Thursday, 25 February 2010

I'm a scientist, get me out of here!

I'm rather excited, as I've been picked for the next installment of "I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!"

I'll have to try to enthuse various groups of school kids about what I do, and in a better way than my competitors. Should be lots of fun, if a little daunting. Details of the competition are here. I'm up against a range of other scientists, doing lots of interesting sounding things. Now I have to think of all the reasons that nuclear physics is really interesting...

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Nuclear Physics is not an isolated subject, but influences, and is influenced by other areas of physics, other scientific subjects, and wider society. One of the strongest and closest scientific links is in astrophysics, since stars are nothing but giant nuclear reactors. This realisation - that all elements heavier than lithium were created in the stars - does not go back to the days when the chemical elements were identified as such, or when it was realised that the elements are made of atoms with tiny nuclei at the centre. They were both pre-requisites for astrophysicists to finally understand what powers stars, namely nuclear fusion. The bulk of the puzzle was not solved until the 1950s (and indeed the entire picture is still not known) when a seminal work by Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle was published which laid bare most of the nuclear reactions that occur in stars, converting lighter elements to heavier, and responsible for all the heavy elements in our bodies ("we are all stardust.") Last month, one of the co-authors of the famous paper died. Though he wouldn't have called himself a nuclear physicist, he helped define the field.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Celebrity Nuclear Physicist

Since this is a nuclear physics blog, I think it's definitely on-topic to mention that Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical nuclear physicist and colleague of mine at the University of Surrey, was the guest on Desert Island Discs this morning. If you missed it, you can still listen for the next twelve days. He talks a bit about his personal life, and a bit about science, but the most controversial thing he said was that no good music came from the 1980s. I've pointed out this basic error in his thinking before, so I don't know why he would repeat it on Radio 4 ;-)

Monday, 1 February 2010

Labour's ambitions

A recent article in Policy Review by David Lammy makes uncomfortable reading for the future of Science funding in particular, and UK universities in general.

I don't think it's a misinterpretation of the article to conclude that the minister's position is that
  • Britain's position in the world is declining. The standard of its universities is linked to its position in the world. Its universities are currently disproportionately good and should be less good.
  • Expensive-to-run courses (specifically "medicine, engineering and the natural sciences") will be cut by many universities, because they need too much money to run, and no-one wants to fund them, including the government.
  • The ambition of most universities is too lofty - to be universal in what subjects they offer, and doing blue-skies research that does not directly attract private funding is not commensurate with the government ambition for UK universities.

I wish it were a misinterpretation, though.