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Archive for the 'Maths and Physical Sciences' Category

How experts can give better advice to policymakers

By Oli Usher, on 3 July 2015

Sir Mark Walport addresses the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction’s annual conference

Sir Mark Walport addresses the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction’s annual conference

One of the main purposes of government is to manage risks. Key to assessing these risks is scientific and technical expertise. So conversations between academics and policymakers are very important.

Unfortunately these conversations can sometimes be at cross purposes. Fortunately, when framed correctly, and with both sides understanding each other, discussions between policymakers and academics can be hugely fruitful.

This was the argument of Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, in his keynote address to the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction’s annual conference on June 25.

So how should academics talk to policymakers?


The divestment debate: should UCL sell up?

By ucyow3c, on 8 April 2015


Written by Brigid Marriott, Faculty Communications Officer, UCL Laws

As calls for fossil fuel divestment grow, universities across the world are being forced to consider the management of their endowments. Stanford, Glasgow and Sydney universities have already begun the process of full or partial divestment from fossil fuels.

Oxford has decided to defer its decision on the issue, while Harvard is preparing to fight a lawsuit – brought by its own students – to try to force the university to drop its direct investments in coal, oil and gas companies.

Fiddlers Ferry power station

Fiddlers Ferry power station, Cheshire (credit: Alan Godfrey)

On Tuesday 24 March, the Guardian newspaper published a letter from UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres to her alma mater, Swarthmore College, calling on the college’s administration to decarbonise its investment portfolio.

That same evening, six experts from across UCL gathered to debate whether the institution should do the same and sell off its £21 million investment in fossil fuel companies.


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