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Sunday 29 July 2012

Science communication and the Sun's crown

Have you ever seen a solar eclipse? Did you notice the ring of light spreading out from the dark circle where the Moon covers the Sun? That's called the corona (from the Latin word for crown, after its shape) and it's a kind of plasma atmosphere extending millions of miles into space from the Sun's surface. One of the questions I've been looking at this week is why this corona is about a thousand times hotter than the solar surface below it. Heat doesn't naturally flow from cooler regions to hotter ones (try cooking your dinner in the fridge!) so how does the Sun keep its atmosphere so hot?

Solar Corona
Image from: Luc Viatour /

This is just one of the questions I've been looking at over the past few days, others have included how we evolved to produce milk for our children, and why ancient stars spin more slowly than expected.

With just this week and next to go in my internship I have been focussing on writing up all the information I have been able to glean from my interactions with various researchers. In addition to writing up a number of individual “things”, I have also been putting together a larger piece on why everything in our galaxy and those around it (and perhaps in the whole observable universe) consists of matter rather than anti-matter.

Working on these larger pieces with the editorial team has helped me to develop a much better perspective on the aim of the website both in terms of style and content. These interactions have shaped the way I view my role within the team. There is always a difficult line to be drawn between scientific accuracy and avoiding jargon or overly technical language. Given that the site uses editors to compile the final articles, I now tend to be happier being more comprehensive and specific than is always necessary, trusting that extraneous language can be removed later.

With just one week left to go, I still hope to get a significant number of new things written up, although I cannot see myself simply stopping at the end of my internship. For sites like this to work, they require submissions from volunteers, and I feel strongly enough that TWDK is a good and necessary project, that my intention is to continue submitting pieces whenever I come across an interesting new unsolved question in science.

If you want to get involved in Things We Don't Know get in touch via email.

Friday 20 July 2012

Through the looking glass: symmetry and stained glass windows

So why are we here then? Come to that, why does anything exist at all? These questions might sound more philosophical than scientific, but this is the true scale of the questions on which the scientific method can now be brought to bear. The question of why the world around us exists, why the matter in the universe has not all annihilated with antimatter is a big one, and this week I was fortunate enough to speak with Harry Cliff at the London Science Museum, formerly of CERN, and Dr. Adrian Bevan at QMUL, about why this asymmetry exists. We spoke at some length about violation of symmetries and the experimental techniques we can use to see where matter and antimatter behave differently, I am extremely grateful for their assistance, as I feel that I have learned a great deal about the way in which cutting edge particle physics research is carried out.

These big questions can seem daunting at times, but it is worth remembering that science often progresses in small steps, the solutions to seemingly trivial questions leading us bit by bit towards the answers to larger ones. One of these smaller questions, which I have been looking at this week is why there are giant arcs of light beside distant galaxy clusters. We understand quite well the gravitational lensing effect which produces these phenomena, but our best models of the universe predict that the probability of us seeing it so far away in space is practically zero. So this small question points us towards possible issues with our greater understanding of the universe itself.

Image credit: ESA/NASA
An Einstein ring caused by gravitational lensing, pictured by Hubble

Back here on earth, I had a discussion this Wednesday with Dr. Kostya Trachenko at QMUL, regarding the nature of glasses and the glass transition. He dispelled an apparently apocryphal notion regarding the fluidity of stained glass windows with which I had been impressed some time ago - I had been misinformed that the thickening towards the bottom of the panes in these old windows was due to the glass flowing like a liquid.  According to Dr. Trachenko, although this flow would occur, it would take longer than the age of the universe to produce the observed effect! Our conversation also helped me gain a greater insight into what constitutes a phase of matter and the outstanding problem of describing the behaviour of liquids. He also provided me with links to a range of other resources for further reading, which I found most helpful.

Of course, if you'd like to read more about these mysteries, then don't forget to follow TWDK on facebook or twitter, so we can tell you when the main site goes live!
I have just two weeks left working for TWDK, and the best use of my time at this point will most likely be to spend it writing. I have yet to write up the considerable bulk of the information I have accumulated over the last month and a half. It is unlikely therefore that I will meet face to face with many more academics over the course of this internship, so I will take this opportunity to thank those who I have spoken to for their invaluable assistance. This has made my job not only easier, but immeasurably more interesting and educational as well.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Questions the Higgs Boson may or may not answer

In 1964 when Peter Higgs first proposed the mechanism that bears his name, I had just started secondary school. Little did I know that 48 years later I would be a member of the ATLAS experiment celebrating the discovery of a new particle that bears all the hallmarks of the particle predicted so long ago by Peter Higgs and others.

On 4 July 2012 the two experiments, ATLAS and CMS, at the CERN Large Hadron Collider announced that the search for this elusive particle is probably at an end. Over several decades, particle physicists have built up an understanding of what we believe are the fundamental constituents of matter, called quarks and leptons (such as the electron), and the forces that hold them together. These forces are characterised by the exchange of other particles such as the photon that is responsible for electric and magnetic forces. This understanding is encoded mathematically in what we call the Standard Model. The Standard Model makes precise predictions for the behaviour of the particles and has been tested to a very high accuracy.

ATLAS Experiment © 2008 CERN

However, the original Standard Model only makes sense mathematically if all the particles have zero rest masses. Were this true they would all travel at the speed of light and the formation of stars, galaxies and us would have been impossible. In fact we now know that all particles except the photon have rest masses, including neutrinos which were thought to be massless until recently. Peter Higgs and others got around this by proposing what is now called the Higgs Mechanism to allow the particles to have mass whilst still keeping the Standard Model mathematically self-consistent. The Higgs Mechanism suggests that the whole of space is permeated by a 'sea' of Higgs particles that stick to the other particles and slow them down, effectively giving them mass. Higgs particles stick to heavy particles like the top quark a lot, but not to the photon at all and so it remains massless. The theory predicted that with sufficient energy we should be able create these Higgs particles in an accelerator and watch them decay as we now appear to have done.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Bubbles, bosons and unexplained biology

Did you know that if you hit a bubble with enough sound, you can make it implode, emitting UV light in the process? 

Because I didn't! The phenomenon is known as sonoluminescence, and since we can't measure the conditions within the bubble directly, but must infer them from the nature of the emitted light, the mechanism behind it is still a topic of debate. This is just one of the things I've been writing about this past week. I had a very productive chat with Dr. Kevin Donovan where he explained some of the difficulties in measuring this effect, and hence attempting to understand the physics behind it. 

Earlier in the week I met with Prof. Steve Lloyd, to consider the question of why there are three generations of matter and to help me understand why the Higgs Boson is important, and what further questions it's tentative discovery raises. In fact we will be posting a guest blog by Prof. Lloyd on the Higgs Boson next week! I also talked with Dr. Theo Kreouzis, who introduced me to Organic Magnetoresistance, which has a number of competing explanatory theories, as well as pointing me in the direction of some more very useful people to speak to.

Last Sunday I visited the Royal Society summer exhibition and spoke to a number of exhibitors who suggested interesting questions I might look at, such as “why do scorpions glow in ultra-violet light?”, and “how can we build a large quantum computer?” It was great to see how others approach science communication and the variety of ways they were engaging people's interest, with demonstrations, interactive exhibits and games. I definitely felt that as with most science communication I have experienced, the exhibits focussed on what science has taught us, and the unanswered questions were not at the forefront. This re-affirmed my desire to convey the sheer volume of mystery that exists within our understanding of the universe.

Ed has been back in the UK this week, and it has been very helpful to get some face-to-face feedback on how the work has been going. We met with Claire from SEPnet on Wednesday at the TWDK offices in The Hub to discuss my internship and I was really pleased with what came out of the meeting. I would thoroughly recommend working in science communication to any scientific student as a way of broadening their knowledge of front-line research beyond their own field. If anyone's interesting in getting involved in Things We Don't Know in the same way I am get in touch -

Thursday 5 July 2012

Mysteries, Magnetars and Majoranas

Hey guys, Jon again, just letting you know how things are going here in the land of Things We Don't Know now I'm almost halfway through my internship here. It's been a busy few days. I have still been writing small pieces, and am learning to be more thorough in the manner in which I check facts and sources, thanks in no small part to substantial feedback and support from Ed.

You might be wondering what exactly it is that I've been writing about, well, the range of material I'm covering is very broad. Some of the things I've been looking at include the way black holes can spin, dragging the fabric of space-time with them, what Magnetars are and why their magnetic fields are so strong,  and why there is so much water here on Earth, yet so little on our close neighbour Venus. I think the area which I have enjoyed researching the most however has been in particle physics. I learned that in 1937, an Italian physicist named Ettore Majorana established that the equations which had predicted the existence of antimatter particles, could in some circumstances be solved such that a particle was it's own antiparticle. These hypothetical particles are known as Majorana fermions, but detecting them has thus far proven difficult. I find this theoretical approach to particle physics appealing, because it demonstrates the power of the underlying maths.

Last week I mentioned that I had begun work on a larger article, covering the topics of dark matter and dark energy. I am pleased to say that I have been able to make good progress on this front, having had exceedingly informative discussions with both Dr. Tim Clifton and Prof. Steve Thomas at QMUL. As a result of these conversations, I have expanded my own knowledge of the field, as well as being pointed in the direction of other useful areas of study. The Dark Matter piece is now in second draft form, and I am writing my next piece about Dark Energy.

The faculty at QMUL have been so helpful and it is my intention to speak to as many of them as possible, regarding the unanswered questions in their own fields. I would also be very happy to hear from anyone else who has something they think I should be writing about. Are there unanswered questions in Physics that you think are interesting, or that you'd like to see written about?

Feel free to get in touch with Things We Don’t Know about other sciences too – drop a message.