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Churchill, his physicists and the nuclear bomb

Oli Usher22 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

ycrnf0113 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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Steven Chu – challenges and opportunities of climate change

Oli Usher1 April 2014

I’m sure Malcom Gladwell has something to say about Steven Chu. He is improbably successful in two totally different fields, and part of me wonders how he ever found the time to do it.

Steven Chu

Steven Chu. Photo: US Department of Energy

No sleep, perhaps?

Part-way through a stellar academic career in physics (including a Nobel Prize before he hit 50), Chu took a leave of absence.

In his four-year sabbatical, instead of sailing around the world or learning the violin like normal people might, he went to work for Barack Obama, serving as his Secretary of Energy until 2013, before heading back to a post at Stanford University when he was done.

In London to examine a physics PhD – Chu’s expertise is in laser cooling – he dropped by to offer a public lecture (Harrie Massey Lecture Theatre, 19 March) to a packed auditorium at UCL.

The topic: the challenges and opportunities of climate change – a subject he grappled with in his time in public office.

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Gravity and continuum, with Christian Böhmer

James M Heather14 February 2013

Dr Christian Böhmer from UCL Mathematics took to the stage for this instalment of the popular UCL Lunch Hour Lectures to tell us all about gravity.The Earth's gravitational field

The lecture opened on a history of gravity, or rather how humans through the ages have looked at what we call gravity.

It started with the ancient Greeks, who refined what the Babylonians and others had observed before.

Just before the years started counting upwards (BCE to CE), there was Ptolemy, who took what was known and made a model of the solar system which – all things considered – was not too shabby.

Previous ideas had all looked a bit too neat and circular, and didn’t take into account the rather inconvenient fact that the planets don’t just travel one way across the sky.

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