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    Archive for the 'Maths and Physical Sciences' Category

    Danny Boyle’s Sunshine: the science behind the fiction

    By Ben Stevens, on 12 November 2014

    From Georges Méliès to Tarkovsky and Kubrick, the wonders of space have taken a special hold on the imaginations of some of the world’s most visionary film directors.

    UCL’s very own Christopher Nolan (UCL English, 1991) is the latest to offer his response with the hugely anticipated Interstellar, which opened on Friday.

    Solar2

    Before him, Danny Boyle gave us his own epic vision in Sunshine (2007) – which was shown at a special screening organised by the UCL Public and Cultural Engagement (PACE) team at the Stratford Picturehouse in east London on 28 October.

    The film, starring Cillian Murphy, follows the crew of the Icarus II as they attempt to reignite our dying Sun with a specially designed nuclear weapon that must be delivered directly into its core, if life on Earth is to survive.

    Before the screening, visitors had the chance to view the space-themed objects from UCL’s museum collections, including a meteorite, part of a crashed satellite and some historical NASA images of space. (more…)

    Lunch Hour Lectures: Bright Sparks – the history and science of fireworks

    By Kilian Thayaparan, on 3 November 2014

    FireworksWith 5 November just around the corner, this Lunch Hour Lecture on how fireworks have helped to develop a relationship between science and art from Dr Simon Werrett (UCL Science and Technology Studies) made the perfect prelude to the annual lighting up of the UK’s skies.

    Dr Werrett began by talking about his interest in fireworks, explaining to the sizeable audience (which he was pleasantly surprised with considering the “freakishly warm weather” for this time of year) that their incorporation of and connection with the seemingly conflicting fields of art and science has always fascinated him.

    He then guided the audience through the history of fireworks, starting with their Chinese origins. Dry bamboo with gunpowder inside is recognised as the first type of firework, the ‘big bang’ used to ward off “mountain men of evil spirits”. In the 12th century, this technique and others like it were then used to create firework displays for Chinese emperors.

    The Mongol invasion of Asia followed by central Europe brought firecrackers and gunpowder technology to this continent in the 13th century, and by the late 15th century firework displays were relatively common. One key example is the Girandola in Rome – a display that celebrated the election of a new Pope, the apocalyptic nature of the display symbolising death and rebirth.

    (more…)

    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.

    (more…)

    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.

    (more…)