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May 2009 Archives

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I might have had a bit of a sarcastic tone in my last entry about kicking football penalties, but we shouldn't jump to the idea that sport science isn't proper science. After all, it's what has given Australia three zillion more gold medals than is warranted by its population. Have a look at the Australian Institute of Sport website if you want evidence that properly targeted science research equals  success. (Unfortunately, not the kind of success that necessarily brings great benefits to the world's population, but let's not get too choosy.)

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The global recession obviously hasn't hit science hard enough yet.  There is still money available for someone to research the optimum way to shoot a football penalty. (By which of course I mean soccer - the only real kind of football there is).

According to Tim Cable, as reported in May's PhysicsWorld,  the best thing to do is to aim within 0.5 m of the crossbar and one of the posts. (Isn't this stating the obvious - I mean no-one is likely to aim at the goalie, are they?) But, statistically, you shuold also give the ball a velocity of 29 m/s from a run-up of five steps at an angle of 25 degrees. 

Now this news is out, I will be fascinated to see whether the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo will be seen wheeling out a theodolite from the touch line next time Manchester United have a key spot-kick. But whatever its use, you can bet that it will make zero improvement to England's penalty shoot-out chances.

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OK , so I've told you why I didn't become a biologist, but what about chemistry? That's a pretty fun science area too. At school, I had a great chemistry teacher, and when I started university I thought there was still a small chance that I could be tempted away from physics towards chemistry as a degree and career.

That is, until first year organic chemistry classes. (As is common in first year science, I took a range of subjects). Organic chemistry fell into two sections, the lectures and the practicals. First, my summary of the lectures.

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First - sorry blogging has slowed down a bit in recent days - busy time at the university having to teach courses and prepare for next semesters courses and get ready for a major conference all at once. So I'll keep this one short.

The wild weather over the last couple of days has brought with it its fair share of slippery roads. Ice is nasty stuff when you are driving on it (or walking on it for that matter - I remember one January morning in Bedford in the UK when I didn't even make it to the bus stop - the second time I'd fallen on the footpath after about 30 metres from my front door I turned back for the house to wait for the day to defrost a bit.)

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Does anyone know the answer to this question?

Why is it that, when you bake a cake or make a loaf of bread, the bit in the centre of the tin always rises more than the bits around the perimeter of the tin?

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I've just been reading an article in Physics World about a high-flying young physicist who deceived the science community for several years (including the editors of  'Nature' and 'Science'), by, putting it bluntly, making up his results. After reading it I have several questions in my head. What makes someone do that? Why did it take so long before anyone noticed? How many other 'successful' scientists out there are doing the same?

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I spent yesterday morning with a group of students studying some properties of antennas, as part of one of our courses. One of the things we did was to measure the beamwidth of a typical satellite receiver - the sort of thing you stick on the roof of your house to get all the decent TV chanels.

Now, we had the dish, but the problem was to find the satellite. There are two ways of doing this.

 

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My wife was complaining this morning about the mass of knitting that is underneath our home computer. Not knitting of the woollen jersey kind, but knitting of the wire kind, that is needed to supply power to the computer, printer, modem, etc etc etc and to allow the computer to talk to the printer, etc. Our house doesn't come close to having enough power outlets for all the electrical things that are commonplace, so it is loaded with those multisocket strips that make me feel just slightly uneasy sometimes.

 

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I've just had an email invitation to subscribe to a journal called 'Geophysical and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics', with a lovely note that they hope it will serve my research needs. I'm at a loss to think of how it possibly could; maybe at some conference years ago I filled in a card saying I had some vague interest in astrophysics.

Anyway, what is Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics? It sounds impressive. I'm guessing it must be the study of fluids on planets / starts other than Earth. Now, that research would make for a good field trip. Can you imagine the application for funding - I just need a few billion dollars to take a trip to Jupiter to look at flow patterns in its atmosphere.

On the more realistic assumption that such (experimental) studies are made via telescope and the odd space probe, it's actually quite impressive just how much we can deduce about other planets, the sun, etc, without actually going there. A bit like those annoying friends who think themselves experts on your holiday destination without ever setting foot in the place.

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Let me take you back a few years, to when I was in year 9 at school, in the fair county of Sussex (in UK). In my biology class we did an experiment to look at the preference for woodlice for light or dark. Basically two petri dishes, one painted back, with lids, joined together so that the woodlice could choose whether to be in the light or the dark. I popped in six lice, and, hey presto, they scuttled about and then settled down with five in the light dish and one in the dark dish.

My biology teacher then tells me that my results are wrong.  Err, no, Mr X. My results are five in the light, one in the dark. That's what they are. I can't help it if I've selected woodlice that are blind or have alzheimer's or whatever.  That is where they sat.

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For you final year school students contemplating doing the scholarship physics exam, you should check out the examiners' report on last year's exam which has just been released on the NZQA website. (Scroll down to 'physics' and then download the 2008 files). It gives a summary of the skills successful and unsuccessful candidates possessed. Even if you are not doing scholarship physics, have a read anyway because it outlines the qualities that successful students had; these will be helpful in many other contexts.

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Last Monday I gave another talk on the Large Hadron Collider, this time in Tauranga. It led to the usual kind of questions (like what is a Higgs Boson?, how fast are these protons going?, how can they be 100% sure it is safe, etc), plus a few less obvious ones, like could they use the collisions to generate power, and what dose of radiation will the workers get from those high energy particles?

Anyway, that was all fine (not that I know the answers to all of them), until right at the end the organiser thanked me, and said to the audience "You might not know, but as well as being a physicist Marcus is also an accomplised neurophysiologist".

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I was reminded this week about the story of Huygens' clocks. Christaan Huygens was one of those too-clever-by-half physicists / mathematicians who was into just about any science that was going on at the time. This seventeenth century dutchman is maybe best known in physics for his work on wave motion, but he was also an accomplished astronomer and clockmaker.

The story goes that Huygens had lots of clocks on his wall (as you might expect from a clockmaker), and although they were all slightly different, and were wound up at different times, they all eventually ticked together. By that I mean the tick-tock motion of every clock became exactly synchronised with every other clock.

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