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November 2015 Archives

...the United States of America, of course. Hamish Johnston, editor of, has put together a neat little piece looking at where Nobel physics laureates start and end their days. There's no surprise on the net migration front - a huge flow from everywhere to the US. You can read Hamish's piece here. What the graphic doesn't indicate is when the award winner migrated (e.g. was it before or after their prize?) and multiple migrations - he just shows where they were born, and where they died or are currently living. 

The biggest 'loser' is Germany - in fact a whopping 13 German-born laureates left Germany (11 of them for the US, including Albert Einstein, and 2 to Switzerland) although World War II accounted for many of the migrations here. 

While 30 laureates have immigrated to the US, only 2 have emigrated including the 2011 'Australian' laureate Brian Schmidt

There's been some shuffling about within Europe too, the biggest winner of this being France, but that is insignificant compared to the large, thick arrow that heads westward across the Atlantic. 




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The Institute of Physics (IOP) has recently released "Opening Doors: A guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools" (You can access the report here and read some commentary at a recent IOP conference here.) Although funded jointly by the Government Equalities Office (now I'm sure such a thing didn't exist when I lived in the UK) and the IOP, the study is not confined to physics, nor even to science. However, given the gender imbalance in physics, the IOP has a strong interest in this. Also, given the low numbers of students studying physics at Waikato, it is something I have a strong interest in too.

The report covers many areas, such as careers guidance, staff training, tackling sexist language (whether it be conscious or unconscious), use of statistical data, and so forth. But the one that caught my eye was subject equity. What is meant by this is treating all subjects on an equal footing. Often, maths and science are given a label that says 'this is a difficult subject'. For example, that can be done by teachers (and parents, older siblings and so forth) telling students that they are hard, or sometimes by setting higher entry requirements than for other subjects - e.g. to progress from GSCE to A-level physics one might need an 'A', but to progress in English one might need a 'B'. Why does this matter? Because there is an increasing body of research that suggests that when a subject is perceived as 'hard', gender sterotypes are emphasized. That is, the minority gender fears failure much more so than the majority gender and consequently does not take the subject. At the 'Opening Doors' Conference, Prof Louise Archer (King's College, London) is reported as saying:

It is taken for granted that physics is hard and masculine, and that can lead to self-censorship and self-exclusion

In other words, work on the image of physics being hard, and the gender bias may diminish. Note that it's the girls and women who are actively choosing not to do physics, rather than the boys and men actively choosing to do physics that leads to the imbalance. Fix the gender issue and we won't lose the males in our school and university classes, but we'll gain females.

Now, this is highly relevant to physics at Waikato, which has a much higher entry requirement into its first year physics papers than it has into other first year science papers. We also have a tangled web of complicated pre-requisites to do our second and third year physics papers. In other words, the information  we provide prospective and current students implicitly says "physics is harder than other sciences".  And, as the IOP report talks about, when you have the label 'hard' against something, the minority gender fears failure and doesn't engage with it. So, as a very first little step (and I would emphasize that there is a whole lot more that needs to be done with the way we offer physics here at Waikato) we can bring our entry requirements into line with those into the other sciences. If the IOP has done its research well, we should, at very least, see more women taking physics at first year. 



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I've recently received the final report from the Conference Organizing company that looked after the New Zealand Institute of Physics (NZIP) conference, back in July. The report includes such things as the final accounts, the breakdown of who attended, and feedback from participants. It's the feedback that is particularly interesting. 

When we attend an event, it's usual to find a piece of paper thrust in front of us before we leave, asking for feedback. Nowadays, it's often an electronic form that comes to your inbox. And it's easy to ignore it. However, what we write is really valuable to the event organizer. How are they going to know what went well and what didn't go  well, unless people tell them? If something needs changing, the organizer needs to know about it. Likewise, if something was really appreciated, the organizer wants to know too - so they're not tempted to remove it for their next group of people. I've just had an email arrive asking for feedback on the metrology conference I went to last month. It would have taken about a second to hit the delete key. However, having been part of the organization of NZIP 2015, I know that any feedback I give will be very valuable to the organizers. Hence I took a couple of minutes to put some things down in words for them. 

So, what of the feedback for NZIP 2015? I'm fairly confident that several of the delegates will be reading this, so here's a flavour of the comments:

First the positives. (Actually, I would say ALL (sensible) feedback is positive feedback, since it helps to improve things. But by positive here, I mean things people thought went well or they appreciated.) There were many (eight, in fact) comments about how the conference was enjoyable and greatly appreciated.  It was fun to be at. For example:

I am glad I attended the conference this year (for the first time). The distance travelled and the days spent out of the school holidays was worth it.

Our choice of speakers went down well:

Thank you for such a well though out line-up of speakers

There were also many pertaining to the conference's ability to draw high-school teachers and university researchers together. For example...

As an interloper from a more chemistry-based focus, I really enjoyed the full participation of high-school teachers and the strong emphasis on teaching

Many people liked the venue (University of Waikato in Hamilton), though I wonder if these are locally based (Waikato, Bay of Plenty) participants who have endured many years with the NZIP conference located far away. There were equally those who didn't appreciate having a conference in Hamilton...

Now the not so good. By far and away the largest single theme was one over which we had little control: the food. 

Food was AWFUL and there was not enough

...and there were another sixteen comments along the same lines. We ran out of food on the first day. The reason the caterer's gave was uncomfortably erudite - there were too many males at the conference. The gender-imbalance in physics is of course a big issue in itself. I won't pursue that further in this entry. One relies on caterers to get it right, and in this case they were thrown by the uncharacteristically large appetites of the male-dominated physics population. 

Cost was another issue. Some thought the registration fees were too high, and others that airfares to Hamilton are too expensive (and therefore we should have held the conference in Auckland or Wellington, though presumably that comes at extra cost on accommodation). Setting registration fees is a real balancing act for a small professional body like NZIP. Conferences are expensive things to run. Getting good keynote speakers (which we evidently did) costs. But saving money on food (which we also evidently did, though perhaps inadvertently) isn't appreciated. For the record, we made a profit of nearly $4,000 for this conference, but that has to be put into perspective of a thumping loss (around $10k) made the previous time. I doubt many professional bodies of NZIP's size make money out of conferences in the long-run. If the fees are too high, we lose participants. If the fees are too low, we don't cover our costs. It is very much a fine line. 

There were comments regarding parallel streams. Some people like them (you get to choose which presentation to attend) but when there are two or more presentations that you'd like to be at that are scheduled for the same time it gets difficult.

It's a hard one, but there were several presentations on at the same time that I would have liked to have gone to.

Getting a programme together is hard work. It's like doing a seating plan for a wedding reception - it sounds easy until you actually try to do it. It's tied up with issues such as "how long should the conference be" (longer conferences mean more cost to the participants in time and money) and "how much free time should there be in the conference?" We had comments on both those issues too. It certainly isn't helped by the extra-ordinary ability of academics not to be able to submit abstracts by deadlines, or even extended deadlines. (And we moan at students who don't submit on time...) 

So where is NZIP going for 2017? Who will be the keynote speakers? What will the fees be? What strange concoction of after-dinner entertainment will be proposed? All of these questions are, as far as I know, still undecided, If you have thoughts, please let NZIP know. 






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We have a spring-loaded umbrella at home. The idea is that you press a button, and it automatically springs into shape - its shaft springs out and the canopy unfolds. I've often wondered about the wisdom of such a mechanism and thought what would happen if it went off in an inconvenient confined space, such as a shop packed with expensive china ornaments.To reset, after use, you press the button again to fold up the canopy, but then need to reset the spring mechanism by pushing half the shaft inside the other half. It's that resetting bit that got me yesterday morning. On coming back inside the house after tending to the chickens I tried to collapse and reset the umbrella, but didn't push the shaft hard enough for the mechanism to engage. Instead, when I let it go, the shaft sprung back and hit me in the face - hard enough to draw blood. 

Fortunately my injury was entirely superficial (but it hurt!) and I won't be appearing in the 2015 ACC funny list for the craziest effectors of injury*. 

So how hard did it hit me? Let's do a quick estimate. First, how much energy is in the mechanism when enabled? This depends on the force required to push the spring into place and the distance one needs to push it. The latter is the easy one - about 20 cm. The force is harder to estimate. Imagine putting the umbrella on its end and gradually applying an increasing weight to its shaft, until the spring is fully compressed. How much needs to be applied? About 3 kilograms of mass, maybe. That's 30 newtons of force. So the energy stored in the spring is the force times the distance compressed, divided by two. The factor of half comes from the fact that as the spring compresses the force required increases linearly with the compression. So that gives us about 30 newtons, times 0.2 metres, divided by 2, which equals 3 joules of energy. 

That energy stored in the spring got transferred to the kinetic (movement) energy of the shaft when I let it go. So, how hard did it hit me? One can do the calculation in reverse. About 3 joules has to be dissipated over a small distance as it hit me. Maybe I moved a couple of centimetres. So what force would dissipate 3 joules when acting over 2 cm. Divide 3 J by 0.02 m and we get 150 Newtons. 

That's the weight of 15 kg of stuff, applied through the end of the shaft, to my face. Imagine a suitcase perched on top of the umbrella with the other end supported by my lower lip. Ouch.  The force is substantially larger than that I need to compress the spring in the first place, because it is dissipated over a much smaller distance. However, the suitcase comparison shouldn't be taken too far because the umbrella force was applied only for a very brief period. 

I have now learned to be a bit more careful when resetting the umbrella. 

*But let's not forget the 1978 umbrella-assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov on Waterloo Bridge in London



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