical Parametric Amplifier Line (OPAL). It would take advantage of beamlines at OMEGA-EP, one of the country’s most powerful lasers. “The [Academies] report is encouraging,” says Jonathan Zuegel, who heads the OPAL.

Invented in 1960, lasers use an external “pump,” such as a flash lamp, to excite electrons within the atoms of a lasing material—usually a gas, crystal, or semiconductor. When one of these excited electrons falls back to its original state it emits a photon, which in turn stimulates another electron to emit a photon, and so on. Unlike the spreading beams of a flashlight, the photons in a laser emerge in a tightly packed stream at specific wavelengths.

Because power equals energy divided by time, there are basically two ways to maximize it: Either boost the energy of your laser, or shorten the duration of its pulses. In the 1970s, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California focused on the former, boosting laser energy by routing beams through additional lasing crystals made of glass doped with neodymium. Beams above a certain intensity, however, can damage the amplifiers. To avoid this, LLNL had to make the amplifiers ever larger, many tens of centimeters in diameter. But in 1983, Gerard Mourou, now at the École Polytechnique near Paris, and his colleagues made a breakthrough. He realized that a short laser pulse could be stretched in time—thereby making it less intense—by a diffraction grating that spreads the pulse into its component colors. After being safely amplified to higher energies, the light could be recompressed with a second grating. The end result: a more powerful pulse and an intact amplifier.