Category Archive: Physics

Twitter Q and A: David Bradley

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This week the wonderful Feed My Reads hosted a Twitter Q and A with renowned science journalist and author, David Bradley. Using #DBQuestions, twitter users were able to ask David absolutely anything they wanted. This seemed like so much fun that Unpopular Science just had to get involved! So, below are the fiendish questions users asked, as well as David’s insightful answers. @HenryGeeBooks: What gets you up in the morning? DB: Usually, a dig in the ribs from my wife expecting a cup of tea and the dulcet tones of Humphrys et al with the news headlines on the radio. And, of course, the urge to share the scientific discoveries I come across in as informative and entertaining way as I can. Oh, and our labrador always needs her breakfast and an exit to her morning constitutional. @Charli_TAW: Have you always wanted to be writer? DB: Hah, not at all. I always wanted to be a marine biologist and then a physicist, and then a guitar god …

‘I don’t know’: why science and fiction get on so well

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I don’t know.’ This is the default position of science. If you ask any half-decent physicist how the universe came in to being, they will say ‘I don’t know but here are some theories.’ Likewise, if you ask any biologist what colour a baby archaeopteryx was, they will probably say ‘I don’t know, but I can speculate.’ The lack of absolutes is what makes science great and what makes the scientific process so encompassing and so (mostly) open-minded. By a happy coincidence, it also leaves a lot of mystery and a lot of room for guess work, and this is where our good friend fiction comes in … Because our scientific understanding is far from complete, authors can take a scientific concept, and flesh it out however they want. In 1963 a physicist named Hugh Everett published a new theorem, The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. His radical new idea proposed that, thanks to some incredibly clever calculations and observations, …

The Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition

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Last night, one of our team, Sally Webb, got the chance to go to the Royal Society’s Black Tie Soirée at the Summer Science Exhibition. Here are her own thoughts on the evening and what she enjoyed. When my Dad told me I could go to the Soirée with him, I was so excited. Not only did I get to dress up and enjoy the free food (which was fantastic), but I also got to meet some of the most influential scientists of our time. I spent ages looking at the website trying to decide what exhibits I wanted to go and see, but with 16 choices this was really difficult. The event itself was held at the Royal Society, which is a fantastic building off the Mall, filled with photos and books all to do with science. Walking round, you notice the different scientists with their knighthoods, OBEs and CBEs round their necks. I met the famous YouTube sensation …

Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

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  A few months ago I wrote a piece on some of the most amazing scientific predictions to come out of classical literature. From IVF to space travel, it seems that an unexpected number of major technological innovations have been proceeded by the imaginations of great historical authors. But, if amazing scientific breakthroughs can be predicted before they happen, then surely the reverse must also be true. Indeed, history must be littered with examples of respected authorities confidently postulating the possibility of a discovery one minute, before shame-facedly back-pedalling in the next. So, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of science’s top-5 greatest hypothetical hick-ups.   5) Theory: Planet Vulcan, Proponent: Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier During the 1800s, astronomers were struggling to explain certain peculiarities in Mercury’s celestial orbit. Several scientists, led by Le Verrier, suggested that these disturbances arose due to the existence of another planet or  moon, which was named ‘Vulcan’, after the Roman god of fire. The theory drummed …

All spin and no substance – the story of the neutrino, the little neutral one.

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This is the story of the neutrino (Greek letter nu ; ν), a little piece of spinning nothing (i.e. a mass;less particle, but with angular momentum) whose existence was theoretically required by the need to balance certain equations in nuclear physics. How a mass;less thing could possibly have momentum of any sort however, was a paradox which was left unaddressed for the time being, and even today, though we mostly agree that it must have some mass, it is so miniscule (even in particle physics, where things are notoriously tiny) that we have no accurate idea of what that mass might be. It was Wolfgang Pauli who, in 1930, in order to explain how beta;decay could work while conserving mass, momentum, charge and angular momentum, postulated that there must be a new;to;nuclear;physics particle involved in the reaction. Pauli tentatively called this theoretically required particle a ‘neutron.’ However, James Chadwick discovered and named the ‘real’ neutron (i. e. the particle we now know as the neutron) in 1932. Chadwick’s neutron was a …

Astrology – part 1

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Just the other day a friend asked me about astrology, and whether it had any scientific merit. She said that she’d read all sorts of astounding claims about the validity of astrology, as well as “scientific proofs” of its efficacy. Well, as far as I can tell, it’s all bunkum, although, as we shall see, it does possibly have a certain psychological palliative value, I think. The first thing to note is that astrology was invented a very long time ago, when most people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, and was orbited by all the other planets, as well as the sun and the other stars. Needless-to-say, this outdated scheme fit very nicely with humankind’s sense of self-importance, a sense that comes out very clearly in the scriptures of many of the world’s religions -in which the creator of the universe puts human beings in the centre of all things. Anyway, this ancient belief is based on what is known as the terra-centric model of …

Poor old Pluto

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Two things happened in 1930 (well, ok, more than two things to be precise): Disney gave Mickey Mouse a big floppy, friendly puppy-friend; and a young astronomer, Clyde W. Tombaugh, 22 years old, and working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, assigned to a meticulous task, after much arduous work, identified a new planet. Neither had a name at first. A few months after Tombaugh discovered it, an 11 year old British school girl (Venetia Burney), with an interest in classical mythology, suggested the name Pluto for it because the Roman god Pluto could disappear at will, and was thus as elusive as his namesake planet which had proved so hard to find; I’m not sure when and how Mickey’s dog acquired its name. It was all so simple then, any large body orbiting the Sun was a planet, and there were 8 of them until Pluto came along. New discoveries since however, seem to have rewritten the rules …

A new spin on computing

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Spin, as anyone who has ever heard Alistair Campbell speak, is a tricky thing to figure out. Quantum spin – a property many subatomic particles have – is equally confounding, but, if understood, could lead to a powerful new breed of computer technology called spintronics. Despite its name, quantum spin does not actually refer to a rotating ball such as the Earth. “The electron is not physically spinning around but it has a magnetic north pole and a magnetic south pole,” says Professor Philippe Jacquod, a researcher in spintronics at the University of Arizona. “Its spin depends on which pole is pointing up. It can point in either of two directions which we usually term up and down.” This property has aroused the attentions of computer engineers who recognise the similarity with traditional electronics, which use either the presence or absence of an electrical charge to represent binary data. Magnetic spin, with its similarly dual character could, if harnessed, allow …

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