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    Archive for the 'Maths and Physical Sciences' Category

    Can we teach chemistry with explosions alone?

    By Oli Usher, on 20 February 2015

    Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry)

    Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry)

    Explosions, eruptions and exothermic reactions are the backbone of chemistry demonstrations. Generations of kids have been wowed by them.

    But do they really learn much from it?

    Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry) is a major purveyor of these explosions at science festivals and shows around the country. (He is also the only person I know who, when asked to sign off a risk assessment form full of apparently irresponsible pyrotechnics, was able to truthfully reply: “I make 7 foot fire tornadoes all the time, I’m sure it’s fine.”)

    Having won the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for his explosion-based science outreach, Sella used the opportunity of his celebratory public lecture (‘Is chemistry really so difficult?’, 9 February) to make a plea for… well, not the complete elimination of explosions from public lectures, but more thoughtful and judicious use of them.

    But first: one last opportunity to “blow sh*t up”, in this case, a can of hydrogen. Cue laughter and applause.

    Back on track. For centuries, chemists have tried to impress people by blowing things up, he says, but this gives a false impression of what chemistry is really about. It suggests that it’s exciting, and that it’s dangerous. It wows the crowds, but from a scientific perspective it’s not actually all that interesting. Flashes and bangs are chemistry porn, and they undermine recognition of modern chemistry as one of the towering intellectual achievements of our time.


    The impact of impacts

    By Oli Usher, on 9 February 2015

    Two animations, separated by just over half a century. In Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is set to a history of the Earth, featuring the dinosaurs gradually dying out in a drought. In 1994, an animated segment from Blue Peter shows the story we’re all with familiar today: a huge asteroid hitting the Earth, causing widespread destruction and an ‘impact winter’ that kills off the dinosaurs’ source of food.

    How did we get from the one to the other? This was the question Steve Miller (UCL’s Professor of Science Communication and Planetary Science) sought answers to in his Lunch Hour Lecture, ‘The impact of impacts’ (3 February).

    The story begins with a paper in 1980 that pointed out that there was a buried layer of iridium that covered the entire world and was the same age as the last of the dinosaurs. Iridium is an extremely rare element on Earth, but much more common in meteorites.

    The research argued that the impact of an asteroid about 10km across could explain both the unexpected iridium and the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs.

    Gravitational map of the Chixculub crater on the Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: Geological Survey of Canada

    Gravitational map of the Chixculub crater on the Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: Geological Survey of Canada


    Humans on the surface of Mars by the 2030s

    By Guest Blogger, on 1 December 2014

    pencil-icon Written by Stephanie Yardley (PhD student, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory)

    The Curiosity rover on Mars

    The Curiosity rover on Mars

    Recently, I was taken on an inspirational journey through the solar system and beyond, thanks to a public lecture on scientific discovery and human exploration given at UCL by Chief Scientist Dr Ellen Stofan and Chief Technologist Dr David Miller of NASA.

    We have come a long way since the Apollo missions back in the late 1960s and now we have set our sights on the ultimate destination as NASA hopes that humans will set foot on Mars for the first time in the 2030s.

    Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

    Read the rest of this entry >>

    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.


    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…)