Weekly Roundup 85

I was considering writing this weekly roundup on the importance of peer reviewed publication. I could have written many paragraphs on the essential nature of experts evaluating papers, but luckily I don’t have to. A man named Peter Hadfield who owns the youtube channel potholer54, has recently published this video (slightly inappropriate for children) which I was lucky enough to find. In it, he articulates in a much more proficient way than I could the difference of quality between scientific journals and the importance of reputation in the review process. All I really need to add is my own little analogy. In a game of sudoku there may come a time when you realise that you have somehow managed to place two 9s in the same row. The problem is not just as simple as erasing both numbers and rederiving your logic as it is impossible to know how many other numbers in many other places were put there based on a faulty 9. If one ridiculous paper manages to sneak into a respected journal then it will be trusted by the nature of it just being there and once its been used as a supporting citation in another set of papers the problem is already out of control.

Hopefully the importance of scientific purity is now quite a bit clearer. Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 84

One of the strangest things I’ve ever observed, is quite sensible and rational people suddenly throwing that all away when it comes to the topic of nuclear power. Now, nuclear energy is not ideal, in some future society were going to get all our power from wind or tide or something like that. But until we get to that point, nuclear power is an incredibly good option. Most of the resistance to it comes from a fear of radiation and the radioactive waste from reactors. This chart is very helpful for putting in perspective how much radiation your likely to get dosed with through various everyday events. Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant gives you less radiation than eating one banana (potassium isotopes). The Environmental Protection Agency’s yearly limit for the emission of a nuclear plant is only about four times higher than the radiation dose given by living in a stone, concrete or brick building for a year (as uranium is present in all soil). All of this is quite a bit less than the yearly average background dose anyway and so worrying about it seems ridiculous.

The other major concern is nuclear accidents. With the Chernobyl disaster causing 56 direct deaths, and an estimated 4000 deaths by  induced cancer (with many other estimates being a lot higher) it seems like something we should be worried about. But the safety in a ex-soviet block nuclear reactor built in the seventies is nowhere near comparable to safety standards now. The Chernobyl Plant had an accident in 1982, four years before the well know disaster, but the reactor that failed was back working in a month (the paranoid part of me has always thought this seemed like a rushed job). It should also be noted that there was no nuclear explosion at Chernobyl. There was a chemical explosion that radioactive material but this in no way equivalent to an uncontrolled fission occurring. The Fukushima Daiichi Plant was hit by a tsunami many times more powerful than it had been built to withstand and yet it did through the commendable diligence of whoever designed it. As a result there have been no recorded deaths either directly or indirectly from what is apparently the second greatest nuclear disaster ever.

Ultimately, the point I’m trying to get across is that many of the fears associated with nuclear energy are, not unfounded, but extremely exaggerated. Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 83

I suppose this will be the last chance to talk about Indonesia as this is technically the last week in which  anything to do with it took place. The International Physics Olympiad this year was a marvel to be at and despite some classic British cynicism it was a lovely event. This was year was the 50th anniversary of the first Olympiad in Warsaw and to properly close it off I wanted to dedicate this week’s roundup to giving the proper respect to the ideals the IPHO holds. Ultimately something as arbitrary as medals and certificates will be forgotten, as they always are. There will be some people who were fortunate enough to get questions they recognised and some people were unfortunate enough to get apparatus that didn’t work. In twenty years time both kinds of people will still have memories, anecdotes to tell about their time in Indonesia and the people they met. Although it has been a long time since I read The Name of the Wind, a quote I half remember is “steel rusts, but music lasts forever.” All the people I talked to had a story to tell and something to teach me and dreams for their future. If I was being poetic I could call these the songs they wished to sing. And for anyone still reading there is one real message I have about the Olympiad in case it wasn’t already clear. The event is not a test with some frivolous socialising thrown in; it is socialising from which students are occasionally pulled to do a test.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 81

So, I’m here. I am currently sitting in a very nice hotel in Yogyakarta, Indonesia with three members of the British physics olympiad team. Over the coming week I should be publishing the interview I’ve had with each them. Since all methods of communication will be confiscated to ensure there is no chance of a competitor learning of the questions before hand, I will have to put the posts to publish on a timer. There is always the possibility it fails catastrophically so if nothing is published you’ll know why. There is also the matter of the pure physics posts. A quick read over some of the recent published literature has shown me many subjects I would like to write about. I’ll have to think about what I’m going to do when I return home but I’m sure I’ll think of something.

Until tommorow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 80

Daily attenders of my blog will probably have seen one of my “Something That Happened” posts this week. This is, in essence, a place holder post I have timed to set up if, for that day, I cannot write a post. This week I was fortunate enough to be staying at Trinity College in Cambridge University which is a very beautiful place. While talking to one of the research fellows I learnt about the level of competition that exists at Cambridge. Now of course I knew that there was acute level of competitiveness within the students, its how they got into one of the best universities in the world, but the attitude was at complete odds to, lets say, Imperial College in London. For instance Imperial does not give students there exact scores they achieve in their exams, only the band they fall into, for the exact purpose of quashing competition. Cambridge deliberately lists students based on their end of year test scores so everyone can see who was above and below them, presumably to encourage them to strive for greatness. This particular fellow described the level of competition as “quite horrible,” something I admit I wasn’t expecting as I would have thought he would be all for it.

There is some other good news I have however. In less than a weeks time I will be going to Indonesia where the International Physics Olympiad is being held. I don’t know how possible it will be update this blog while I’m there but I will certainly try. I also think I might be able to interview the British team attending the Olympiad, perhaps individually. Whatever may happen, I’m certain things will be just fine in the end.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 77

Science communication. The idea of trying to explain a scientific comment to some who could be generously described as a layman. The ancient Greek scholars will all have learnt rhetoric and so I can imagine it was sufficiently easier for them to explain an idea to a group of the citizens than it is for scientists now. Ultimately this blog can be seen as a form of science communication which aimed to be a bit more advanced then the sensationalist science stories often found online. For instance typing in “physics” and checking on Google News posits “Have We Been Interpreting Quantum Physics Wrong The Whole Time?” in which the short answer is, probably not. The article is interesting and would certainly be good for a neophyte to science but doesn’t really cover any actual scientific points in any great detail (this is probably an unfair criticism as this particular article is actually considerably above average in this regard but generally the lack of detail is apparent in many newspaper’s science pages). Compare this to the original paper, which is perfectly legible to a scientist but becomes incomprehensible to an ordinary person about half way through the introduction. Bridging the gap between these extremes, and also talking about some more varied science rather than quantum, quantum, relativity and more quantum, would put us a long way forward towards public comprehension of science. The problem is there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to do so. Scientists can’t be expected to start from first principles every time they write a paper and newspapers can’t be incentivised to write in even a mildly technical format when their reader’s average comprehension is below this. The only real solution is to start at the source and provide more thorough science education in school, which, as will seemingly all solutions, requires a lot of money.

Thank you to Natalie Wolchova for the science article which as I said I’ve said I’ve been a bit harsh to to make the point and thank you to Robert Brady and Ross Anderson for the scientific paper. Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 76

This week I was talking to some friends and one of them suggested a very interesting idea which I’ll try my best to convey: In the opening song of the popular Lion King, one of the lines is “more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done,” and this is strictly true. There are more things in this world than can ever be understood by one person and of course this is just one world in the colossal black sea of the universe. But to extend the idea a bit further, in the past, when the complete sum of human physics knowledge was relatively small, it may only take a few years of study to be at the cutting edge of research. Now, if you count proper physics education to start in about year 11, it takes nine or ten years to complete a PhD starting there. Is it implausible that at some point in the future it will take a persons full lifetime to reach the edge of human knowledge and they will die just before discovering anything new. Is the technological process of elongating life working faster than we are pushing scientific boundaries (not to mention there are various theoretical caps on life such as brain breakdown into Alzheimer’s, heart failure as it wears out, the probability of cancer from background sources, et cetera).

In a way, its quite a relaxing though to remember that we’ll probably never have to deal with these problems and it’s a bunch of future human’s problems to deal with. Until tomorrow, goodnight.