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    Archive for the 'Maths and Physical Sciences' Category

    Churchill, his physicists and the nuclear bomb

    By Oli Usher, on 22 October 2014

    Churchill wrote extensively in the mainstream press

    Churchill wrote extensively in
    the mainstream press

    Winston Churchill was not the nuclear naif he has sometimes been made out as. Rather, he was a visionary who grasped the impact of nuclear power and nuclear weapons as early as the 1930s and who lost sleep over nuclear proliferation. But his achievements in the field were as a writer in the 1930s and in his largely forgotten second term as PM in the 1950s, not as Britain’s wartime leader.

    This is the argument of Graham Farmelo, who spoke on “Churchill, his nuclear physicists and the bomb” in a public lecture at UCL’s Physics department on 8 October. Farmelo, a physicist and popular science writer, is the author of Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics, published last year.

    Churchill’s involvement with nuclear research does not begin in May 1940, when became prime minister. Rather, Farmelo said, we need to look at Churchill in the preceding decade.

    By 1930, Churchill’s political career was in the doldrums, he had retreated to the backbenches, and any return to ministerial office seemed unlikely. He occupied himself with what he had always done: writing. Churchill had a lucrative sideline in journalism, including articles in mass-market publications like the News of the World, writing on a broad range of topics, including science.

    Even before his political career tanked, Churchill had shown a keen interest in science. Among the books he read while posted to India in the army was Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a primer on physics. And in 1926, while Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had even taken time out from writing the budget to dictate an essay on particle physics to his secretary.

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    Lunch hour lecture: On supernovae and serendipity

    By Irrum Ali, on 13 October 2014

    Like a white dwarf, autumn 2014’s first Lunch Hour Lecture was dense, full of energy and tightly packed (but in this case, time and not space, I might add).

    Psyched for my first Lunch Hour Lecture, I was ready to explore the world of supernovae with a 45-minute guided journey through the stars, namely, ones in the process of exploding very dramatically.

    Radiating enthusiasm and demonstrating expertise from start to finish, Dr Steve Fossey (UCL Physics and Astronomy) took a capacity audience on a whistle stop tour of January’s discovery of a Type ia supernova, memorably named SN 2014J, and situated in our neighbourhood galaxy, the sci-fi sounding, Messier 82.

    After summarising the rules for supernovae discovery (there are two options: looking, and not looking but accidentally finding), Dr Fossey gave a short overview of history’s accidental supernova discoveries.

    One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour till it becomes unstable Credit: European Southern Observatory

    One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour until it becomes unstable
    Credit: European Southern Observatory via Oli Usher

    Beginning with Tycho Brahe’s find in 1572 – labelled SN 1572 – which rewrote the rules of astronomy, he moved on to Johannes Kepler’s discovery of SN 1604 in, wait for it, 1604 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and finally, and more recently, SN 1987A, found by astronomers in Chile.

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    Astronaut touches down in Swiss Cottage

    By Oli Usher, on 10 October 2014

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    NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visits UCL Academy

    Charlie Bolden was born in the deep south of the US, during the days of segregation and institutionalised racism. Despite this inauspicious start in life, he went on to a high-flying military career, commanded the Space Shuttle, spent 28 days in orbit and, in 2009, was made head of NASA by President Obama. He is the first African American to hold the position.

    During a trip to the UK to meet senior officials in the UK and Italian space agencies, Bolden dropped into the UCL Academy for a few hours to talk to the students and teachers there. The visit was organised by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at UCL.

    He started off with a conventional inspirational speech, full of quotable soundbites – “study hard, work hard, don’t be afraid of failure” – as well as first-hand anecdotes from the four Space Shuttle missions he flew on. (Most memorably, he went on a long and highly entertaining digression about Newton’s laws of motion, and how in microgravity you need to be attached to a computer keyboard if you want to avoid launching yourself across the cabin when you type.)

    As he went on, and the students gradually became more and more enthused, more and more hands shot up in the audience.

    A quarter of an hour in, any pretence of this being a lecture was off. Instead, it had become a wide-ranging conversation covering everything from what happens if someone falls ill in space (there is someone with basic surgical training on every mission) to whether or not there is wi-fi on the International Space Station (there is).

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    A particle physics evening

    By Oli Usher, on 29 August 2014

    Particle physics is a particularly abstruse area of science. The phenomena studied are so different from what we know and see that it is incredibly hard to convey even the most basic concepts.

    Which makes it all the more remarkable that the past few years have seen an explosion in public interest in particle physics. The construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN a decade ago was one trigger for this – and the LHC’s triumphant discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 only confirmed the discipline’s popularity.

    UCL is a major participant in the LHC (witness the 24 UCL authors of one of the papers that confirmed the discovery of the Higgs particle). Last week saw the BOOST conference, an international workshop for particle physicists at UCL. A group of them held a public event (A Particle Physics Evening, 20 August) hosted by UCL’s head of physics, Jon Butterworth.

    Participants in the BOOST workshop, with Jon Butterworth at the centre. Photo credit: James Monk

    Participants in the BOOST workshop, with Jon Butterworth at the centre. Photo credit: James Monk

    The evening featured various talks on CERN and particle physics, including a live linkup with the CERN control room. (Unusually, given how flaky the technology usually is, the video-conferencing worked flawlessly. This is just as well – any networking problems would have been embarrassing given the world wide web was invented at CERN and UCL had the UK’s first connection to the internet.).

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