Online/Offline Communities – Science on Line London 2011

Image by AJC1 via Flickr

This year I had the great opportunity of participating in the discussions of one of the breakout session in the SOLO11 Conference. The topic of the session was the importance of offline communities in online networking. The session was organised by Eva Amsen and co-hosted by Paula Salgado and myself.

It seemed to us quite interesting the fact that people were coming together to an event about science online. Why not organise it solely as an online event? Is it because communities work better when there is support offline?

Eva started off the discussion with some examples of offline communities moving online. She talked about the Node,  a community that started as a suggestion from an existing network of developmental biologists. Other examples included the ArXiv, and Facebook. Here some of the things that Michael Nielsen mention in his opening presentation resonated with what was being discussed: these communities started as small groups, and that is why they worked.

Paula talked to us about her experience in the online and offline communities, including I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here. Incidentally, you can listen to the interview she gave me for the Quantum Tunnel Podcast about her involvement with this programme. She also mentioned Science is Vital.


As for me, I had the pleasure to talk about my involvement with the organisation of  UKSciTweetups. UK Science Tweetup or UKSciTweetup is a quasi-regular meeting of scientists and sci-curious tweeps, usually on a weekday evening at a pub. Attendees are usually people that use twitter and who are interested in scientific topics. The tweetups are organised and followed-up using a hashtag: #ukscitweetup; anyone interested in the tweetups just need bookmark and/or subscribe to a twitter search for the hash tag. Everyone is  welcome, you don’t have to be a scientist, but you must be interested in science.

There has been some debate as to why UK is used in the hashtag since most of the events happen in London, where the events first started. The standard answer is that anyone in the UK can start their on chapter and I believe there have been some successful events in Bristol and Manchester but having more would be great.

In my opinion, there seems to be a general misconception that online communities are what it says in the can – simply and exclusively online. This is and should not be true. The thing to remember is that they are first and foremost communities: collections of people who share a common interest, aim or goal. The fact that they start coming together online does not preclude them from meeting offline, and by doing so they enrich their experience and can be beneficial as the ties between members can become more meaningful and has an impact in the way people use the community.

Meeting offline goes beyond the mere face-to-face interaction with other members as usually people tend to bring people who either are not in the online community (in this case twitter) or are users, but do not interact with other members.

In my experience, it has been very enriching to take part in organising some tweetups but I must admit that keeping momentum can be a hard thing to do. Having the meetings at a pub makes it easier for people to come and go (there was one organised to coincide with the late opening of the Science Museum, but it was a disaster trying to meet with people).

More recently I have not had as much time but that is not to say that other advocates are not active. It is important to mention that the aim of the events is simply to socialise with other people interested in science, so other than the hashtag there is no formal organisation and events tend to happen quite organically.

Having online communities is nothing new, they seem to appear and disappear like fairy lights (MySpace anyone? Google+?). The inherent connectivity provided by the web offers a very convenient way for people to meet others with common interests, or to seek out people to help them with problems or issues they face. However, there are many limitations to this end in terms of building a strong community. Meeting offline con address some of this issues. Online interactions are relatively easy to establish, but they tend to be transient – members don’t log back in or move to the latest networking tool. In that sense it becomes easier when the virtual space provided becomes a bit more tangible.

Going offline:

So why go offline? Being behind the computer screen provides with a certain sense of safety but there are benefits in going offline. First and foremost meeting people we chat with online makes them real. The anonymity of the internet provides a the ease of starting a relationship but there is nothing like a handshake to consolidates it. Spending some time actually chatting in a conversation down the pub for example, rather than reading each individual utterance in your twitter timeline, allows for what I would call true bonding. Participants leave feeling that they have truly connected with peers – for instance by learning finer details about them than an online discussion permits.

Having eye contact when someone and being able to read their body-language makes a huge difference – and can increase or decrease the interaction with that person. Given that members presumably have interacted online in the past makes it much easier than meeting complete strangers and things flow much quicker.

If I were asked about my top tips to build an online-offline community I would have to include:

  1. Define a purpose or a cause the group cares about: In the case of UKSciTweetup is science, in a very general definition of the word. The group includes a bunch of physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and most importantly their friends (as we like to put it).
  2. Build conversation: in the case of UKScitTweetup engaging with the community happens naturally (via twitter) and using the same logic of being free to follow/unfollow people. UKSciTweetup is open to anyone that engages in the conversation and turn up at the pub. This opens up the doors to the members to feel that they have an opportunity to be involved in the overall running of the events and this therefore translates into a more cohesive community.
  3. Building momentum: Momentum is a huge factor and keeping it going can be a hard thing to do. Once you get some steam, things flow much better and people get more involved. Nonetheless, this is easier said than done. Creating events and meetups for the online community is a great way to keep things going.
  4. Give people the opportunity to volunteer: If people feel like they can contribute and are keen to participate, the benefit is for the community. Things can be as simple as making recommendations, organise parts of meetups or simply disseminate information. (Anyone interested in organising the next event BTW?).

It is obvious that we are now in an era of online culture. However, that does not mean that we cannot build or leverage an offline community to help the online one or vice versa. It might sound a bit confusing, but there are common features in both and these should be exploited to benefit the community.

Leonhard Euler – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

Leonhard Euler (1707–83), one of the most prom...
Image via Wikipedia

You can download this podcast in iTunes or Feedburner.

Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) was Switzerland’s foremost scientist and one of the three greatest mathematicians of modern times (the other two being Gauss and

Euler was a native of Basel and a student of Johann Bernoulli at the University, but he soon outstripped his teacher. His working life was spent as a member of the Academies of Science at Berlin and St. Petersburg. He was a man of broad culture, well versed in the classical languages and literatures (he knew the Aeneid by heart), many modern languages, physiology, medicine, botany, geography, and the entire body of physical science as it was known in his time.  His personal life was as placid and uneventful as is possible for a man with 13 children.

Though he was not himself a teacher, Euler has had a deeper influence on the teaching of mathematics than any other man. This came about chiefly through his three great treatises: Introductio in Analysin Infinitorum (1748); Institutiones Calculi Differentialis (1755); and Institutiones Calculi Integralis (1768-1794). There is considerable truth in the old saying that all elementary and advanced calculus textbooks since 1748 are essentially copies of Euler or copies of copies of Euler.

He extended and perfected plane and solid analytic geometry, introduced the analytic approach to trigonometry, and was responsible for the modern treatment of the functions $latex log x$ and $latex e^x$. He created a consistent theory of logarithms of negative and imaginary numbers, and discovered that $latex log x$ has an infinite number of values. It was through his work that the symbols $latex e$, $latex pi$, and $latex i$ became common currency for all mathematicians, and it was he who linked them together in the astonishing relation $latex e^{pi i} + 1 = 0$. This is a special case of his famous formula $latex exp(itheta) = cos theta + i sin theta$, which connects the exponential and trigonometric functions. Among his other contributions to standard mathematical notations were $latex sin x, cos x$, the use of $latex f(x)$ for an unspecified function, and the use of $latex Sigma $ for summation. He was the first and greatest master of infinite series, infinite products and continued fractions, and his works are crammed with striking discoveries in these fields.

He contributed many important ideas to differential equations: the various methods of reduction of order, the notion of an integrating factor (often called an Euler multiplier), substantial parts of the theory of second order linear equations, power series solutions – all these are due to Euler. In addition he gave the first systematic discussion of the calculus of variations (founded on his basic differential equation for a minimizing curve), discovered the Eulerian integrals defining the gamma and beta functions, and introduced the Euler constant:

$latex gamma = lim_{nrightarrow infty}(1+frac{1}{2} +frac{1}{3}+…frac{1}{n}) = 0.5772…$

which is the most important special number in mathematics after $latex pi$ and $latex e$. He also worked with Fourier series, encountered the Bessel functions in his study of the vibrations of a stretched circular membrane, and applied Laplace transforms to solve differential equations – all before Fourier, Bessel, and Laplace were born. The origins of topology – one of the dominant forces in modern mathematics – lie in his solution of the Königsberg bridge problem and his formula $latex V – E + F = 2$ connecting the numbers of vertices, edges, and faces of a simple polyhedron.

In number theory, he gave the first published proofs of both Fermat’s theorem and Fermat’s two squares theorem. He later generalized the first of these classic results by introducing the Euler $latex phi$ function; his proof of the second cost him 7 years of intermittent effort. In addition, he proved that every positive integer is a sum of four squares, investigated the law of quadratic reciprocity, and initiated the theory of partitions, which deals with such problems as that of determining the number of ways in which a given positive integer can be expressed as a sum of positive integers. Some of his most interesting work was connected with the sequence of prime numbers, with those integers $latex p>1$ those only positive divisors are 1 and $latex p$. His used the divergence of harmonic series $latex 1+frac{1}{2}+frac{1}{3}+…$ to prove Euclid’s theorem that there are infinitely many primes.

The distinction between pure and applied mathematics did not exist in Euler’s day, and for him the physical universe was a convenient object that offered scope for methods of analysis. The foundations of classical mechanics had been laid down by Newton, but Euler was the principal architect. In his treatise of 1736 he was the first to explicitly introduce the concept of a mass-point or particle, and he was also the first to study the acceleration of a particle moving along any curve and to use the notion of a vector in connection with velocity and acceleration. His continued successes in mathematical physics were so numerous, and his influence was so pervasive, that most of his discoveries are not credited to him at all and are taken for granted by physicists as part of the natural order of things.

However, we do have Euler’s equation ns of motion for the rotation ‘of a rigid body, Euler’s hydrodynamical equation for the flow of an ideal incompressible fluid, Euler’s law for the bending of elastic beams, and Euler’s critical load in the theory of the buckling of columns. On several occasions the thread of his scientific thought led him to ideas his contemporaries were not ready to assimilate. For example, he foresaw the phenomenon of radiation pressure, which is crucial for the modern theory of the stability of stars, more than a century before Maxwell rediscovered it in his own work in electromagnetism.

Euler was the Shakespeare of mathematics – universal, richly detailed, and inexhaustible.


Bilingualism key to language survival
There are about 6000 different languages in the world, but just a handful, including English, dominate. Some mathematical models have shown how dominating languages can lead to the decline and extinction of less popular languages. However. Physicists in Span are challenging this idea. According to Jorge Mira Pérez and his colleagues at the University of Santiago de Compostela earlier models have not taken into account bilingualism which allows both languages to co-exist and evolve.
The researchers compared the results of their model to historical data for the preponderance of Spanish and Galician from the 19th century to 1975 and found that the fit is quite good. They find that both languages can survive so long each is initially spoken by enough people and both are sufficiently similar. The paper was published in the New Journal of Physics.

Periodic Table of Shapes
We are very familiar with the periodic table of elements, whose invention is attributed to Dimitri Mendeleev in 1869 and it has become ubiquitous in many a classroom. The table is a visual representation of the periodic law which states that certain properties of the elements repeat periodically when arranged by atomic number. Researchers at Imperial College London are interested in creating a periodic table of shapes which would become a very useful resource for mathematicians and theoretical physicists looking for shapes in three, four and five dimensions that cannot be broken into simpler shapes. These basic blocks are known as “Fano variaties” and for them to represent practical solutions to physical problems, researchers need to look at slices of the Fano varieties known as Calabi-Yau 3-folds which give possible shapes of the curled extra dimensions required by string theory.

Enlarging Schrödinger’s cat
Quantum mechanics tell us that a quantum object can exist in two or more states simultaneously, this is called a quantum superposition and usually it can be seen in very tiny objects. Nonetheless researchers in Austria have recently demonstrated quantum superposition in molecules composed of up to 430 atoms each.
Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment to illustrate the apparent paradoxes of quantum theory in which a cat would ne poisoned or not depending on the state of a quantum object. Since the object could be in a superposition of states, the cat would thus be dead and alive at the same time. This highlights the difference between the classical and the quantum worlds and poses the question as to how big would the objects have to be in order to perceive their quantumness.
Markus Arndt and colleagues have shown the observation of quantum effects in large molecules tailor-made for the purpose – up to 6 nanometres across and with up to 430 atoms, several times larger than molecules used in similar experiments in the past.

Female hormone holds key to male contraceptive
Contraceptive pills have been in the market for 50 years not, but are only available for women. Scientists had known that high doses of certain hormones stopped ovulation, but extracting the quantities needed for scale production was too difficult. It was not until invention of progestine by Mexican chemist Luis Miramontes and co-workers that lead to the creation of oral contraceptives.

Recently, two studies published in Nature (1, 2)  point to a breakthrough to design a new class of contraceptive pills. Researchers have shown how sperm sense progesterone, a female sex hormone, which serves as a guide to the egg. Progesterone activates a molecular channel called CatSper, which floods sperm cells with calcium. Problems with progesterone sensing could explain cases of infertility. The results could pave the route to coming up with a male contraceptive pill in the future.

The Large Hadron Collider – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

Large Hadron Collider tunnel and dipole magnets.
Image via Wikipedia

You can download this podcast in iTunesFeedburner.

The Large Hadron Collider is located 300 feet underneath the French-Swiss border outside Geneva and is the world’s biggest and most expensive particle accelerator. It is designed to accelerate  protons to energies of 7 trillion electron volts and then smash them together to recreate the conditions that last prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old.

The collider started smashing particles on March 30th, 2010, after 16 years and $10 billion. The new hadron collider will take physics into a realm of energy and time where the current reigning theories simply do not apply, corresponding to an era when cosmologists think that the universe was still differentiating itself, evolving from a primordial blandness and endless potential into the forces and particles that constitute modern reality.

One prime target is a particle called the Higgs boson that is thought to endow other particles with mass, according to the reigning theory of particle physics, known as the Standard Model.

The LHC is part of CERN, which born amid vineyards and farmland in the countryside outside Geneva in 1954 out of the rubble of postwar Europe. It had a twofold mission of rebuilding European science and of having European countries work together. Today, it has 20 countries as members. It was here that the World Wide Web was born in the early 1990s. The lab came into its own scientifically in the early 80s, when Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer won the Nobel Prize by colliding protons and antiprotons there to produce the particles known as the W and Z bosons, which are responsible for the so-called weak nuclear force that causes some radioactive decays.

Bosons are quanta that, according to the rules of quantum mechanics transmit forces as they are tossed back and forth in a sort of game of catch between matter particles. The W’s and Z’s are closely related to photons, which transmit electromagnetic forces, or light.

The innings of the collider are some 1,232 electromagnets, weighing in at 35 tons apiece, strung together like an endless train stretching around the gentle curve of the CERN tunnel. In order to bend 7-trillion-electron-volt protons around in such a tight circle these magnets have to produce magnetic fields of 8.36 Tesla, more than 100,000 times the Earth’s field, requiring in turn a current of 13,000 amperes through the magnet’s coils. To make this possible the entire ring is bathed in 128 tons of liquid helium to keep it cooled to 1.9 degrees Kelvin, at which temperature the niobium-titanium cables are superconducting and pass the current without resistance.

Running through the core of this train, surrounded by magnets and cold, are two vacuum pipes, one for protons going clockwise, the other counterclockwise. Traveling in tight bunches along the twin beams, the protons will cross each other at four points around the ring, 30 million times a second. During each of these violent crossings, physicists expect that about 20 protons, or the parts thereof – quarks or gluons – will actually collide and spit fire.

Two of the detectors are specialized. One, called Alice, is designed to study a sort of primordial fluid, called a quark-gluon plasma, that is created when the collider smashes together lead nuclei. The other, LHCb, will hunt for subtle differences in matter and antimatter that could help explain how the universe, which was presumably born with equal amounts of both, came to be dominated by matter.

The other two, known as Atlas and the Compact Muon Solenoid, or C.M.S. for short, are the designated rival workhorses of the collider, designed expressly to capture and measure every last spray of particle and spark of energy from the proton collisions.


Key breast cancer driver found

Cancer experts have identified a gene which can cause a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer to develop. The name given to this new oncogene is ZNF703 and it is overactive in one of 12 breast cancers. Scientists working for Cancer Research UK carried out the research and they mention that the gene was “prime candidate” for the development of new breast cancer drugs. The study was published in the EMBO Molecular Medicine Journal.

Physicists reverse the laser

We are very familiar with laser light, and as such it would seem very odd to thing about a laser that sucks in a bright beam rather than emitting it. However, scientists from Yale have recently reported in Science the development of a device that converts laser beams into heat.

Cao and co-workers uses a 110-micrometre silicon wafer and a tunable infraread laser in their experiments. They split the laser beam into two and shine it into both sides of the silicon wafer. The front and back of the silicon slice act as mirrors and the silicon in between would be similar to the medium inside a laser cavity. By tuning the frequency of the incoming laser beam as well as other properties, the photons are trapped between the surfaces of the silicon. As the photons bounce back and forth, the silicon absorbs them until all photons are sucked up by the device and converted into heat.

Smelling quantum vibrations

It has been widely believed that the different shapes of molecules provide the clues that our brain registers as smells. However, it has recently been reported that some fruit flies can distinguish between two molecules with identical shapes, providing the first experimental evidence to support a controversial theory that the sense of smell can operate by detecting molecular vibrations.

Efthimios Skoulakis of the Alexander Fleming Biomedical Sciences Research Center in Vari, Greece, carried out the experiments on fruit flies. The team initially placed fruit flies in a simple maze that let them choose between two arms, one containing a fragrant chemical such as acetophenone, a common perfume ingredient, the other containing a deuterated version. If the flies were sensing odours using shape alone, they should not be able to tell the difference between the two. In fact, the researchers found that flies preferred ordinary acetophenone.

Brazilian dam project blocked

In the previous episode we reported on the approval of the construction of a controversial dam in the Amazon, the Belo Horizonte hydroelectric plant, the third largest plant of it’s kind in the world. The plans have now been suspended by a Brazilian judge over environmental concerns.

Judge Ronaldo Desterro halted the plans for the construction because environmental requirements have not been met, also, the national development bank has been prohibited from financing the project.

Science Communication Conference in London

The British Science Association has recently announced its annual two-day Science Communication Conference. The event aims to address some of the key issues facing science communicators in the UK. In order to do that, the conference brings together people involved in public engagement with a range of backgrounds including scientists, charities, universities, press offices and policymakers.
The event will take place on the 25th and 26th of May at King’s Place in King’s Cross in London.  Registration opened on February 14 and will close on May 13th. For more information please visit their website.

Quantum Tunnel Podcast Interview with Dr Shashank Virmani

quantum_tunnel_11I am very pleased to see that the Quantum Tunnel Podcast interview with Dr Shashank Virmani has been featured in the University of Strathclyde Research Newsletter.

The interview was broadcast on November 8th, 2010 and it has been one of the most visited episodes of the podcast. It is never to late to listen to Dr Virmani talking about quantum information processing, you can access the podcast (episode 4) from iTunes or Feedburner.


Sir Isaac Newton (p. II) – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

Front cover of "Philosophiae naturalis pr...
Image via Wikipedia

You can download this podcast in iTunesFeedburner.

In the previous episode we talked about Sir Isaac Newton being one of the most influential scientist of all times. We mentioned how in 1669 Newton had what can only be described as a genius burst and made some very important discoveries; however he was not always interested in making his discoveries known by publishing them.

Encouraged by criticisms from Robert Hooke, and diplomatically soothed by Edmund Halley, Newton turned his mind to write his greatest work, the Principia. The Principia was written in 18 incredible months of total concentration, and when it was published in 1687 it was immediately recognised as one of the supreme achievements of the human mind. In it he laid down the basic principles of theoretical mechanics and fluid dynamics; gave the first mathematical treatment of wave motion; deduced Kepler’s laws from the inverse square law of gravitation, and explained the orbits of comets; calculated the masses of the Earth, the Sun and the planets with satellites; accounted for the flattened shape of the Earth, and used this to explain the precession of the equinoxes; and founded the theory of tides.

In his dynamics and celestial mechanics Newton achieved the victory for which Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo had prepared the way. This victory was so complete that the work of the greatest scientists in these fields over the next two centuries amounted to little more than footnotes to his colossal synthesis.

After the mighty surge of genius that went into the creation of the Principia, Newton again turned away from science. In 1696 he left Cambridge for London to become Warden and later Master of the Mint, and during the reminder of his long life he entered a little into society and even began to enjoy his unique position at the pinnacle of scientific fame. These changes in his interest and surrounding did not reflect any decrease in his unrivalled intellectual powers. For example, late one afternoon at the end of a hard day at the Mint, he learned of Johann Bernoulli’s brachistochorne problem – posed as a challenge “to the most acute mathematicians of the entire world” – and solved it that evening before going to bed.

Newton has always been considered and described as the ultimate rationalist, as the embodiment of the Age of Reason. It is perhaps more accurate to think of him in medieval terms – as a consecrated, solitary, intuitive mystic for whom science and mathematics were means of reading the riddle of the Universe.


World’s smallest farmers

Researchers from Rice University in Houston., Texas reported in ScienceNOW the discovery of what can be described as the world’s smallest farmer- an amoeba that picks up bacteria, carries them to a new location and the harvest them like a crop.

T.Rex bites back at claims it was a scavenger

After much wrangling between palaeontologists over the predatory nature of Tyrannosaurus Rex. The latest findings point back towards the creature being a fearsome hunter rather than a pitiful scavenger as was suggested by some. The latest research from the Zoological Society of London has added more weight to the predator argument because the sheer number of smaller carnivorous scavengers around in the late Cretaceous period in North America would have sniffed out the carcasses of fallen creatures much quicker than the T.Rex would have, leaving hunting live food as the only option to sustain the animal.

Amazon dam gets the go-ahead

The ‘green’ light has been signalled for the commencement of the construction of the world’s third largest dam in Brazil. Situated on a tributary of the Amazon River, the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant will need 588 acres of land to be cleared and 190 sq. miles of land to be flooded. The impact of this could threaten the survival of indigenous groups and make up to 50,000 people homeless.

Kilogram adjustment controversy

During a conference at the Royal Society in London on 24–25 January 2011, Richard Davis, the former head of the mass division at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France, suggested a workaround that would allow a long-planned redefinition of the kilogram to move forward. According to his plan, the results of two types of experiments that don’t quite agree would be averaged, and the mean would be used to set the new standard.

Since 1889, the kilogram has been defined as the mass of a cylinder made of platinum and iridium that is locked in a vault at the France. The plan has been to replace the cylinder with a kilogram defined in terms of a fundamental constant. Scientist have used mainly two methods to achieve this. One is the “Watt balance” where the kilogram is defined in terms of Planck’s constant. The second method consists on counting the atoms in a sphere of crystalline silicon. We covered this in a previous episode of the podcast. In this case the kilogram is related to Avogadro’s constant. All in all, scientists are hopeful that the results of these two approaches can be reconciled in time for the General Conference on Weights and Measures in 2015.

RS President hits out at mistrust of science

Sir Paul Maxime Nurse, FRS (born 25 January 19...
Image via Wikipedia

Sir Paul Nurse, the new President of the Royal Society has outlined his concerns over the levels of personal vilification and distrust shown towards.

He is now urging scientists to take on the critics who cast doubt on their research on topics ranging from climate change to GM crops. Rather than retreating to their ivory towers, they need to speak directly to the people who pay their wages.

Visceral: The Living Art Experiment

The exhibition  where the artworks are created from living tissue is being shown in the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin. The idea is to bring together science and fine art while provoking scientific and ethical questions about modern biotechnology. The exhibition was brought to Dublin by SymbioticA, the centre of excellence in biological arts at the University of Western Australia. Its lab encourages artists to come into a fully functional biological lab and find interesting ways to incorporate what they see into their works of art.

Visceral runs until February 25th, 2011

Visceral 1 Visceral 2 Visceral 3 Visceral 4

Sir Isaac Newton – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

Quantum Tunnel Podcast – Sir Isaac Newton (Part I)

You can download this podcast in iTunesFeedburner.

Isaac Newton
Image via Wikipedia

Sir Isaac Newton’s fame as the discoverer of the law of gravitation is widespread. It can be said that his achievements have had a great influence in the creation of modern physical science.

Newton was born in 1642 to a farm family in the village of Woolsthorpe in England.  In 1665, at the age of 23, an outbreak of the plague caused the universities to close, and Newton returned to his home in the country, where he remained until 1667. There, in 2 years of rustic solitude, his creative genius lead to discoveries unsurpassed in the history of human thought:

  • the binomial series for negative and fractional exponents;
  • the differential and integral calculus;
  • universal gravitation
  • the resolution of sunlight into the visual spectrum by means of a prism,

In his old age he reminisced as follows about this miraculous period of his youth: “In those days I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded Mathematicks and Philosophy more than at any time since”.

Newton was always an inward and secretive man, and for the most part kept his monumental discoveries to himself. Newton settled down in Cambridge; his mathematical discoveries were never really published in a connected form, and became known in a limited way almost by accident, through conversations and replies to questions put to him in correspondence.

It is interesting to see Newton’s correspondence with Leibnitz, through Oldenburg, in 1676 and 1677, where Newton discusses his binomial series but conceals in anagrams the ideas about calculus and differential equations, while Leibnitz freely reveals his own version of the calculus.

Not much is known about Newton’s life at Cambridge in the early years of his professorship, but it is certain that optics and construction of telescopes were among his main interests. He experimented with many techniques for grinding lenses using his own made tools, and about 1870 he built the first reflecting telescope.

In the next episode, we will continue this fascinating story, keep in touch!


Akatsuki failure

Japan’s fist space probe, Akatsuki, bound for Venus failed to enter the planet’s orbit. This failure seems to have happened after the probe passed Venus, but failed to slow down. Akatsuki is the second Japanese interplanetary probe whose mission ended in failure, the first happened in 1998 in a mission to Mars.

LHC plans extra year

The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest particle accelerator and it is used by scientist in their search for the Higgs particle, part of the mechanism that is thought to endow other particles with mass. CERN is preparing to run the LHC for an extra year in order to continue this search.

Arsenic bacteria not well received

At the beginning of December NASA announced in a well publicised press conderence that a strain of bacteria can apparently use arsenic in place of phosphorous to build its DNA, some scientists now are questioning the finding and taking issue with how it was communicated to non-specialists.

The authors of the Science paper in which the results were presented explain that the bacteria was found in Mono Lake in California and claim that this finding represents a new chemistry of life. However, other scientists such as Rosie Redfield consider these statements as premature. The big problem is that the authors have shown that the organism takes up arsenic, but they “haven’t unambiguously identified any arsenic-containing organic compounds”, says Roger Summons, a biogeochemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

California approves first US carbon-trading scheme

California has become the first US state to approve a carbon-trading plan aimed at cutting greenhouse emissions. State regulators passed a “cap-and-trade” framework to let companies buy and sell permits, giving them an incentive to emit fewer gases.

The scheme means that from 2012 California will allocate licences to pollute and create a market where they can be traded. A company that emits fewer greenhouse gases than its permits allow, could sell the extra capacity to a dirtier firm. By making over-polluting more expensive, the scheme aims to provide incentives to develop greener technology.

Brazilian rocket launch

Brazil has recently successfully launched into space a mid-sized rocket developed domestically. The rocket carried a number of experiments on weightlessness and it was recovered at sea after a short flight.

The VSB-30 rocket, developed with domestic technology by researchers at Instituto de Aeronutica e Espaço and it was launched from Alcantara, a spaceport that Brazil operates in the Amazon near the border with Ecuador.

350th Anniversary of the Royal Society – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

You can download this podcast in iTunesFeedburner.

The UK’s national academy of science, the Royal Society, is celebrating its 350th anniversary. The society held its first meeting on November 28, 1660 after a lecture by Sir Christopher Wren.

The Royal Society in London
Image via Wikipedia

The Society was to meet weekly to witness experiments and discus scientific topics. The society became the “club” of Britain’s best brains: in 350 years, there have been just 8,000 members, ranging from Newton, Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday to the DNA pioneers Francis Crick and James Watson, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee.
From the beginning, Fellows of the Society had to be elected, although the criteria for election were vague and the vast majority of the Fellowship were not professional scientists. In 1731 a new rule established that each candidate for election had to be proposed in writing and this written certificate signed by those who supported his candidature. This new professional approach meant that the Society was no longer just a learned society but also de facto an academy of scientists.

The society pioneered scientific publishing. Its Philosophical Transactions is the world’s oldest continuous scientific publication.

In this, its 350th anniversary, the Royal Society has organised a number of events throughout the year. A very interesting event was the exhibition “350 Years of Science” which presents us with a journey through the Royal Society’s building on Carlton House Terrace and shows us the fascinating history of the Society.

The Royal Society is a great institution and one which has a very important role in today’s World: It supports modern science, financing approximately 700 research fellowships both early and late career scientists, along with innovation, mobility and research capacity grants.

I am pretty sure that in the next 350 years much more history and many more stories will involve the Royal Society. Happy birthday!

Royal Society Royal Society Royal Society Royal Society Royal Society Royal Society


Science and the Coalition Government in the UK
UK Scientists have on-going concerns for the future of UK science over the Coalition Government’s ‘one size fits all’ plans to cap immigration.
With the new visa system overseas researchers are more likely to find it difficult to get access to the UK due to academic salaries and qualifications being expected to earn fewer visa points than those awarded to other workers. The new plans put a cap of 1,000 visas to the ‘exceptional talent’ tier one visas, which replaces the highly skilled category, while graduate scientists can also apply for 20,700 tier two visas if they already have a job offer.

Rhea’s atmosphere

A team of scientists for the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, US, have discovered an atmosphere of oxygen and carbon dioxide on Rhea, the second largest moon orbiting Saturn. The results have been published in the online version of the Science magazine.

Photon Bose-Einstein Condensate

Physicists from the University of Bonn in Germany have developed a Bose-Einstein condensate consisting of photons. Until recently, experts had thought this impossible. The scientists report their results in the journal Nature.
This photonic Bose-Einstein condensate is a completely new source of light that has characteristics resembling lasers. But compared to lasers, they have a decisive advantage, it could be possible to produce lasers with a very short wavelength.

Interview with Dr Shashank Virmani – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

You can download the Quantum Tunnel Podcast from iTunes or Feedburner.

You have probably heard about quantum information science – in other words, information science that depends on quantum effects. The ability to manipulate quantum information enables us to carry out tasks that in the classical contexts would not be possible. This time the Quantum Tunnel Podcast had the opportunity to talk to Dr Shashank Virmani, who is a lecturer in the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. Dr Virmani is an expert in quantum information theory and talks to us about correlated error affecting quantum information processing and spilling coffee over a book. Ah! He also explains to us some of the intricacies of the P versus NP problem.


Holographic video

We are all familiar with that famous scene in Star Wars – Episode IV A New Hope where Princess Leia records a 3D hologram appealing for Obi-wan Kenobi‘s help. R2 is then able to reproduce the holographic message and even Darth Vader himself gets to see it. You might think that it’s all science fiction, but it could be very soon that you might be able to transmit this kind of messages, independently of your alliances with the Empire.

Scientists from the University of Arizona published in the journal Nature a report for the transmission of moving 3D images. The creation of holograms is nothing new, but the generation of video has proved to be more challenging.

This new device is able to refresh a holographic image every few seconds and the scientist demonstrated the use of colour and parallax, that is, people looking at the image from different angles see different views.[youtube=]

Evolution of language linked to dexterity

One of the signatures of the dawn of civilisation is the ability of early humans to make tools. The development of ever more sophisticated tools is seen as a key moment in human evolution.

According to Aldo Faisal and colleagues the dexterity to make these sophisticated tools is not more intricate than that required to make simpler ones. This points out that early humans were limited by brain power rather than manual dexterity.

In the study published in the journal PLoS ONE, the scientists argue that their study reinforces the idea that toolmaking and languages evolved together as both required more complex thought.

Re-defining the Kilo

What is a kilogram? Well, you might say that it is a thousand grams, but that might not be too helpful. You might instead point to the mass of a 122-year-old cylinder of platinum and iridium, kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris.

Nonetheless, this might not be the ideal answer either as it seems that the cylinder is changing as it ages, prompting several groups of scientists to seek a replacement. They hope to define the kilogram by referring to a physical constant rather than an antique object.

The latest result from a team led by Peter Becker of the Federal Institute of Physical and Technical Affairs (PTB) in Braunschweig, Germany, published on the arXiv comes closer than ever to ending the cylinder’s reign. The team has measured the number of atoms in a sphere of silicon-28 to calculate Avogadro’s constant to nine significant figures. The constant refers to the number of atoms in a sample whose bulk mass in grams equals the relative atomic mass of the element. This general relationship makes Avogadro’s constant a fixed point from which to define mass.

Interview with Sam Stafford – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

You can download the Quantum Tunnel Podcast from iTunes or Feedburner.

The Quantum Tunnel Podcast talks to Samuel Stafford. Sam has recently completed an MSc in Physics at Imperial College London. He has been working on Electron Paramagnetic Resonance or EPR, which is an analogous of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, but in this case it is the electron spins that are excited rather than the spins of atomic nuclei.


Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

This year the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Robert Edwards  for the development of human in vitro fertilisation or IVF.  Edward’s achievements have made it possible to treat infertility and accomplishing fertilization in human egg cells in test tubes. The efforts of his research saw the first “test tube baby” being born on July 25th, 1978. It is calculated that four million individuals have been born using IVF and with Edward’s efforts a new field of medicine has emerged.

Nobel Prize in Physics

Some times it takes the Nobel Committee several decades to award the Nobel Prize, a case in hand is that of Edward’s and IVF. However, in other cases the Committee is much quicker. This year, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded within 10 years of the developments that have brought to us graphene. The Nobel Prize was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for the extraction of graphene from a piece of graphite. Graphene is a form of carbon with the thickness of just one atom. Graphene show amazing properties: it conducts electricity better than copper, it is transparent and it is stronger than diamond. Incidentally, Andre Geim was awarded the IgNobel Prize in 2000 together with Sir Michael Berry for using magnets to levitate a frog!

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki for the development of palladium-catalysed cross coupling. Sounds complicated, so what is this? Well, we are talking about a chemical tool that has enabled chemists the creation of sophisticated chemicals such as complex carbon-based molecules. As we know, carbon-based chemistry is the basis of life, however it turns out that carbon is stable and thus carbon atoms do not react easily with one another. Palladium-catalised cross coupling solved this problem and provided chemists with a more precise and efficient tool to work with. In the so-called Heck reaction, Negishi reaction and Suzuki reaction, carbon atoms meet on a palladium atom, and their proximity jump-starts the chemical reaction.

Revising the state of science in Mexico – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

You can download this podcast in iTunes o Feedburner.

Science in Mexico

A focus editorial about science in Mexico appears in the most recent issue of Nature Materials. The editorial content was  prepared, commissioned and edited by Joerg Heber and myself. It includes a commentary by Arturo Menchaca Rocha, President of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and an interview with Juan Ramón de la Fuente, President of the International Association of Uniersities and former Rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

In terms of population, Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world and the second most-populous country in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico boasts an abundance of natural resources, all of which are important to its economy and oil being a very important one of them. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2009 Mexico was the world’s seventh-largest producer of crude oil, and the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States. In contrast, although the country has substantial natural gas reserves, Mexico is a net importer of this resource. This is of course a very brief assessment of the energy situation in the country, but one that can be extended to other areas, including education, science and technology.

There is no doubt that Mexico has improved access to education and literacy over the past few decades. According to a 2007 World Bank report, enrolment at the primary level is nearly universal (97.9% net), and more children are completing primary education. However, this is not the case at higher education levels.

Achieving a strong economic growth and a high level of human development requires increasing the investment in science, technology and innovation, as well as a close collaboration between government, private sector and higher education and research institutions. In the case of Mexico, in order to solve the current lag in the areas mentioned above there are three issues that need to be addressed, and which are analysed in the recent editorial inthe Nature Materials.

The first thing to tackle is to compensate the slow development in basic science, manifested for instance in the in the rates of Research and Development personnel and researchers which are among the lowest in those ranked by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which places Mexico in a low position compared to other OECD countries. This situation can be partly explained bu the lack of investment in infrastructure and the inefficiencies in human resource management, as pointed out by the commentary of Menchaca Rocha for Nature Materials.

A second point to address is to counter the enormous asymmetries between federal states, institutions and social sectors, as highlighted by Juan Ramón de la Fuente Ramírez. For instance, in terms of institutions for example, in 2009 UNAM received a budget of 1.6 billion US dollars from the Federal Government, which is larger than the budget of some states in Mexico. However, other publicly funded Universities around the country do not have access to similar resources, producing an acute imbalance. Nonetheless, these other institutions make important contributions to the research output of the country, although their visibility might be reduced.

The third issue is to improve technological transfer. In Mexico the business sector plays a much smaller role in the innovation process than the higher education sector. As a result Mexico has an enormous dependence on foreign technology and a very low rate of registration patents from Mexican nationals.

In order to tackle these issues it is necessary to bring together researchers, academics, directors and managers of higher education institutions, research centres and legislators in order to harness the potential of science and technology more effectively. Juan Ramón de la Fuente brings up the urgency for a strong state policy for science and technology and hints at the need for legislators to take up the responsibility to make this a reality.

Two hundred years ago, Mexico embraced the idea of political independence and in the last hundred years of Mexican history, the country has seen the creation of the vast majority of its higher education institutions, as well as the systematisation of research as a professional activity. It is time now for Mexico to take the necessary steps to provide its scientific and technological development with a strong basis in order to allow the country to be fully engaged in an ever more competitive world.

The editorial is available to be seen freely to registered users, whereas the Commentary by Arturo Menchaca Rocha and the interview with Juan Ramón de la Fuente can only be accessed bu subscribers.


Testing Relativity on Earth

Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that relative speed and gravity affect the passing of time. Relativistic effects have been measured using synchronised atomic clocks on jumbo jets back in the 70s. However, more recently researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have tested relativity at a more everyday-life scale, as reported in the journal Science. Chin-wen Chou and colleagues have shown that time speeds up if you raise your height for instance by going a rung up a ladder, and it slows down if you travel at just 36 kilometres per hour.

Daisy Fossil

A 47 million year old fossil of a daisy has been identified in the Argentinean city of Bariloche. The Argentinean and Swedish scientists also found traces of pollen and their findings have been reported in the journal Science. According to the scientists the Asteraceae family, to which daisies belong to, are originally from the Patagonian region and from here it aprese to the rest of the world. This discovery is quite interesting as usually flowers do not leave fossil records, they usually desintegrate.

Heart stopping surgery

Heart surgeons use extreme cooling to allow them to stop a patient’s heart long enough to carry out surgery and then revive them. Sounds a bit like science fiction, but it is not.

The technique induces hypothermia on the patient, whose body is cooled to 18 degrees centigrades. This provides the surgeons with a brief but important window to perform surgery, which has to be completed before any brain damage is caused to the patient. Once the surgery is finished, the patient is warmed up and their heart restarted with a defibrillator.

The secret of a good dancer

Not everoine has the dance moves of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, but what is the secret if a good dancer? Scientists from Northumbria University have carried out a rigorous analysis of dance moves that make men attractive to women and their findings have been published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

The scientists captured the best moves of young men using 12 cameras. These movements were then converted into a computer-generated cartoon which women rated on a scale of one to seven. They found that women paid more attention to the torso, neck and head and that it was not just the speed of the movements, it was also the variability of the movement. Movements that went down terribly were twitchy and repetitive – so called “Dad dancing”.