This month, we’re look at some of the skills scientists can develop outside of their labs, which can help them in their careers. You can hear from participants in two of the training courses we run, on media skills and leadership effectiveness. We also handed the microphone over to some budding scientists, who had had the chance to “Ask a scientist” some questions themselves. Finally, we caught up with participants in the Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme, which matches research scientists with MPs, senior civil servants and Lords.
00:45 Dr Vardis Ntoukakis and Dr Elisa Antolin tell us about their experience at the Royal Society Media Skills training day.
05:20 We hear from recent attendees at the Royal Society’s residential training course in Leadership Effectiveness at Chicheley Hall.
12:52 Students from Brittania Village School interview Chris Harrison from the University of Durham,
17:29 Students from Wimbledon College interview Paul Kirk, a mathematician from Imperial College.
20:22 We catch up with scientists and MPs taking part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme.
The Chemistry World office is bedecked in tinsel, ready to celebrate the festive period. And as a thank you for celebrating with us, we’re going to send a Chemistry World mug to each of our favourite festive chemistrees!
So we tweeted about it…
— ChemistryWorld (@ChemistryWorld) December 5, 2013
The making of chemistrees to decorate labs is not a new phenomenon, we found this one last year:
Sticking with festive labs, we posted this Christmas chemis-tree from A Kleij Research Group at ICIQ last year… pic.twitter.com/x5RZDKuyF4
— ChemistryWorld (@ChemistryWorld) December 5, 2013
But we wanted to see more, so asked on twitter - the response was phenomenal:
— Bananaclub@loucoll (@bananaclubchem) December 5, 2013
— Dr Paul Coxon (@paulcoxon) December 5, 2013
— Dr Suze Kundu (@FunSizeSuze) December 5, 2013
— Annika Nordtveit (@KyniskKjemiker) December 5, 2013
— Emma Dux (@Duxie_Em) December 5, 2013
— Monica Gill (@MGillChem) December 5, 2013
— Jack Kennedy (@KennedyJack16) December 6, 2013
— Cassandra Knutson (@cmknutson) December 9, 2013
— Katherine Haxton (@kjhaxton) December 10, 2013
— Chemistry Department (@osfc_Chemistry) December 12, 2013
— St Bede's Chemistry (@StBedeChemistry) December 12, 2013
— Ryan Hamilton (@RyanPharmilton) December 13, 2013
— Farlingaye Chemistry (@FHSChemistry) December 13, 2013
— Emma Dux (@Duxie_Em) December 12, 2013
— Emma Dux (@Duxie_Em) December 12, 2013
— Michael Geyer (@234chem) December 16, 2013
They just keep coming!
— Michael Geyer (@234chem) December 16, 2013
— William Green (@7wgreen7) December 16, 2013
— Davis Research Group (@APDChem) December 16, 2013
— Jessica Bonham (@jabonham8) December 16, 2013
— Rhod Jenkins (@rhodrij) December 16, 2013
— César Gtz Quevedo (@CesarGtzQuevedo) December 16, 2013
— HCC_Chem (@HCC_Chem) December 17, 2013
— Emma C (@EmmaKCorbin) December 17, 2013
— NHS Chemistry (@NHS_Chemistry) December 18, 2013
— Samantha Craig (@SamGraceCraig) December 18, 2013
— Kristie Simmons (@krsimmo) December 18, 2013
— Colin Adams (@CMAman96) December 18, 2013
— Chemistry at Hull (@HullChemistry) December 19, 2013
— Anders Vik (@andervik76) December 19, 2013
— Lieke van Hemert (@lvhemert) December 19, 2013
— BHASVIC Chemistry (@SJC_Chemistry) December 20, 2013
— Kat Day (@KatLDay) December 20, 2013
We liked these so much that we’ll pick our five favourites, and send a Chemistry World mug to each one – keep an eye out on our twitter and facebook pages to see which trees win!
A further trawl of twitter showed that we were not the only ones getting festive!:
— Sketching Science (@sketchingsci) December 5, 2013
— Jason Elsom (@JasonElsom) December 8, 2013
Oh chemistree, oh chemistree, how lovely are your beakers
Success in science is a tricky thing to measure. The existing frameworks use journal output, number of successful PhD students and amount of grant funding achieved as metrics by which to measure scientific success.
But this certainly isn’t the only way for scientists to succeed. Once you break out of the confines of academia and into the world of business and enterprise, the criteria change dramatically.
I’ve recently been visiting people who have been winners of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies Competition. These are researchers who have developed their scientific research into a marketable product. Some ideas are already spun out into businesses, with funding and a solid business plan, others are still within their parent university, their promising product prepared and proven, but not yet part of a business structure.
There’s one thing they all have in common – entrepreneurship. Each researcher or group that applies for the competition has the spark to recognise the possible commercial applications of their science. A great deal of scientific research fails to realise its commercial potential – it falls into the ‘valley of death’ – but those that succeed usually have someone with vision and determination pushing them through.
The Emerging Technologies Competition recognises these people early in their career, but with the Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year award, we hope to identify those who have leapt the deadly valley and landed on secure footing. The award recognises their achievements and encourages others to do the same, to see the potential in their research and to understand how to make it happen.
Science needs diversity. And a diverse way of defining scientific success will help to spur further scientific developments and inspire the next generation of scientists. Of course we celebrate the Nobel laureates and those that expand our understanding of the world through their research, but we should also celebrate those who extend science into the commercial arena.
So do you know anyone who has successfully bridged the valley of death? Someone who saw real commercial application in their research, and demonstrated the determination needed to see that potential through? If so, please nominate them for the Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year award, and join us in celebrating all kinds of scientific success.
We’re running a series of guest posts from the judges of the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition. Here, science writer and Chemistry World columnist Philip Ball considers the place of chemistry in open science initiatives.
In the energetic current discussion about openness in science, chemistry has been largely absent. With the one obvious exception of drug trials – how can we encourage pharmaceutical companies to be more upfront with their findings? – chemistry seems to have been lost somewhere in the space between the life sciences, where the focus is on the accessibility and intelligibility of huge data sets, and physics, where open-access and participatory crowd-sourcing are already well advanced in projects such as the arXiv preprint server and Galaxy Zoo. Perhaps another way of saying this is that it is less obvious what is at stake for chemistry. Might it have continued to thrive on the basis of old models of how science is done, if left alone to do so?
My own view is that, among other things, a preprint server for chemical papers is long overdue, and I would rejoice if some enterprising institution were to initiate one. Partly this is selfish – for a science writer like me, the physics arXiv is an absolute boon for searching out interesting stories at the early stage, although of course this relies on the reader possessing some mechanisms for selectivity and discretion that do not depend on traditional peer review. But it is also invigorating to see how the arXiv has fostered a culture of active debate and engagement among physicists, in which responses to claims and controversies can be rapidly disseminated. That is something any science needs.
A preprint server for biology, called bioRxiv.org, has just been launched by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and one for chemistry surely can’t be far behind. But that’s not to say that the model established by the arXiv has to be copied by the other sciences – there’s no unique way to go about disseminating and discussing preprints. I’d be interested to know what chemists in particular need and might look for in such a thing (I’d rate graphical abstracts as a must, for instance).
On the issue of data, I have encountered many debates and discussions about specific results and claims that require access to crystal structure data or simulation code. There’s no longer any argument for why such details cannot be made available, both during peer review and on publication. What’s more, computational tools appear to be moving towards greater standardization, so that for example raw data can be checked using off-the-shelf software. And the rise of well informed and well subscribed science blogs offers a growing forum for debating the issues free from the sometimes cumbersome procedures of traditional publishing.
Developments like this do seem to be cohering into a genuinely new way to do science – to forge collaborations, analyse data, share resources, communicate and assess results. No one yet knows what that will mean for time-honoured mechanisms of funding, networking and publishing, although one hopes that it might at least remove some of the entry barriers experienced by smaller laboratories or by researchers in developing countries. I’d love to hear what visions people have!
Philip Ball is a freelance writer. He previously worked for over 20 years as an editor for the international science journal Nature. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media, and has authored many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and the wider culture. Philip also writes for Chemistry Worldand has a regular column – ‘The Crucible‘.
In this month’s episode we’re highlighting the achievements of women in science – hearing from Professor Margaret Brown on mathematics education and from Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on the teenage brain. Volunteers from our Wikipedia-edit-a-thon will be telling us about their experiences and we’ll also get a historical perspective on women and The Royal Society from Dr Claire Jones. Also this month, two of our books prizes were awarded, so we’ll also hear from Sean Carroll, winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books and some of the young judges of the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize.
00:39 Professor Margaret Brown discusses mathematics education, after receiving the Kavli Education Medal.
04:45 Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on her research into the teenage brain and her recent receipt of the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture.
12:51 Interviews with volunteers at the recent Women in Science Wikipedia edit-a-thon.
16:55 Extracts from Dr Claire Jones’s public history of science lecture: Sisters in science: Hertha Ayrton, women and the Royal Society c.1900.
27:33 Students from Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls judges talk about judging the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2013.
29:22 Why Science? – Sarah-Jayne Blakemore
As we mentioned here before this week saw the very first Chemistry World Jobs Live event, held in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s London home, Burlington House. The queues outside and happy faces inside seem to suggest that it was a resounding success.
Over 250 people visited on the day to meet representatives from universities, recruitment agencies and industry. If meeting potential employers wasn’t enough, delegates could opt to have their CV spring cleaned by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s careers advisors, and explored alternative career routes by getting involved with the ‘meet the experts’ panel discussion.
— The Chemistry Centre (@thechemcentre) November 25, 2013
Speaking to attendees, the watchword was opportunities:
‘I’m finishing my PhD, writing up my thesis, so I wanted to look at what opportunities there are available for me as a PhD graduate.’
‘I’m looking for new opportunities to move my career on. I’m currently undergoing a redundancy situation that is not yet resolved, so I’m trying to look into the future a little bit and look for potential new opportunities.’
‘I’m now at the stage when I’m looking for graduate work. [I thought] this would be the perfect opportunity to come along, do a bit of networking, talk to some people. Because I’m still at the point where I don’t actually know what I want to do for a living yet!’
‘I’m looking for a change in emphasis in what I do. Get out of the lab; maybe get into a project management role or consultancy. I thought I’d come along and see what there is on offer.’
[Okay, that last one doesn’t actually use the word ‘opportunity’, but they were probably thinking it.]
— Ben Valsler (@BenValsler) November 25, 2013
For the twenty six exhibitors, including big names like GSK, Pfizer, AWE and AstraZeneca, it was a chance to test the waters of their future employment pool, and encourage the best to think of applying to them first. Their feedback after the event showed how they benefited from an event that outwardly is targeted at jobseekers:
‘From an exhibitor’s point of view it all went off very smoothly … The ‘standard’ of the delegates was very high and we were pleased that a significant proportion of them were what we might describe as being ‘experienced researchers’ … the day was of quite significant value to us in so far as it helped to build our profile with a number of young people who will only be applying in 2014.’
‘Thanks for putting on such a great event yesterday, I felt it was really beneficial for the business to increase its visibility.’
The ‘meet the experts’ part of the day was perhaps harder to quantify – rather than speaking directly to a potential employer, this event was a way to discuss other aspects of career progression.
‘The panel discussions were lively and well attended’ explained Bibiana Campos-Seijo, editor of Chemistry World and member of the panel. ‘The panellists had very different backgrounds and included among others representatives from Saudi Aramco, Hexcel, Royal Society of Chemistry, University of Bradford and none other than TV personality Ricky Martin, of The Apprentice and Total Wipeout fame now heading Hyper Recruitment Solutions in partnership with Lord Alan Sugar. We had an entertaining and diverse spread that reflected experiences both in academia and industry but also gave a flavour of some of the options that are available to those who wish to pursue an international career in the chemical sciences.’
The panel discussed alternative routes into chemistry careers, the value of having a PhD and the drama of facing redundancy. Bibiana noted that, in spite of the different experiences on the panel there were some common themes in the advice meted out to attendees. ‘Remain flexible – plans don’t always go as intended so be prepared to adapt and fully embrace plan B. And be opportunistic – remain resourceful and proactive, not letting opportunities pass you by.’
This approach certainly hit the mark for one attendee, who beamingly explained: ‘I was very pleasantly surprised; I’m very pleased I went. It was very inspiring to hear what they had to say … it really reinforced my enthusiasm and I thought it was very inspiring indeed.’
Chemistry World Jobs Live will return in 2014!
We’re running a series of guest posts from the judges of the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition. This time, writer and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis explains why he thinks openness is a benefit to all.
As researcher, then producer, and finally presenter, I spent 30 years in television, trying to get across to the general public scientific ideas, from why banana skins are slippery to the detector experiments at the Large Hadron Collider.
In the science office at Yorkshire Television, I was surrounded by creative people, but I noticed they came in two varieties. Arriving at the office in the morning with a new idea for an item or a programme, some (afraid of theft or ridicule) would go into a corner, scribble secret notes, and phone advisers; others would tell everyone about the idea, and ask for comments. This latter, open approach was hugely more successful. Some proposals would get instantly laughed out of court, but most would provoke arguments, sometimes heated, and these arguments always improved the basic idea.
In other words, openness paid off handsomely; taking the apparent risk of sharing the idea was almost always beneficial.
The same principal applies to practising science; the more scientists share their ideas the better the outcome is likely to be. Joseph Priestley made have regretted telling Antoine Lavoisier about his discovery of “dephlogisticated air” but at least Lavoisier coined the sexier name oxygen.
When I worked in a lab – a long time ago – I learned a great deal from watching and talking to my colleagues – theoretical ideas, tips of technique, and so on – and I am convinced that the more you share the more you gain.
Adam Hart-Davis is a freelance writer and broadcaster – former presenter on television of Local Heroes, Tomorrow’s World, What the Romans (and others) did for Us, How London was Built, and many others. He has collected various awards for both television and radio, as well as two medals and 14 honorary doctorates. He has read several books, and written about 30. He spends a lot of time hacking at green wood, making chairs, tables, egg cups, bowls, and spoons.
A chance to find your dream job?
More and more, we conduct our lives online. From shopping to socialising, there’s nary an activity that hasn’t been supplemented or supplanted by the electronic ether, and the internet is never far from our fingers.
Shortcuts through cyberspace make the world smaller, but some lament that this comes at the expense of conventional contact and communication, and in fact pushes us further apart.
Online job searching is perhaps one of the more innocuous, indeed welcome, invasions of life lived remotely. Most job hunts are likely to begin with offering up a few key strokes to a database and end with a fingers-crossed click to dispatch a payload of personal data. Your first encounter of the third kind with an alien employer will probably be a handshake on the day of your interview, should your digital demeanour persuade them to pause upon your CV.
But for all its convenience, we should be wary that our reliance on technology doesn’t diminish the personal interactions that are still so essential. We spend so much of our lives in our workplaces, our colleagues and customers see more of us than our families. But unlike families, you actually get to choose your job. Spending some time getting to know your could-be employer helps both of you know if the relationship will work. It has costs: time, effort and possibly money, but that’s a small price to pay to give yourself the best chance of landing the job you want.
At the end of November, we’ll be running our first careers fair, at Burlington House in London. An impressive selection of chemistry employers – big and small, global and local – representing all aspects of the chemistry industry will be there, and looking to recruit. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s careers advisors will also be on hand to offer their assistance. In one day, you can meet over 20 potential employers, speak to the people that work there, and learn what they do just by turning up and saying hello. And they get to meet you – a person, not a pdf.
"A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success." -Elbert Hubbard I've had the great fortune in my life to see a great many wonderful things with my own eyes, including the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, a couple of faint, distant galaxies, and a large number of sunsets, sunrises, and lunar eclipses. But as far as solar eclipses go, I missed the only realistic opportunity I ever had to see -- as Cara Beth Satalino would say -- that
Back in 1994, an annular solar eclipse happened just 300 miles from where I was living. While I got to see the partial eclipse that resulted from being off of the ideal path, I'd never seen either a total or annular solar eclipse. But this weekend was my big chance, and I wasn't going to miss it. For the first time, I set out on an eclipse expedition, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacular sights that one of my former astronomy students had grabbed hours earlier from Tokyo.
(Image credit: Destiny Fox. Thanks, Destiny!)
As many of you know, I've been preparing for this for a couple of months, and that started with scouting out a prime location. The one I chose was right on the coast, for the earliest possible view from America, right in the middle of the path of maximum eclipse.
Choosing the middle of that path means that I was going to get to see -- if the conditions were ideal -- the Moon pass over the dead center of the Sun, creating a true ring of fire. The place where this was going to happen was False Klamath Cove, a rock-littered area in very northern California. But this place was "only" about 330 miles from where I live today, in Portland, Oregon, and so I made the trip down. About an hour before maximum eclipse, this was the view I had.
Yes, it was somewhat cloudy, and I knew the clouds and fog would be continuing to roll in, but it wasn't hopeless. You see, the clouds were thin enough that the "binocular trick," where you un-cap one side of a pair of binoculars and project the image of the Sun onto a white screen behind it, was still very effective.
As you can see, you were still able to see the Sun's disk, as well as the fraction of it that was obscured by the Moon. But I wasn't going to settle for a projection of the Sun's disk onto a screen; I wanted to see it with my own eyes. And so that meant bringing a little protective eyewear. In addition to my polarized sunglasses, I also brought along two wonderful pieces of equipment: a pair of shade-5 welder's goggles and a shade-10 welder's hood.
Under sunny, high-noon conditions, you need shade-14 to safely look at the Sun. Thankfully, eye protection is additive, so wearing both of these together meant that I could look at the Sun without concern for safety.
I'm not going to lie: other than a green tint, this view was spectacular. The Sun was crisp, the clouds could be seen dancing across its face, and the fraction that was obscured by the Moon was cleanly and clearly visible. I'm definitely going to be using both of these, together, to watch the Venus transit in a couple of weeks.
But for photography? That's never been a skill (or even an interest) of mine, so all I could do was experiment. Placing the shade-5 goggles in front of the camera was clearly not enough.
While the cloud cover was light, as it was in the early stages of the eclipse, it turns out that the shade-10 hood, on its own, was significantly better than the goggles.
You could see, with the camera, that part of the Sun was obscured, but the image was still greatly overexposed, making it virtually impossible to see any detail.
I tried using both the goggles and the hood together. But the combination that worked so well for my eyes was a miserable failure for the camera.
As you can see, the Sun's disk still appeared overexposed, plus now there were problems of multiple reflections between the different surfaces, ruining the image on the camera.
But as we neared the moment of maximum eclipse, and the Sun dwindled to a crescent, slowly creeping around the edges of the Moon, something both wonderful and horrifying began to happen. Thick, foggy clouds began to roll in, as they do every evening in this part of the world at this time of the year. But it meant something wonderful for my feeble photography skills.
My images were suddenly less over-exposed. And as the fog rapidly thickened, I discovered that I no longer needed shade-15 protection to watch the eclipse. I no longer needed shade-10, in fact. At the moment of maximum eclipse, I had nothing but the shade-5 welder's goggles over the lens of the camera, and this was the photo I got.
Digital cameras, of course, get outstanding resolution. So this perfect circle, this ring of fire, actually showed up like this.
There's no way to describe what it's like to see it with your own eyes, but my experience was probably extremely unique, because rather than watching the Moon move off of the Sun, I watched this ring of fire fade away behind some ever-thickening clouds, and disappear from sight.
And that's why even though there are no more pictures from my first eclipse expedition, you can bet it won't be my last!Read the comments on this post...
"But some of the greatest achievements in philosophy could only be compared with taking up some books which seemed to belong together, and putting them on different shelves; nothing more being final about their positions than that they no longer lie side by side. The onlooker who doesn't know the difficulty of the task might well think in such a case that nothing at all had been achieved." -Wittgenstein One of the most fundamental questions about the Universe that anyone can ask is, "Why is there anything here at all?"
(Image credit: Patrick at vignetted.com.)
Out beyond Earth, of course, there are trillions of other worlds within our own galaxy, and at least hundreds of billions of galaxies within just the part of our Universe that's observable to us.
(Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team.)
Explaining where all the matter in the Universe comes from is one thing. What you traditionally think of as something -- that is, the plants, animals, elements, planets, stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters -- that's one question.
How and when all of that got here? That's something we think we can answer.
(Image credit: me, as a New Year's present to you.)
But there's an even more fundamental question than that. In order to have our Universe, you need to start with what, as a physicist, I call nothing.
You need to start with empty spacetime.
And you can start with the emptiest spacetime imaginable: something flat, devoid of matter, devoid of radiation, of electric fields, of magnetic fields, of charges, etc. All you would have, in that case, is the intrinsic zero-point energy, or the ground state, of empty space.
From a physical point of view, that's what nothing is. Only, perhaps perplexingly, that zero-point energy? It isn't zero.
(Image credit: Brian Greene's Elegant Universe.)
If it were, we wouldn't have a Universe filled with dark energy, and yet we do. Instead, spacetime has a fundamental, intrinsic, non-zero amount of energy inherent to it; that's what's causing the Universe's expansion to accelerate! What's even more bizarre than that is the fact that all the matter and energy in the Universe today came from a drop, long ago, from an even higher zero-point-energy state. That process -- reheating -- is what comes at the end of an indeterminately long phase of exponential expansion of the Universe known as cosmic inflation.
(Image credit: Ned Wright.)
The regions of space where this drop in zero-point energy occurred gave rise to regions of the Universe like ours, where matter and energy exist in abundance, and where the expansion of spacetime is relatively slow. But the regions where it hasn't yet occurred continue to have an extremely rapid rate of expansion. This is why physicists state that inflation is eternal, and this is also the physical motivation for the existence of multiverses.
In the diagram below, regions marked with red X's are regions where the drop in zero-point energy occurs, and a region of the Universe like ours comes into existence.
(Image credit: me, created especially for you last year.)
That's the physical story of where all this comes from. Of where our planets, stars, and galaxies comes from, of where all the matter and energy in the Universe comes from, of where the entire 93-billion-light-year wide section of our observable Universe comes from.
From a scientific perspective, we think we understand not only where all of this comes from, but also the fundamental laws that govern it. So when a physicist writes a book called: A Universe from Nothing, I know that some version of this story -- the scientific story of how we get our entire Universe from nothing -- is the one you're going to get told.
It's a remarkable story, it's perhaps my favorite story to tell, and it's certainly been the greatest story I've ever learned. But in at least one way, it's a dissatisfying story. Because the scientific definition of "nothing" that we use -- empty, curvature-free spacetime at the zero-point energy of all its quantum fields -- doesn't resemble our ideal expectations of what "nothing" ought to be.
(Image credit: retrieved from Universe-Review.ca.)
No one sufficiently versed in the science of physical cosmology (and being sufficiently honest with themselves about it) would argue against this: that the entire Universe that we know and exist in comes from a state like this, that existed some 13.7 billion years ago. But you may rightfully ask, "Is that truly nothing?"
This empty spacetime definition of what is physically nothing stands in contrast to what we can imagine as what I'll call pure (or philosophical) nothingness, where there's no space, no time, no laws of physics, no quantum fields to be in their zero state, etc. Just a total void.
This has been the source of much argument recently, as the answer to the physical question of where everything comes from does not necessarily answer the philosophical one. It certainly pushes it off for a while, but it still leaves unexplained the existence of spacetime and the laws of physics themselves. There has been bickering back-and-forth with a handful of physicists and philosophers arguing as to whether this physical story really explains why there is something rather than nothing?
It is a remarkable story, of course, and it explains where every galaxy, every star, and every atom in the Universe comes from, an astouding feat.
(Image credit: Don Dixon.)
But it doesn't explain, existentially, why spacetime or the laws of nature themselves exist, or exist with the properties that they have. In short, understanding how something comes from nothing does not explain how this physical state of nothing comes from an existential nothingness. This question of why, as enunciated by Heidegger, is not addressed by our physical understanding of the Universe. But is it a fair question?
Like the oft-dismissive Wittgenstein, I'm not sure. We make this inherent assumption that both spacetime and the laws inherent to our Universe come from somewhere. Yet our classical notions and intuitions about causality are violated even within our known Universe; do we have good reason to expect that this non-universal form of logic applies to the very existence of the Universe itself? Furthermore, how can something, even figuratively, come from anything else if you remove time?
One can, of course, imagine answers to these questions: an entity of some sort that exists outside of time and thus has access to all times equally, a type of hidden-variable logic that exists as part of reality but requires the knowledge of things that are presently unobservable to us, a higher-dimensional being who sees our entire Universe no differently from how an animator sees the elements of a two-dimensional cartoon, etc.
(Image credit: Chuck Jones / Warner Brothers Studios.)
None of these answers are convincing or compelling, mind you, and I am not sure that the questions do even make sense as far as reality is concerned. But just because we cannot yet know the answers, or whether the questions are sensible as far as reality is concerned, doesn't mean there isn't value to asking them and thinking about them. To me, that's what philosophy is. I would encourage everyone to remember the words of my favorite philosopher, Alan Watts: The reason for it is that most civilized people are out of touch with reality because they confuse the world as it is with the world as they think about it, talk about it, and describe it. On the one hand, there is the real world, and on the other, a whole system of symbols about that world that we have in our minds. These are very very useful symbols -- all civilization depends on them -- but like all good things, they have their disadvantages, and the principal disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality. For whatever it's worth, when I think of nothing, I think about empty spacetime and the physical Universe: that's where my interests lie, and that's where I believe the knowable lies. But that doesn't mean there isn't something wonderful to be gained from philosophizing. As Alan Watts himself said:
(Video credit: dFalcStudios.)
And as well as this explanation actually describes what I think about the Universe, it didn't come from a physicist. So let's stop accusing each other -- physicists and philosophers -- of being bad at one another's disciplines, and let's work on getting it right. Education is always worth it. Read the comments on this post...
So, you find yourself living in the San Francisco Bay area, and you maybe have a dog who would like to know something about relativity, or you maybe want to someday have a dog who will want to know something about relativity, or you maybe want to know something more about relativity yourself, in case you ever find yourself cornered in a dark alley by a Rhodesian ridgeback who snarls "Explain time dilation to me, or I'll eat your face!" Well, in that case, you definitely want to be at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on the evening of June 14th, when I'll be doing a book promotion thing for How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog.
So, here's your chance to hear me do the silly dog voice in person, and maybe get a book signed. Emmy won't be making the trip (I doubt she'd do well on a plane...), but I'm looking forward to it.Read the comments on this post...
"The Earth destroys its fools, but the intelligent destroy the Earth."
-Khalid ibn al-Walid Usually, when we talk about terraforming, we think about taking a presently uninhabitable planet and making it suitable for terrestrial life. This means taking a world without an oxygen-rich atmosphere, with watery oceans, and without the means to sustain them, and to transform it into an Earth-like world.
The obvious choice, when it comes to our Solar System, is Mars.
(Image credit: Daein Ballard.)
The red planet, after all, is not a total stranger to these conditions. On the contrary, for the first billion-and-a-half years of our Solar System, give or take, Mars was perhaps not so dissimilar to Earth. With evidence that there was once liquid water on the surface, a thicker atmosphere, and possibly even life, there's no doubt that the right type of geo-engineering could bring those conditions back.
But there's also no doubt that we couldn't, if we were sufficiently motivated, turn the Earth from this...
(Image credit: NASA / GSFC / NOAA / USGS.)
into a world where the atmosphere and the oceans were stripped away. Into a dry, nearly airless world, much like Mars.
Inspired by a recent Astronomy Picture of the Day, above, it's now time to tell you how I would, scientifically, remove the oceans from the planet. It's a process I like to call reverse terraforming, whereby you turn a world the Earth into a world like Mars.
At present, this is difficult for a number of reasons, but here's the biggest one.
(Image credit: Natalie Krivova.)
The Earth's magnetosphere! The same reason that your compass needle points towards the magnetic poles of Earth is the only thing keeping our oceans here on our world! The Sun is constantly shooting out a stream of high-energy ions, known as the solar wind, at speeds of about 1,000,000 miles-per-hour (1,600,000 km/hr).
As the solar wind runs into a world, these ions collide with particles in a planet's atmosphere, giving those molecules enough kinetic energy to escape from the planet's gravitational field.
Of course, we have a powerful magnetic shield from the solar wind thanks to our hot, dense and (partially) molten core. Our planet's magnetic field successfully bends away practically all of the solar wind particles that would be in danger of colliding with us, with the occasional exception of the polar regions, where the ions -- and hence sometimes aurorae -- get through.
(Image credit: NASA, retrieved from Cloudetal.)
Right now, our atmosphere is pretty thick: it consists of some 5,300,000,000,000,000 tonnes of material, creating the atmospheric pressure that we feel down here at the surface. There's so much pressure, in fact, that our Earth can sustain liquid water on the surface.
(Image credit: David Mogk, Montana State University.)
The ability to have liquid water is relatively rare: we need the proper temperatures and the proper pressures! That means we need at least at atmosphere of a certain thickness, a characteristic that Mars, Mercury, and the Moon totally lack. But we've got it, and hence we can have liquid water on our surface.
And do we ever! There's much more water than there is atmosphere. About 250 times as much, by mass, is the amount that the oceans outweigh the atmosphere, meaning that the oceans comprise about 0.023% of the Earth's total mass!
But we could get rid of all that liquid water, eventually, by letting the solar wind in.
(Image credit: NASA / Themis mission.)
When the Earth and Sun's magnetic field align, something like 20 times as many particles as normal make it through. Charged particles are bent by magnetic fields in very predictable ways, and if we could control those fields, we could control how much of the solar wind made it through.
In other words, if we could create a large enough magnetic field on Earth, we could poke a hole in the magnetosphere and allow the solar wind to strip our atmosphere away!
(Image credit: NASA, retrieved from futurity.org.)
Something similar happened to Mars about 3 billion years ago, when its core stopped producing that powerful magnetosphere shield, and its atmosphere got stripped away. When the pressure at the surface dropped below a certain level, the liquid oceans there could only exist as frozen ice or boiled off as water vapor. (And once they're water vapor, they become part of the atmosphere, where it, too, can be stripped away by the solar wind!)
It may not be fast enough for the most supervillainous among you, but one thing's for sure.
(Image credit: flickr user Ole C. Salomonsen.)
If we do poke a hole in the magnetosphere and allow the solar wind in, I'll definitely be enjoying the auroral show!Read the comments on this post...
"The doctors realized in retrospect that even though most of these dead had also suffered from burns and blast effects, they had absorbed enough radiation to kill them. The rays simply destroyed body cells - caused their nuclei to degenerate and broke their walls." -John Hersey Everyone (well, almost everyone) recognizes that radiation is bad for you. And the higher the energy of the radiation, the worse it is for you. The reason is relatively straightforward.
(Image credit: Environmental Protection Agency.)
When high energy particles (or photons) come into contact with normal matter, they knock the electrons off of atoms, ionizing them. This action breaks apart bonds, disrupting the structure and function of cells on a molecular level. And, as you might expect, the higher the energy, the more extensive is the damage that the ionizing radiation can do.
Targeted radiation -- at cancer cells, for instance -- is useful for this exact reason: it destroys the cancer cells. Sure, some of your cells are in the way, too, but radiation therapy is designed to kill the cancer faster (and more effectively) than it kills you.
But too much ionizing radiation will cause too much damage to your body, and spells doom for any human.
(Image credit: CERN / LHC, retrieved from here.)
Here on Earth, the most intense sources of energetic particles are those that come from the world's most powerful particle accelerators: at present, that's the Large Hadron Collider.
But the thing is, you don't know whether a particle accelerator is on just by looking at it. There are few enough high-energy particles even in the most powerful accelerators that the particles themselves are -- and hence the entire beam is -- invisible to the naked eye.
(Image credit: KEK e+/e- LINAC.)
You can't even feel is, much like getting X-rays at the dentist. But, as you may have guessed, there is a trick. An awful, terrible, do-not-try-this-at-home trick. You see, you already know that nothing can move faster than the speed-of-light in a vacuum.
But the speed of light decreases, often quite dramatically, if you're not in a vacuum.
(Image credit: Grimsmann and Hansen.)
This is actually the reason why light bends when it passes through a prism, or a straw/pencil appears bent when you immerse it in a glass of water.
(Image credit: Richard Megna - Fundamental Photographs.)
The relationship between how much an object appears to bend and the speed-of-light in that medium is actually very simple, and tells you that the speed-of-light in water is only about 75% of what it is in a vacuum.
And in many real-world cases, such as from particle accelerators, nuclear reactors, and radioactive decays, we make particles that -- while not faster than light-in-a-vacuum -- can travel faster than the speed of light in a medium!
(Image credit: Matt Howard, Idaho National Laboratory / Argonne.)
And when that happens, when a particle moves faster than the speed-of-light in a medium, light is produced! That's what's going on inside this nuclear reactor and causing this blue glow: the radioactive particles (electrons, in this case) are moving faster than the speed-of-light in water, and hence the particles are emitting Čerenkov Radiation!
What's Čerenkov Radiation?
(Image credit: Cherenkov Telescope Array in Argentina.)
The charged particles, passing through this medium at such great speeds, electrically polarize the medium, which then transitions back down rapidly to the ground state. The polarizing of the medium costs the fast-moving particle some energy, slowing it down, while the transition causes the particles in the medium to emit radiation, and that's where your light -- the Čerenkov Radiation -- comes from!
So how do you tell if the beam is on?
(Image credit: flickr user ohrfeus.)
Horrifically, you stick your closed eye in there!!!
With your eye closed, you should see blackness under normal circumstances. But with the beam on, the high-energy particles entering your eye will see that nice, aqueous fluid that fills your eyeball. And since they're passing through at -- you guessed it -- greater than the speed-of-light in your vitreous eye-fluid, they're going to emit Čerenkov Radiation.
(Image credit: The Gale Group, retrieved from science clarified.)
So if the beam is on, you'll see that light -- that Čerenkov light -- on the back of your eye. And if it's off, you won't.
If that makes you squirm, it should. Physicists used to die from cancer from lack of safety when it came to radiation at alarming rates, and we are no longer (thankfully) allowed to test whether the beam is on or not via methods like this. But this is an interesting bit of history of particle physics that I couldn't not share with you.
And now, in a life-or-death situation, you know how to tell whether the beam is on or not, consequences be damned!Read the comments on this post...
Today is the anniversary of the discovery, by John Tebbutt of New South Wales, Australia, of the Great Comet of 1861. Tebbutt was an astronome.
The comet was initially visible only in the southern hemisphere, but then became visible in the northern hemisphere on about June 29th. I find it interesting that word of the commet spread slowly enough that it was sen in the north before it was heard of.
It has been suggested that this comet had been previously sighted in April of 1500 (that comet is now known as C/1500 H1). The comet will return during the 23rd century.Read the comments on this post...
"I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." -Kurt Vonnegut Kurt Vonnegut may have it right for most of us, but not all of us spend all of our time on Earth. A select dozen of us, in fact, have made it to, as Cat Power would sing, to
(Image credit: Apollo 15, Dave Scott, NASA.)
Back in 1971, the Apollo 15 astronauts made huge strides in space exploration, making use of the first manned lunar rover and spending over 18 hours on activities outside of the spacecraft. But two (of the three) crew members experienced heartbeat irregularities on the mission, and the cause was unknown. This was the first time such irregularities were observed in Apollo astronauts, and NASA was, understandably, unhappy about this. Their biomedical research team initially concluded (incorrectly) that it was likely due to a potassium deficiency, and so some modifications were made to the astronauts' diets for the next mission.
A modification, mind you, that would change the place in history of one astronaut forever.
(Image credit: NASA, Apollo 10 official astronaut photo.)
Astronaut John Young is one of the most decorated astronauts in history. With an astronaut career spanning more than 40 years, he flew twice, each, on Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions, including the inaugural STS-1 shuttle flight.
But John Young also was a crew member aboard Apollo 16, where he would become the ninth person to walk on the Moon. Oh, and where he was compelled to indulge in a diet very, very high in potassium. In particular, in the form of orange juice.
(Image credit: NASA / Science Source / Science Photo Library.)
Now, John Young had a history with particularities about food. He became something of an astronaut folk hero for smuggling a corned beef sandwich on board Gemini-3 in 1965, but was wholly unprepared for the ingestion of such tremendous quantities of orange juice.
Or, rather, for the effect that said orange juice would have on his body. And NASA was duly unprepared for the effect that would have on John Young's language.
(Video credit: NASA audio; YouTube user jude4021.)
While I imagine that there are few astronaut experiences worse than dutch ovening yourself inside your own spacesuit, you can also imagine that the governor of Florida was not too pleased at a mic'd up diatribe against the signature crop of his state. Words, in fact, that John Young would have to answer for in an official Apollo 16 press conference:
I don't know whatever happened to the gases released by astronaut Young (and others), but if there's any methane on the Moon, you can be sure that this is where it comes from! Read the comments on this post...
"They say 'A flat ocean is an ocean of trouble. And an ocean of waves... can also be trouble.' So, it's like, that balance. You know, it's that great Oriental way of thinking, you know, they think they've tricked you, and then, they have." -Nigel Tufnel Black holes* are some of the most perplexing objects in the entire Universe. Objects so dense, where gravitation is so strong, that nothing, not even light, can escape from it.
(Image credit: Artist's Impression from MIT.)
But there are a number of very counterintuitive things that happen as you get near a black hole's event horizon, and a very, very good reason why once you cross it, you can never get out! No matter what type of black hole you had, not even if you had a spaceship capable of accelerating in any direction at an arbitrarily large rate.
It turns out that General Relativity is a very harsh mistress, particularly when it comes to black holes. It goes even deeper than that, mind you, and it's all because of how a black hole bends spacetime.
(Image credit: Adam Apollo.)
When you're very far away from a black hole, spacetime is less curved. In fact, when you're very far away from a black hole, its gravity is indistinguishable from any other mass, whether it's a neutron star, a regular star, or just a diffuse cloud of gas.
The only difference is that instead of a gas cloud, star or neutron star, there will be a completely black sphere in the center, from which no light will be visible. (Hence the "black" in the moniker "black holes.")
(Image credit: Astronomy/Roen Kelly, retrieved from David Darling.)
This sphere, known as the event horizon, is not a physical entity, but rather a region of space -- of a certain size -- from which no light can escape. From very far away, it appears to be the size that it actually is, as you'd expect.
(Image credit: Cornell University.)
For a black hole the mass of the Earth, it'd be a sphere about 1 cm in radius, while for a black hole the mass of the Sun, the sphere would be closer to 3 km in radius, all the way up to a supermassive black hole -- like the one at our galaxy's center -- that would be more like the size of a planetary orbit!
From a great distance away, geometry works just like you'd expect. But as you travel, in your perfectly equipped, indestructible spacecraft, you start noticing something strange as you approach this black hole. Unlike all the other objects you're used to, where they appear to get visually larger in proportion to the distance you are away from them, this black hole appears to grow much more quickly than you were expecting.
(Image credit: Ute Kraus, Physics education group Kraus, Universität Hildesheim.)
By time the event horizon should be the size of the full Moon on the sky, it's actually more than four times as large as that! The reason, of course, is that spacetime curves more and more severely as you get close to the black hole, and so the "lines-of-light" that you can see from the stars in the Universe that surround you are bent disastrously out of shape.
Conversely, the apparent area of the black hole appears to grow and grow dramatically; by time you're just a few (maybe 10) Schwarzschild radii away from it, the black hole has grown to such an apparent size that it blocks off nearly the entire front view of your spaceship.
As you start to come closer and closer to the event horizon, you notice that the front-view from your spaceship becomes entirely black, and that even the rear direction, which faces away from the black hole, begins to be subsumed by darkness. The entirety of the Universe that's visible to you begins to close off in a shrinking circle behind you.
Again, this is because of how the light-paths from various points travel in this highly bent spacetime. For those of you (physics buffs) who want a qualitative analogy, it begins to look very much like the lines of electric field when you bring a point charge close to a conducting sphere.
(Image credit: J. Belcher at MIT.)
At this point, having not yet crossed the event horizon, you can still get out. If you provide enough acceleration away from the event horizon, you could escape its gravity and have the Universe go back to your safely (asymptotically) flat spacetime. Your gravitational sensors can tell you that there's a definite downhill gradient towards the center of the blackness and away from the regions where you can still see starlight.
But if you continue your fall towards the event horizon, you'll eventually see the starlight compress down into a tiny dot behind you, changing color into the blue due to gravitational blueshifting. At the last moment before you cross over into the event horizon, that dot will become red, white, and then blue, as the cosmic microwave and radio backgrounds get shifted into the visible part of the spectrum for your last, final glimpse of the outside Universe.
(Image credit: ZetaPrints.com.)
And then... blackness. Nothing. From inside the event horizon, no light from the outside Universe hits your spaceship. You now think about your fabulous spaceship engines, and how to get out. You recall which direction the singularity was towards, and sure enough, there's a gravitational gradient downhill towards that direction.
But your sensors tell you something even more bizarre: there's a gravitational gradient that's downhill, towards a singularity, in all directions! The gradient even appears to go downhill towards the singularity directly behind you, in the direction that you knew is opposite to the singularity! How is this possible?
(Image credit: Cetin Bal.)
Because you're inside the event horizon, and even any light beam (which you could never catch) you now emitted would end up falling towards the singularity; you are too deep in the black hole's throat! What's worse is that any acceleration you make will take you closer to the singularity at a faster rate; the way to maximize your survival time at this point is to not even try to escape! The singularity is there in all directions, and no matter where you look, it's all downhill from here.
Like I said, General Relativity is a harsh mistress, particularly when it comes to black holes.
(* -- This is all done for a non-rotating, or Schwarzschild black hole. Other forms of black holes are similar, but slightly different, and much more complicated, quantitatively.) Read the comments on this post...
There's been a bunch of discussion recently about philosophy of science and whether it adds anything to science. Most of this was prompted by Lawrence Krauss's decision to become the Nth case study for "Why authors should never respond directly to bad reviews," with some snide comments in an interview in response to a negative review of his latest book. Sean Carroll does an admirable job of being the voice of reason, and summarizes most of the important contributions to that point. Some of the more recent entries to cross my RSS reader include two each from 13.7 blog and APS's Physics Buzz.
I haven't commented on this because I haven't read Krauss's book (and I'm not likely to), and because my interest in philosophy generally is at a low ebb at the moment (I oscillate back and forth between thinking it's kind of a fun diversion, and thinking I have better things to do with my time). I've been thinking about a new project that's kinda-sorta on the edge of philosophy-of-science type things, though, which has involved a bit of time thinking about why my regard for the subject is at a low ebb at the moment. And seeing the title of Jason Rosenhouse's "The Reason for the Ambivalence Toward the Philosophy of Science" in the "most active" sidebar widget (the post itself isn't so interesting to me, but the framing of the title made me think of something useful), combined with the second Physics Buzz post, combined with what I was writing last week made a bunch of pieces fall into place.
My realization was this: I'm down on philosophy of science type things at the moment because an awful lot of the conversation reminds me of interminable arguments within science fiction fandom.Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...