Saturday, 27 December 2008

End of year review

The story of the year is undoubtedly the fall of investment banking and governments rushing to inject tax payers money into what was left. But physicists had come to expect funding difficulties well before the financial crash in September. By December 2007, one of the UK's main funding councils, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), announced an £80m hole in its budget, whilst the US Congress dished out much less than President Bush requested for the 2008 financial year, forcing some national lab such as Fermilab to lay-off staff.

The two stories continued throughout 2008, going through a few twists and turns, until a $186bn "supplemental bill" was passed by US congress in July containing an extra $338m for science. Meanwhile, the STFC, after consulting the community, produced a priority list for facilities, which largely meant that most of them would get some level of funding. And a review into the health of UK physics, chaired by Bill Wakeham, concluded that UK physics was in a "good state of health", but warned that "significant damage" had been done to the UK's international reputation following the STFC fracas.

The year also saw the birth of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva. To media fanfare, the 27 Km collider circled its first protons all within a few hours of starting up on 10 September. Most of the public were probably wondering what merited round-the-clock coverage by the UK's BBC Radio 4, whilst the only black hole being produced was on Wall Street. The champagne corks were still popping, when nine days later, a magnet quench released some four tonnes of liquid helium when commissioning the proton beam at 5 TeV (the maximum energy is 7 TeV). Pictures released a few months later in December showed that magnets had been ripped from their floor connectors showing the force that was generated by the evaporating helium. It is now estimated the LHC will come online by June next year.

Early this year also saw a new family of superconductors, potentially saving the flagging field of high temperature superconductivity. These new iron-based materials superconduct at 26K, much lower then the record at 138K for a ceramic material composed of elements such as mercury, copper and oxygen (a family known as cuprates). The new materials, consisting of iron, lanthanum and oxygen, offer the promise of higher transition temperatures by easily manipulating the chemical substitution (much like the cuprates). But until now the highest has been 55K in a samarium-based compound.

The year ended with the US election and the following long wait for President-elect Obama to be inaugurated in January. His nomination of Nobel laureate Steven Chu for Secretary of the department of Energy is widely seen as showing Obama's green credentials. As is the choice of science advisor in physicist John Holdren who is professor of environmental policy at Harvard University. It will be interesting to see if Obama restores the science advisor as an "assistant to the President" position, which Bush denied to his science advisor John Marburger, as well as how Chu fares given his little political experience.

As for 2009? Well we have the restart of the LHC to look forward too, as well as wranglings over the US science budget for 2009, which has already been delayed until February -- so in the end not much change then.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Fly me (beyond) the Moon

Most fledgling space-faring nations seem to be clambering over each other to get to the Moon -- India launched its first lunar orbitor Chandrayaan-1 last month (which has just impacted a probe bearing the Indian flag on the surface). China plans a Moon buggy by 2012 after successfully launching a Moon orbitor Change'1 last year, and Japanese scientists are finally publishing some of their results from the SELENE craft that blasted off in 2007. And yet the US seems to be looking beyond it.

This week the Planetary Society -- a US non-governmental non-profit organisation -- published a roadmap for the new administration and Congress entitled Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Exploration in the 21st Century.

The report states the US should focus on a manned mission to Mars as well the first human voyage to a near-Earth asteroid. The Moon isn't completely ignored; the Society says any future manned lunar mission should be "teaming with, not competing against" other international space agencies.

Devoting resources to Mars probably goes against what President Bush announced in 2004 when he said NASA would send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. A date NASA administrator Michael Griffin reiterated in September at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Glasgow. Griffin also said at the IAC that a lunar base on the Moon would be a launchpad for a potential trip to Mars by 2050 (or maybe for NASA's 100th birthday in 2058).

When I spoke to Louis Friedman, one of the founding members of the society and the current executive director, he said that Griffin had overstated how much was needed to be done on the Moon "some lunar missions may be necessary before human missions to Mars, but not a permanent base," he said.

The aspect that interests me is the question of international co-operation in a lunar base. One wonders how much lunar human exploration is driven by politics rather than hard science. Many people say robotic landers/rovers are more feasible in terms of economics and the science they can accomplish. The successful Phoenix Mars lander, which finished its work last month, being an example of this.

Will other space agencies be interested in international co-operation? Currently there is differing levels of co-operation in lunar missions. India is flying five scientific payloads from other space agencies on Chandrayaan-1, whereas China's Change'-1 lunar orbitor has no international payloads.

Friedman believes all space agencies will co-operate in an international lunar base. Currently NASA does have a proposal for robotic moon landers to be internationally funded and launched in 2015. But when it comes to issues that are more political than scientific, one wonders how far international co-operation can go.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Change is on its way

Change has come to America. Or at least by January it Will have. Given the world's financial collapse and a likely prolonged recession, will science slip under the radar of a new administration?

There is little doubt that Obama put more emphasis in the campaign to science issues than McCain. For example, in his acceptance speech to take the democratic nomination for the election, Obama said the word 'science' once. While McCain didn't mention it at all. Well, at least he said it once! Obama also answered the questions posed by Sciencedebate2008 first. McCain did in the end, but one wonder if it was only in response to Obama posting.

Probably the first decision scientists will be watching out for is who (and when) Obama will choose as a science advisor. Physicists in the US will no doubt remember how long it took Bush to choose an advisor (8 months since taking office). Once he did choose John Marburger III he demoted the role of the science advisor. (We have an opinion piece from John Marburger in this month's Physics World)

It will also be interesting to see how long the Obama administration passes the 2009 budget requested by President Bush. At the moment Congress has passed a 'continuation bill' which continues 2008 spending until February 2009. However, this comes with a sting in its tail. In June 2008 a supplemental bill was passed, which increased spending in science, in some cases it stopped staff lay-offs happening at national labs such as Fermilab and SLAC. However, the new continuation bill does not have this in it. Already labs have come out and said that they will to tighten their belts.

It seems for now the first appointment Obama will be making, it not an advisor, but a puppy for his daughter once they move in the whitehouse.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The hype is over, let the physics begin

So after physicists today managed to guide a beam of protons around the 27 km Large Hadron Collider (LHC) it seems like the world didn't end. But after all the wide ranging press coverage I am not sure if I wish it probably did.
(photo credit: CERN)

There is no doubt that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a marvelous machine that will possibly shed light on what gives particles mass or even breath life into theories such as a "sypersymmetric" world, a theory which predicts a new array of heavy particles that mirror those of the standard model. It is also a magnificent machine in terms of the scale of the engineering, guiding protons 100 m underground at near the speed of light as they whizz around at temperatures colder than space itself to collide in detectors the size of cathedrals.

But there is also a chance that the LHC will see nothing. Some argue that this could be an even more interesting result, but I doubt the politicians will concur. Costing around $10bn the LHC doesn't come cheap. I know some researchers in other areas of physics such as in condensed matter physics who would scoff at the huge price. It also probably wont provide any directly applicable spin-off technologies. But what it will do is ask fundamental questions about the constituents of matter which push back the barrier of our ignorance, and that is worthwhile enough. As Robert Wilson, the first director of Fermilab (The US center for particle physics) said when he was asked by Congress to justify spending millions of dollars on a particle accelerator, “it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.”

The media coverage of the LHC has been quite incredible, something that I have never experienced in physics before. No doubt they have caught on to the numerous lawsuits thrown at CERN to stop it from operating. Ranging from a lawsuit filed at a US district court in Hawaii to an injunction sought from the European Court of Human Rights. This also gives the press enough ammunition from researchers who say that turning it on will cause the end of the world.

Although this nonsense is usually the realm of the Sun, which we all come to expect, but it has also creept into almost all the more respectable papers. Today The Telegraph had on its front page, "If you are reading this at 8.30... then Stephen Hawking was right." No doubt Stephen Hawking probably said it is impossible for the LHC to create a black hole and that is why we are still here. But it's a shame that the LHC is such a spectacular enough machine not to warrant such nonsense. It is probably a sign of our culture that to get a science story on the front page it has to be something which will directly be a threat to our lives. My main problem with this headline was that the LHC wasn't even performing collisions today, and it wont even be doing them at full energy (14 TeV) until March next year, so why wouldn't we still be here?

It is probably on the whole good that physics is being put at the front pages and on the news bulletins (it was lead story on the nightly news in the UK; the second news item was the onset of recession in the euro zone). But when its focus is on the end of the world and doomsday scenarios -- probably what most people will take away -- rather than the science, then it makes you wonder if it is worth it.

Probably the most humorous story about the LHC was in The Sun itself. After reading their story, it seems like they had properly understood that the doomsday scenarios are indeed nonsense and poked their usual fun at it. They latched onto the "LHC rap" that first appeared on YouTube around a month ago. They stated that boffins "have worried sceptics further - by posting a RAP SONG about the procedure on YouTube. " Supposedly the "procedure" is what the LHC how the LHC will work, nonsense, but good fun all the same. I emailed Kate McAlpine who made the video to ask when she made of all the press coverage of her rap, it seems like she had obviously learned a thing or two from her time as a CERN press contact.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Does coming first mean gold?

China will be very much in focus as we are about to be inundated by 24/7 media coverage -- the BBC is supposedly taking 470 people -- of the Olympic games less than a few days away in Beijing. But as the recent furore over the Chinese authorities restricting internet access for journalists escalated and then retreated, one thing is for sure: reporters may be writing about China's many gold medals at the events, but it may be in Research and Development (R&D) where China will be more satisfied about surpassing the US.

When I was a PhD student -- seemingly a long time ago -- at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) in Stuttgart, many of the seven main departments were brimming with Chinese researchers. At one point, the group meetings seemed to contain more Chinese scientists than German. Indeed, the MPI's are quite international centers for research, which are are geared around cutting edge facilities, high levels of funding and under the provision that no-one is required to do any teaching. Perfect places to quickly increase your knowledge of a myriad of experimental techniques and practices.

When I asked most of the Chinese researchers, who usually stayed on average around 2 years at the MPI, were they would be going next. Rather than saying going to the US or even staying in the research intensive environment of the MPI, most said they are going back to China, even some armed with government incentives such as a rent free house or a car.

But if this was a real government initiative to pull some of the researchers back from going abroad, it seems to be working. Productivity -- loosely defined as the number of papers with at least on researcher based or with formal affiliation to China -- has rocketed in the past few years. In physics more than 22 000 papers were published with one Chinese author, a five-fold increase from 2000. This figure has already surpassed the UK, France and Germany, and on the current trend will overtake the US in 2012 -- or in time for the next Olympics if you like.

Some research areas that I looked into for a recent article in this month's PhysicsWorld showed that China was racing ahead in nanoscience, publishing almost 13 000 articles in 2007, quantum information and high temperature superconductivity. Indeed, recently in the case of the latter, this rise has been most obvious. Ever since Japanese researchers found superconductivity at 26 K in an iron-based material in March, Chinese researchers have been at the forefront experimentally, having many of the breakthroughs themselves, such as increasing the transition temperature -- the temperature at which the material loses its electrical resistance -- to 55 K.

But the rise in quantity is not a loss in quality. The number of Chinese researchers publishing in Physical Review Letters, Nature and Science has also been increasing in the last few years. Particularly in Nature it has exploded, almost a ten fold increase from around 10 articles per year in the 1990's to 111 in 2007 -- though this may, or may not, reflect the tendency for Nature to publish a good fair share of papers in nanoscience.

But with China aiming to increase its spending on R&D from 1.4 % to 2.5 % in 2020, its not only going to be quick off the starting blocks, but seems to be in for the long distance.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The final outcome

I remember going on a trip to Manchester University earlier this year to do a profile for PhysicsWorld on the particle physicist Robin Marshall. It was over lunch that we began to talk about topics other his career and onto the hot issue of the day: the funding rumblings in a major research council in the UK.

Being my first encounter with a funding disaster, I was not too sure how bad it all sounded, but it was something that the 68 year old physicist said that always stuck in my mind: "there is something about this one, something really nasty about it," he said. Given his experience, I took note.

There was a lot of anger in January when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced, without any consultation with the community, that the UK would pull out of the International Linear Collider as well as the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile as well as potentially cutting research grants by 25%.

Even though the government had given above inflation increases to each funding council, at the launch of the science budget in January, the public relations fanfare turned into a disaster. Question after question about the STFC's £80m black hole came from members of the community and the media to the panel, containing a nervous looking science minister, Ian Pearson, and John Denham the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

I was at that meeting in January and I was also in attendance of the meeting in London a few weeks ago where the STFC made the announcement of the final programmatic review into which projects it will now fund after a major consultation exercise. The two meetings couldn't have been any more different.

Or the one a few weeks ago couldn't have been more dull. This was mainly because of two reasons. One, the final programmatic review was released a week before the meeting, so most people found out whether their projects would be funded anyway. The resulting turn-out was minimal; probably most people who attended were actually based in London. I doubt the STFC had travel budgets in mind when they put the pdf of the review on their website.

The second reason is the rather disappointing statement from Richard Wade at the beginning of the meeting who asked if the media could wait until afterwards to put their questions to the panel members, consisting of STFC CEO Keith Mason, director of science programmes John Womersley and Peter Knights science-board chair. It probably turned out that the media would have added more fire to the question and answer session. Most people in the community were praising the STFC's consultation exercise -- the fire seemed to have been extinguished.

When we have been covering stories about the saga, we always tried to get to the bottom of how all this came about. Various proposals had been given: merging of two councils into the STFC, currency fluctuations, bad bookkeeping (probably a mixture of all three). So I guess the only memorable part of the meeting for me was when a member commented that he still didn't understand why the physics community had to go through it all for the last half a year. Mason reponded, rather discouragingly, that he didn't know either.

So is the saga at an end? Or is that the end of the beginning?

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

All for one, one for all

Research in physics is mostly done via multi-national collaborations. Have we reached the end of the road for European nations going it alone to build the next generation large scale facilities?

Much is still being made of the budget crisis at one of the UK's leading funding council -- The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The reason for the cock-up still seems not to be fully known -- subscriptions to big international experiments increasing, currency fluctuations or the political wranglings of merging the previous two councils together.

In particle physics experiments are truly multi-national. If you take the case of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, -- due to come online after scientists have finally managed to cool 27km of magnets -- one country alone could never afford to build such a machine. Indeed, CERN was an early success of European co-operation after the second world war, people thought that it was only a token of European collaboration, but it turned out to be thriving success. The LHC, 23 years in the making and costing billions of dollars, will smash protons together at huge energies to search for theoretically predicted particles. These huge machines that operate on the TeV (approx 0.0000001 J) scale no-one alone can afford alone. So should we put all our eggs in the same basket and only have a few instruments in the world which can do similar science?

A derivation of these large particle smashers are synchrotron's that use electromagnetic radiation, such as X-rays to probe the structure of materials (rather than accelerate particles to smash each other and study the constituents). As electrons travel around 300m diameter circles (compared to the 27km circumference at the LHC) it is made to irradiate X-rays that can be used to study matter. These machines operate at a few GeV (a few orders of magnitude less than TeV) and are used in condensed-matter and biology.

The three top sources of GeV synchrotrons are in Japan, US and Europe (France). Japan and the US have gone alone and built their respective machines, while the ESRF is mostly a successful collaboration between Germany, UK and France. But the latest synchrotron to be built in Europe is the Diamond light source in Oxfordshire, less powerful (in terms of energy) than the ESRF. When much of the STFC saga broke out Diamond seemed to have been made a scapegoat for the cause of the 'black hole' at the STFC with most reports centered on its running costs which were apparently wildly underestimated (which was denied by the Diamond management).

Was Diamond a step in the wrong direction in terms of funding European science? Wouldn't it have been better to have pooled money to have a successor to the ESRF that would have made it the most intense synchrotron in the world?

There is a danger; probably due mostly to bureaucracy at European level. Take neutron science, previously Europe was the world leader with the Institute Laue Langevin in Grenoble (funded principally by UK, Germany and France) as well as with ISIS in Oxfordshire (geographically next to Diamond, funded by the UK). Plans were afoot to increase this lead with the European Spallation Source (ESS) which would be funded at European level from partner countries.

However, some countries pulled funding after most of the plans had been made. Germany went off and upgraded the FRM reactor in Munich (named FRMII), and ISIS got an upgrade (named the second target station, due to come online this summer). The plans were put on hold, and in the meantime the US had built the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in Tennessee, which is now the world leader in terms of neutron flux. Japan also has built a new neutron facility at J-PARC, a massive $1.5bn experiment park, which means the focus is shifting away from Europe taking the forefront of neutron science. The ESS is back on track at the moment, but many would say a few years overdue.

The ESRF and the ILL have been a great success of European collaboration, being -- at the time -- the best instruments in the world to do X-ray and neutron science respectively. Europe seems to be going back to individually funded machines such as with FRMII, ISIS second target station and Diamond. To be once again at the forefront, maybe it is time for Europe to go back and collaborate to fund the 'smaller' facilities together rather than go it alone.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Resistance is futile

If you mentioned to people what they remember about 1986, what would they say? You may get answers such as the challenger space shuttle disaster which killed all seven crew; Argentina winning the World cup with the help of Diego Maradona or maybe the year when the European flag was adopted by the European Union. Probably one answer you wouldn't get (unless you happened to ask a physicist) is the discovery of high temperature superconductivity.

Superconductivity is one of those weird effects in nature: if you cool a metal such as lead or tin to low temperatures then all of a sudden its resistance will fall to zero, meaning that below this temperature, a current flowing through a wire of this material will incur no resistance and therefore persist indefinitely.

The discovery by Bednorz and Müller of superconductivity at 30 K was important for a number of reasons, one was that the standard model of superconductivity didn't allow superconducting transition temperatures this high (lead and tin are 7 and 4 K respectively) thus leading to a potential new mechanism for superconductivity. Two, it opened up a variety of related materials which pumped up the superconducting transition to 138 K at standard pressure in 1995 (applying an external pressure makes it go even higher). The discovery was so important that even by the next year Bednorz and Müller were awarded the Nobel prize in physics.

These materials, known collectively as the cuprates, are a double edged sword. One they enable very high superconducting transition temperatures to be achieved by chemical substitution and/or doping, but this delicate parameter space has meant getting a coherent experimental and theoretical picture of high temperature superconductivity has become cloudy.

A few years after the discovery, there were around 8000 papers per year being churned out, that fell to around 5000 in 2005 (still a high number nonetheless). Indeed, someone new to the field has to either spend a decade reading every publish paper or only select papers in the top journals. Grants were being pulled on research in high temperature superconductivity, researchers were thinking about other topics, a theory, and new materials seemed elusive.

but maybe that's about to change..

At the end of February a group of researchers in Tokyo reported a new Iron based superconductor at 26 K. Now, 26 K is still far less than the record, but already a few theoretical papers came out predicting that this was not a standard 'low' temperature superconductor - another high temperature superconductor has hit the scene.

Not only did it take a few days later before the first experimental paper on arxiv came out, by today there has already been around 20 papers on this material on arxiv. With chemical substitution the superconducting transition temperature has already increased to 52 K in a related material.

Are there similarities between the cuprates? Probably in more sense that one. The ability to substitute elements and also to tweak the amount of oxygen or other halogens means the parameter space is large. The 'first to the finish line' approach in superconductivity research in terms of finding a new superconductor with an even higher superconducting transition temperature is likely to make a splurge of papers to come out shortly.

Maybe this material gives us a chance to find out the mechanism for high temperature superconductivity or puts the elusive room temperature superconductor in sight. An explanation will need experimentalists to produce careful measurements that give theorists a clear view.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Tracking trends

I recently came across a new website from Thomson Scientific called sciencewatch. It is an interesting attempt to provide researchers with lists of hot papers, topics, countries and institutions all in terms of citations (bibliometrics), and nicely self-contained within a neatly branded website.

Sciencewatch seems to have started a few months ago based on using the results from Thomson's Essential Science Indicators that provide quantitative analysis of research performance. The website contains lists of hot researchers, topics, emerging fields of research, top trends in subject areas and covers a range of science fields, such as materials science, physics, medicine and chemistry.

I personally believe that you can infer a lot from these statistics, if one looks over long time periods (i.e. more than a few years; better still about a decade). But by the very nature of citations, however, I have to question the principle of sciencewatch pushing this analysis to detect 'emerging' topics, or 'hot' researchers (though there may be some level of hypocrisy here).

Many of the lists that define hotness, such as the hottest researchers, on sciencewatch look over a two year time period or even less. This causes a few problems; a two year period is probably just when your paper is starting to generate citations. In a quite noddy explanation, it may be that Thomson adds your paper to its database around 5-6 months after publication (this is variable of course). If someone then sees your paper by searching Thomson's database and then duly cites it, by the time the citation is tagged in Thomson's database it could be another six months before this happens. So it could take one year minimum to start gaining citations since your paper was published. If a paper is generating citations before quite soon then it is probably due to 'self citations'.

My problem is that the rankings which try to define something as hot, do not provide a very transparent method, or I at least have no idea how they defined these hot papers or topics. On the other hand if you look at the list of top countries in physics that are also provided on sciencewatch, you find a table with the total number of papers, total number of citations, and citations per paper over a timescale from 1997 - 2007 for each country in the top 20. This is very transparent, a nice large time period, and clearly defined table, indeed you can even start to infer your own analysis. In my view, citations per paper, is probably a good indication of quality. Although the US is highest in terms of citations, Switzerland is number one if you look at citations/paper - although it has only around a tenth of the papers the US publishes, these are on average, cited more.

For example, I just came across the hottest researchers for 2006 - 2007, the top three are all physicists -- each with 12 'hot' papers. Taking it further, the top three are all high energy physicists. Particle physics is renowned for its large author sets, could this just be due to the authors belonging to large collaborations, with many papers and thus many self-citations?

Most of the analysis for new hot researchers, such as the "rising stars," use rolling two month intervals to judge the output of researchers: "that have achieved the highest percentage increase in total citations" from a two month interval. This sort of thing reminds me of fantasy football, something I used to do as a teenager (not that long ago...) when you pick a team and then week in week out, after they have played, the players get ranked on goals scored, assists etc, and you build up point for your team. I couldn't help but notice a similarity, maybe you can start a physics dream team, put together a team of 10 researchers and then see how they compare month in month out, though I doubt such a thing would catch on with today's youths.

Looking at the hot papers, a new 'hot' paper listed in March (which happened to be published in 2006) is a paper in review of modern physics, on electronic structure calculations. It is well known that review articles are highly cited, but does that make them 'hot'? It is probably the case that review papers are supposed to consolidate an area of research and do not contain new results, so I wouldn't say they contain hot research.

It is also confusing on sciencewatch to have different sections entitled: "emerging research fronts", "Fast moving fronts," and "hot topics" I don't quite get the subtle difference between them, which all give different results for what is emerging, fast moving or hot in physics. These are also given on a monthly basis, I am not sure how this can change rapidly from month to another. One emerging research field in physics given in February 2008 is 'environment-induced sudden death', apparently.

A website such as this has a useful purpose, if only at the moment it seems to be a little confused about what data to show and how to analyze it (definitely the more tricky part). Using citation analysis for short term intervals is a tricky business and to start comparing researchers and topics is something difficult to do using only a search program on a database.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Off to the APS

This week I will be in New Orleans for the 2008 American Physical Society March meeting, which is basically the biggest condensed matter meeting worldwide, probably only the German physical Society meeting comes close, but with more than 7000 participants and a conference handbook that has a worse carbon footprint than a coal fired power plant, the APS is on another scale.

I already arrived in New Orleans last night, or more like this morning. The trip from Heathrow was pretty trouble free, apart from sitting down on the plane in Chicago, only to be told of a braking problem and thus the need to change planes.

Walking around today, mostly in the French quarter, there was no obvious impression left from the devastation that hurricane Katrina caused, though apparently many people are still waiting to be re-housed. On the way from the airport we did drive past the superdome, which was the home for many people during and after the hurricane had passed.

I wont be reporting most of what goes on here, but you can keep close tabs on the PhysicsWorld blog to keep up with the going's on.

Friday, 29 February 2008

A brief history of Hawking

This monday starts a series on channel four about the famous physicist Stephen Hawking, this is my take:

One could say that Stephen Hawking is the epitome of the general public’s view of a scientist — someone who dedicates their life to science with a blind determination to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. Struck down by motor neuron disease in his early twenties while doing his PhD, Hawking is now almost totally paralysed and can only communicate via his synthesized voice box. Yet it is this oracle-like voice and his dogged determination to understand our universe that have helped him become one of the most recognisable physicists alive today — even if he may not be the latter-day Newton or Einstein as the media like to suggest.

Hawking now can only communicate via a single cheek muscle, which he can flex in response to characters on a screen allowing him to type out sentences. Even though it takes him a minute to type three words, Hawking unbelievably still undertakes a full week of teaching and research. Indeed, he still has four PhD students. The two-part television series Stephen Hawking: Master of the Universe, which is to be broadcast on 3 and 10 March on the UK’s Channel 4, looks at the life and work of Hawking, from his two failed marriages to his work on black holes and the beginnings of the universe. The series, like Hawking himself, doesn’t shy away from getting stuck into the biggest topics in physics from string theory to colliding branes.

The first episode looks at Hawking’s early life, and his quest to unify quantum mechanics with general relativity through his work on black holes. It also delves into his first marriage to Jane Wilde — then a language student — and the eventually strains that occurred due to his work and the fame that was brought by his book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988.

The first instalment does a good job of explaining the concept of Hawking radiation, which is caused by the creation of negative and positive mass particles at the edge of black holes. “It is one of the greatest papers of the 20th century,” is how Andy Strominger from Harvard University describes Hawking’s 1975 paper on particle creation by black holes.

The mind of God

Hawking appears throughout the two programmes, but I felt somewhat uneasy with the constant reference to God running throughout the first part, which starts with Hawking’s famous suggestion that he “wanted to know the mind of God” and continues with him questioning whether we need a god at all. As if to emphasize the link to God, heavenly-sounding choirs pipe-up whenever we see old footage of Hawking wheeling himself around Cambridge or giving seminars.

Both episodes feature cameo appearances from various physicists describing physical concepts. Media darling Michio Kaku from the City College of New York is wheeled in to describe difficult topics such as supersymmetry, quantum mechanics and string theory, all with the help of props from a local fairground. String theorist Lisa Randall from Harvard University also appears, describing the concepts of extra dimensions using, bizarrely, calorie-filled doughnuts in a coffee shop.

The second part focuses more on current issues in physics and has less about Hawking’s own work. You start to get a sense that a new generation of physicists have taken over his mantle in the quest to unify the four fundamental forces. Indeed, the programme almost turns into an episode of Michael Green: Master of String Theory when it describes how Green — another theorist at Cambridge — came up with the idea of superstring theory (together with John Swartz) and how it is possibly the best way of describing gravity with quantum mechanics. The viewer is left not knowing whether Green and Hawking are competitors or collaborators. Hawking, however, gives a rather subdued response to string theory: “If string theory is correct,” he says, “help may be on hand from extra dimensions [to unify the four forces].”

If people haven’t had enough of trying to understand and visualize 11 dimensions (helped in part by Kaku and a fishpond), the final 20 minutes of the second installment then goes into the world of colliding branes and spontaneous creation of universes which Hawking pioneered in his “no boundary condition” proposal for the start of the universe.

Stubborn drive

With all the difficulties that Hawking has experienced, you may wonder what he could have achieved if he was still fully able-bodied. But is that possibly the point — that his drive to understand the universe was brought on by his disability and his stubbornness to not let it get in the way? Yet even with his disability, he never gives the impression that he is frustrated with the cards life has dealt him.

Overall, the documentary explains Hawking’s theories well enough for the layperson to grasp. But it also gives a sense that time has now run out for Hawking and his quest to formulate a theory of everything. Even Hawking, who is now 66, hints at this: “I would have liked to have done more,” he concedes, “in particular to have found a complete theory of quantum gravity and the early universe.” Ever the jester, he points out wryly: “But that wouldn’t have left much for anyone else to do.”

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Plugging the hole

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri) the UK spent $59.2 bn during 2006 on military spending alone. While many graduates in the physical sciences go into defense related areas, it seems like the UK government is perilously playing with the future of physics in the UK; just because of a 'missing' $150 m in the budget of a leading funding council, peanuts compared to the vast sums spent on defense.

The council in question is the Science and Technology Facilities council (STFC) which funds most large scale physics experiments, such as the UK's contribution to CERN, the building and maintenance of the diamond synchrotron, providing research groups with grants as well as providing the funds for the next generation of big experiments (The International Linear Collider (ILC), for example).

Now, even though $150 m in the grand scale of things is not very much (think about the $ 50 bn loan that the bank of England gave to the troubled mortgage lender Northern Rock) the damage that it proposes to do to particle physics and astronomy is vast and the knock on effect to physics as a whole cant be ignored.

Whether it was just timing in the proposals cycle or an ulterior motive, the knock on effect for particle physics is particularly stark. Not only pulling funding out of the ILC -- that hopes to be the next big particle physics experiment after the LHC at CERN which will come on-line this year -- but also cutting research grants by 25 % in particle physics and Astronomy. It seems at first hand that areas such as condensed matter are relatively unscathed. The big facilities that are planned in the UK in condensed matter research, such as the Diamond light source or the second target station at ISIS have already or are well on the way to completion. It seems most probable that particle physics-- in terms of the ILC -- is just a lame duck(it is at this moment only planned), that has now been dealt its first shot. Similarly in ground based Astronomy, the UK is currently negotiating its subscription to the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile which runs out in the summer this year.

Although there seems to be no big effect on the closure of physics departments at universities, it will definitely cause concern to groups that are currently doing R&D into the ILC.

The reasons for getting in this mess are far from clear, and it is probably a mixture of many things: One the merger of two funding councils the PPARC and CCLRC into what is now the STFC only last summer would have brought some teething troubles. International subscriptions such as CERN are linked to GDP, which for the UK has increased which means increased payouts. The funding council has also taken on fluctuations in foreign currency, which before was protected by the government, and lastly there is the auspicious area of the economics of research grants. Recently the Full Economic Costs (FEC) have gone up to 80 %, this means that funding councils have to pay 80% of the indirect costs, such as lab infrastructure and permeant staff, before funding councils only had to provide money for temporary staff and special lab equipment and around 40-50% of the indirect costs.

Though one can argue whether the reasons above could have been avoided or not. The decision process that has led to pulling out of the ILC and Gemini telescopes is what has angered physicists the most. Without seemingly any consultation the council has ceased investment disproportionately among research fields. The outcry has been enormous and has probably surprised both the council and the government., which quickly released a review into the discipline. The review is likely more like a smokescreen as it will not try to reverse the decision taken by the STFC.

The media coverage of the events is already having an effect on graduates who are looking to go onto PhD's. Some say that the uncertainty is making them leave physics altogether to go into industry, a worrying trend.

All belts need to be tightened, yet the hole is not so deep, and a review wont cover it up....