“Science on Saturday” Goes to 11

This weekend I had the honour and privilege of being the first speaker for the 2019 Ronald E Hatcher Science on Saturday series of lectures held at, and organised by, Princeton’s PPL (Plasma Physics Laboratory).  I’ll let PPPL themselves explain what Science On Saturday is all about:

Science on Saturday is a series of lectures given by scientists, engineers, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturday mornings throughout winter, the lectures are geared toward high school students. The program draws more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members. Topics are selected from a variety of disciplines.

Named after the late Ronald E Hatcher, who ran and hosted the series for many years, Science on Saturday is a fun way to bring physics (and other lesser sciences) to the general public(s) and other scientists alike. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience, who braved a bracing Saturday morning to hear about the connections between Sabbath, Stryper, and Schrödinger.  (The free bagels and coffee before the talk were, I’m sure, not entirely incidental in attracting the audience. I certainly can vouch for the quality of the pre-lecture consumables.) The Q&A session at the end ran for over an hour, with many insightful questions from the audience, whose age range seemed to span ~ 9 to 90 years young!

A number of those who were in the audience e-mailed me after the talk to ask for a copy of the slides. I’ve uploaded them to SlideShare (sans videos, regrettably) to make them publicly available here:

 

Andrew Zwicker has been the energetic and entertaining host for Science on Saturday for, if I recall correctly, more years than he cares to remember. In parallel with his career in physics, Andrew has successfully forayed into politics, as outlined at his Wikipedia page. Before the lecture he told me about an exciting scheme to encourage more early career researchers into politics. I thoroughly understand the reticence of many scientists to get involved with the political sphere — my involvement with the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme a number of years ago was an eye-opener in terms of the mismatch that can exist between political and scientific mindsets — but we need to bite the bullet and dive in*, especially in an era when hard scientific evidence is so readily dismissed as “fake news”. (Apologies. Make that “FAKE NEWS” and add any number of exclamation marks to taste.)

On the day of my Science on Saturday lecture, a white supremacist march had been mooted to be held in Princeton (not the most likely of venues, it fortunately has to be said, for that type of hatemongering.) In the end, the basement dwellers never turned up — they claimed that it was a hoax. But the counter-protesters attended in their heart-warming hundreds…

I’d like to offer a very big thank you both to Andrew for the invitation to speak at “Science on Saturday” and to DeeDee Ortiz, the Program Manager for Science Education at PPPL, for organising the visit. A similarly massive thank you to Lori for all of her help and organisation, including providing the key musical “props” used during the lecture.


*Excuse the mixed metaphor. I love mixed metaphors. This, taken from Leon Lederman’s “The God Particle” as an example of writing by one of his PhD students, is my very favourite: “This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it.” (That quote tickles me so much that I use it as part of the introduction to the final year Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics  module here at Nottingham.)

When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]


There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:

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My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))

 

A graphic depiction of nanotech

Far back in the mists of time — well, towards the tail end of 2015 — I wrote a post for the Making Science Public (MSciP) blog on just why I had done a rather embarrassing U-turn regarding the “Pathways To Impact” [1] statement that is required for every grant proposal submitted to the UK research councils. You can read the full confession here but, in a nutshell, I was very happy to eat humble pie in this case: a grant application for which the Pathways… statement focused exclusively on public engagement (with nary a whiff of commercial appeal or application) was funded.

A major component of that particular Pathways To Impact statement is the commitment to produce a graphic novel stemming from our research. Over at MSciP, my colleague and friend Brigitte Nerlich has been tracking the development of the graphic novel in question, Open Day — the result of a collaboration between Brigitte, the Nottingham Nanoscience Group, and the exceptionally talented duo of Charli Vince and Shey Hargreaves. (I’ve got to stress that the collaboration is very uneven indeed, with Charli and Shey providing both 99% of the inspiration and 99% of the hard graft necessary to bring Open Day to fruition.)

If you want to find out more about how Charli brought Kim, Radhika, and the fluorescent feline below to life (and death…), take a look at the fascinating Open Day: Planning, Talking, and Inking over at Charli’s blog.

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[1] Follow that link and you’ll see that the research councils’ primary criterion is “research excellence”. Of course it is.

Is physics boring?

This is a guest post by Hannah Coleman, a 2nd year physics undergrad here at Nottingham. (Hannah’s YouTube channel is well worth a visit for insights into student life and the trials and tribulations of studying physics.)


One of the more unusual aspects of being an undergraduate is that you are sometimes asked to attend staff meetings as a ‘student representative’. I’ve attended many meetings in my past life where people waffle on for a very long time about all things that should be done but never actually happen. Thankfully the Outreach Committee meetings in the School of Physics and Astronomy don’t fall into that category.

One of the agenda points today was feedback from the Diversity Committee. Our school really works hard to tackle diversity issues in physics, not just for our undergraduate courses, but also, and especially, for A Level physics. Data from 2016 indicates that only 1.9% of girls progress to A Level physics, while 6.5% of boys choose the subject. The other two sciences (and maths) have a much less pronounced gender split.

There are many complicated and subtle reasons why girls choose not to study physics at A Level and university, and these need to be countered very early on. However, one reason that was discussed more than briefly at today’s meeting was the idea that physics is boring. In a room filled with half a dozen physicists, this is a ridiculous notion. Yet I think it is worth considering.

I can only really speak from personal experience, but I have vivid memories of being routinely disappointed by science at school. I received most of my secondary education in South Africa under the IGCSE system, in a school that was mostly driven by money and results, but I had some really good teachers. There were only two male teachers and they taught art and geography, so I certainly wasn’t lacking female roles models in the sciences. I remember both of my maths teachers being very enthusiastic, and they made the classes fun, and the problems seem like puzzles. (I still managed to bag myself an E at IGCSE, but that’s a story for another time).

But the physics sucked.

Now, physics is a truly incredible subject, and the people who study it tend to be fairly passionate and enthusiastic. With the amount of time spent banging your head against a wall while trying to make sense of some problem or other, the enthusiasm is almost a prerequisite. So why is school physics so boring?

I think physics at school is robbed of almost everything that makes it such a fascinating subject. Velocity is boring. Potential energy is boring. Friction is boring. It can all be so incredibly dry when it’s void of any greater context and/or taught by someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject. I remember looking forward to the one lesson of the year that had anything to do with astronomy, only to be hugely disappointed because we learnt about the solar system. Don’t get me wrong, the solar system is pretty incredible, but it felt like we learnt the same facts we learnt at primary school. Where were the quasars, the black holes and the expanding universes?

I saw this same disappointment countless times as a secondary school teaching assistant, and I tried my best to explain to those kids that all of physics was just as interesting if they were willing to dig deeply enough. But I think the curriculum probably lost them pretty quickly.

As someone who has returned to study later in life, I have often thought about (and over-analysed) the reasons I didn’t pursue physics after GCSE. The three things I come back to time and again are the perceived difficulty of the subject (‘it’s too hard for someone like me’), the lack of role models (‘people like me aren’t successful in the field’), and just how dull it was at school. The latter frustrated me the most as a kid, because it wasn’t a perceived fault within me. I knew my teachers could have been teaching us some really cool stuff, but I was worried it wouldn’t change at A Level or university and I’d be stuck doing something that didn’t enthuse me.

The fundamentals of physics don’t have to be boring (and I’m sure all of my lecturers would argue that they most definitely aren’t!). So what’s so special about friction? Why should I be interested in potential energy? Let’s face it, cars on inclined planes aren’t exactly the most fascinating things, but the underlying laws that govern how they interact have so many applications, and are actually kind of cool just by themselves. I hope that if we can show a few kids a different side to physics, then they might be more adventurous with their A Level choices.

“The surface was invented by the devil” Nanoscience@Surfaces 2018

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The title of this post is taken from an (in)famous statement from Wolfgang Pauli:

God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil!

That diabolical nature of surfaces is, however, exactly what makes them so intriguing, so fascinating, and so rich in physics and chemistry. And it’s also why surface science plays such an integral and ubiquitous role in so many areas of condensed matter physics and nanoscience. That ubiquity is reflected in the name of a UK summer school for PhD students, nanoscience@Surfaces 2018, held at the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge last week, and at which I had the immense pleasure of speaking. More on that soon. Let’s first dig below the surface of surfaces just a little.

(In passing, it would be remiss of me not to note that the Cavendish houses a treasure trove of classic experimental “kit” and apparatus that underpinned many of the greatest discoveries in physics and chemistry. Make sure that you venture upstairs if you ever visit the lab. (Thanks for the advice to do just that, Giovanni!))

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Although I could classify myself, in terms of research background, as a nanoscientist, a chemical physicist, or (whisper it) even a physical chemist at times, my first allegiance is, and always will be, with surface science. I’m fundamentally a surface scientist. For one thing, the title of my PhD thesis (from, gulp, 1994) nails my colours to the mast: A Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy Investigation of the Interaction of Sulphur with Semiconductor Surfaces. [1]

(There. I said it. For quite some time, surface science was targetted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as an area of funding whose slice of the public purse should be reduced, so not only was it unfashionable to admit to being a surface scientist, it could be downright damaging to one’s career. Thankfully we live in slightly more enlightened times. For now.)

Pauli’s damning indictment of surfaces stems fundamentally from the broken symmetry that the truncation of a solid represents. In the bulk, each atom is happily coordinated with its neighbours and, if we’re considering crystals (as we so very often do in condensed matter physics and chemistry), there’s a very well-defined periodicity and pattern established by the combination of the unit cell, the basis, and the lattice vectors. But all of that gets scrambled at the surface. Cut through a crystal to expose a particular surface — and not all surfaces are created equal by any means — and the symmetry of the bulk is broken; those atoms at the surface have lost their neighbours.

Atoms tend to be rather gregarious beasties so they end up in an agitated, high energy state when they lose their neighbours. Or, in slightly more technical (and rather less anthropomorphic) terms, creation of a surface is associated with a thermodynamic free energy cost; we have to put in work to break bonds. (If this wasn’t the case, objects all around us would spontaneously cleave to form surfaces. I’m writing (some of) this on a train back from London (after a fun evening at the LIYSF), having tremendous difficulty trying to drink coffee as the train rocks back and forth. A spontaneously cleaving cup would add to my difficulties quite substantially…)

In their drive to reduce that free energy, atoms and molecules at surfaces will form a bewildering array of different patterns and phases [2]. The classic example is the (7×7) reconstruction of the Si(111) surface, one of the more complicated atomic rearrangements there is. I’ve already lapsed into the surface science vernacular there, but don’t let the nomenclature put you off if you’re not used to it. “Reconstruction” is the rearranging of atoms at a surface to reduce its free energy; the (111) defines the direction in which we cut through the bulk crystal to expose the surface; and the (7×7) simply refers to the size of the unit cell (i.e. the basic repeating unit or “tile”) of the reconstructed surface as compared to the arrangement on the unreconstructed (111) plane. Here’s a schematic of the (7×7) unit cell [3] to give you an idea of the complexity involved…

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The arrangements and behaviour of atoms and molecules at surfaces are very tricky indeed to understand and predict. There has thus been a vast effort over many decades, using ever more precise techniques (both experimental and theoretical), to pin down just how adsorbed atoms and molecules bond, vibrate, move, and desorb. And although surface science is now a rather mature area, it certainly isn’t free of surprises and remains a vibrant field of study. One reason for this vibrancy is that as we make particles smaller and smaller — a core activity in nanoscience — their surface-to-volume ratio increases substantially. The devilish behaviour of surfaces is thus at the very heart of nanoscience, as reflected time and again in the presentations at the nanoscience@Surfaces 2018 summer school.

Unfortunately, I could only attend the Wednesday and Thursday morning of the summer school. It was an honour to be invited to talk and I’d like to take this opportunity to repeat my thanks to the organising committee including, in particular, Andy Jardine (Cambridge), Andrew (Tom) Thomas (Manchester), Karen Syres and Joe Smerdon (UCLAN) who were the frontline organisers in terms of organising my accomodation, providing the necessary A/V requirements, and sorting out the scheduling logistics. My lecture, Scanning Probes Under The Microscope, was on the Wednesday morning and, alongside the technical details of the science, covered themes I’ve previously ranted about at this blog, including the pitfalls of image interpretation and the limitations of the peer review process.

Much more important, however, were the other talks during the school. I regretfully missed Monday’s and Tuesday’s presentations (including my Nottingham colleague Rob Jones’ intriguingly named “Getting it off and getting it on“) which had a theory and photoemission flavour, respectively. Wednesday, however, was devoted to my first love in research: scanning probe microscopy, and it was great to catch up on recent developments in the field from the perspective of colleagues who work on different materials systems to those we tend to study at Nottingham.

Thursday morning’s plenary lecture/tutorial was from Phil Woodruff (Warwick), one of not only the UK’s, but the world’s, foremost (surface) scientists and someone who has pioneered a number of  elegant techniques and tools for surface analysis (including, along with Rob Jones and other co-workers, the X-ray standing wave method described in the video at the foot of this post.)

Following Phil’s talk, there was a session dedicated to careers. Although I was not quite in the target demographic for this session, I nonetheless hung around for the introductions from those involved because I was keen to get an insight into just how the “careers outside academia” issue would be addressed. Academia is of course not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to careers. Of the 48 PhD researchers I counted — an impressive turn-out given that 50 were registered for the summer school — only 10 raised their hand when asked if they were planning on pursuing a career in academia.

Thirteen years ago, I was a member of the organising committee for an EPSRC-funded summer school in surface science held at the University of Nottingham. We also held a careers-related session during the school and, if memory serves (…and that’s definitely not a given), when a similar question was asked of the PhD researchers in attendance, a slightly higher percentage (maybe ~ 33%) were keen on the academic pathway. While academia certainly does not want to lose the brightest and the best, it’s encouraging that there’s a movement away from the archaic notion that to not secure a permanent academic post/tenure somehow represents failure.

It was also fun for me to compare and contrast the Nottingham and Cambridge summer schools from the comfortable perspective of a delegate rather than an organiser. Here’s the poster for the Nottingham school thirteen years ago…

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…and here’s an overview of the talks and sessions that were held back in 2005:

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A key advance in probe microscopy in the intervening thirteen year period has been the ultrahigh resolution force microscopy pioneered by the IBM Zurich research team (Leo Gross et al), as described here. This has revolutionised imaging, spectroscopy, and manipulation of matter at the atomic and (sub)molecular levels.

Another key difference between UK surface science back in 2005 and its 2018 counterpart is that the Diamond synchrotron produced “first light” (well, first user beam) in 2007. The Diamond Light Source is an exceptionally impressive facility. (The decision to construct DLS at the Harwell Campus outside Oxford was underscored by a great deal of bitter political debate back in the late nineties, but that’s a story for a whole other blog post. Or, indeed, series of blog posts.) The UK surface science (and nanoscience, and magnetism, and protein crystallography, and X-ray scattering, and…) community is rightly extremely proud of the facility. Chris Nicklin (DLS), Georg Held (Reading), Wendy Flavell (Manchester) and the aforementioned Prof. Woodruff (among others) each focussed on the exciting surface science that is made possible only via access to tunable synchrotron radiation of the type provided by DLS.

I was gutted to have missed Stephen Jenkins‘ review and tutorial on the application of density functional theory to surfaces. DFT is another area that has progressed quite considerably over the last thirteen years, with a particular evolution of methods to treat dispersion interactions (i.e. van der Waals/London forces). It’s not always the case that DFT calculations/predictions are treated with the type of healthy skepticism that is befitting a computational technique whereby the choice of functional makes all the difference but, again, that’s a topic for another day…

Having helped organise a PhD summer school myself, I know just how much effort is involved in running a successful event. I hope that all members of the organising committee — Tom, Joe, Andy, Karen, Neil, Holly, Kieran, and Giovanni — can now have a relaxing summer break, safe in the knowledge that they have helped to foster links and, indeed, friendships, among the next generation of surface scientists and nanoscientists.


 

[1](a) Sulphur. S.u.l.p.h.u.r. Not the frankly offensive sulfur that I had to use in the papers submitted to US journals. That made for painful proof-reading. (b) I have no idea why I didn’t include mention of photoemission in the title of the thesis, given that it forms the guts of Chapter 5. I have very fond memories of carrying out those experiments at the (now defunct) Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) just outside Warrington in the UK. Daresbury was superseded by the Diamond Light Source (DLS), discussed in this Sixty Symbols video.

[2] Assuming that there’s enough thermal energy to go around and that they’re not kinetically trapped in a particular state.

[3] Schematic taken from the PhD thesis of Mick Phillips, University of Nottingham (2004).

LIYSF 2018: Science Without Borders*

Better the pride that resides
In a citizen of the world
Than the pride that divides
When a colourful rag is unfurled

From Territories. Track 5 of Rush’s Power Windows (1985). Lyrics: Neil Peart.


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Last night I had the immense pleasure and privilege of giving a plenary lecture for the London International Youth Science Forum. 2018 marks the 60th annual forum, a two-week event that brings together 500 students (aged 16 – 21) from, this year, seventy different countries…

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The history of the forum is fascinating. Embarrassingly, until I received the invitation to speak I was unaware of the LIYSF’s impressive and exciting efforts over many decades to foster and promote, in parallel, science education and international connections. The “science is global” message is at the core of the Forum’s ethos, as described at the LIYSF website:

The London International Youth Science Forum was the brainchild of the late Philip S Green. In the aftermath of the Second World War an organisation was founded in Europe by representatives from Denmark, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in an effort to overcome the animosity resulting from the war. Plans were made to set up group home-to-home exchanges between schools and communities in European countries. This functioned with considerable success and in 1959 Philip Green decided to provide a coordinated programme for groups from half a dozen European countries and, following the belief that ‘out of like interests the strongest friendships grow.’ He based the programme on science.

The printed programme for LIYSF 2018 includes a message from the Prime Minster…

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It’s a great shame that the PM’s message above doesn’t mention at all LIYSF’s work in breaking down borders and barriers between scientists in different countries since its inception in 1959. But given that her government and her political party have been responsible for driving the appalling isolationism and, in its worst excesses, xenophobia of Brexit, it’s not at all surprising that she might want to gloss over that aspect of the Forum…

The other slightly irksome aspect of May’s message, and something I attempted to counter during the lecture last night, is the focus on “demand for STEM skills”, as if non-STEM subjects were somehow of intrinsically less value. Yes, I appreciate that it’s a science forum, and, yes, I appreciate that the LIYSF students are largely focussed on careers in science and engineering. But we need to encourage a greater appreciation of the value of non-STEM subjects. I, for one, was torn between opting to do an English or a physics degree at university. As I’ve banged on about previously, the A-level system frustratingly tends to exacerbate this artificial “two cultures” divide between STEM subjects and the arts and humanities. We need science and maths. And we need economics, philosophy, sociology, English lit, history, geography, modern (and not-so-modern) languages…

The arrogance of a certain breed of STEM student (or researcher or lecturer) who thinks that the ability to do complicated maths is the pinnacle of intellectual achievement also helps to drive this wedge between the disciplines. And yet those particular students, accomplished though they may well be in vector calculus, contour integration, and/or solving partial differential equations, often flounder completely when asked to write five-hundred words that are reasonably engaging and/or entertaining.

Borders and boundaries, be they national or disciplinary, encourage small-minded, insular thinking. Encouragingly, there was none of that on display last night. After the hour-long lecture, I was blown away, time and again, by the intelligent, perceptive, and, at times, provocative (in a very good way!) questions from the LIYSF students. After an hour and half of questions, security had to kick us out of the theatre because it was time to lock up.

Clare Elwell, who visited Nottingham last year to give a fascinating and inspirational Masterclass lecture on her ground-breaking research for our Physics & Astronomy students, is the President of the LIYSF. It’s no exaggeration to say that the impact of the LIYSF on Clare’s future, when she attended as a student, was immense. I’ll let Clare explain:

 I know how impactful and inspiring these experiences can be, as I attended the Forum myself as a student over thirty years ago. It was here that I was first introduced to Medical Physics – an area of science which I have pursued as a career ever since. Importantly, the Forum also opened my eyes to the power of collaboration and communication across scientific disciplines and national borders to address global challenges — something which has formed a key element of my journey in science, and which the world needs now more than ever.

(That quote is also taken from the LIYSF 2018 Programme.)

My lecture was entitled “Bit from It: Manipulating matter bond by bond”“. A number of students asked whether I’d make the slides available, which, of course, is my pleasure (via that preceding link). In addition, some students asked about the physics underpinning the “atomic force macroscope [1]” (and the parallels with its atomic force microscope counterpart) that I used as a demonstration in the talk:

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(Yes, the coffee is indeed an integral component of the experimental set-up [2]).

Unfortunately, due to the size of the theatre only a small number of the students could really see the ‘guts’ of the “macroscope”. I’m therefore going to write a dedicated post in the not-too-distant future on just how it works, its connections to atomic force microscopy, and its much more advanced sibling the LEGOscope (the result of a third year undergraduate project carried out by two very talented students).

The LIYSF is a huge undertaking and it’s driven by the hard work and dedication of a wonderful team of people. I’ve got to say a big thank you to those of that team I met last night and who made my time at LIYSF so very memorable: Director Richard Myhill for the invitation (and Clare (Elwell) for the recommendation) and for sorting out all of the logistics of my visit; Sam Thomas and Simran Mohnani, Programme Liaison; Rhia Patel and Vilius Uksas, Engagement Manager and Videographer, respectively. (It’s Vilius you can see with the camera pointed in my direction in the photo at the top there.); Victoria Sciandro (Deputy Host. Victoria also had the task of summarising my characteristically rambling lecture before the Q&A session started and did an exceptional job, given the incoherence of the source material); and James, whose surname I’ve embarrassingly forgotten but who was responsible for all of the audio-video requirements, the sound and the lighting. He did an exceptional job. Thank you, James. (I really hope I’ve not forgotten anyone. If I have, my sincere apologies.)

Although this was my first time at the LIYSF, I sincerely hope it won’t be my last. It was a genuinely inspiring experience to spend time with such enthusiastic and engaging students. The future of science is in safe hands.

We opened the post with Rush. So let’s bring things full circle and close with that Toronto trio… [3]


* “Science Without Borders” is also the name of the agency that funds the PhD research of Filipe Junquiera in the Nottingham Nanoscience Group. As this blog post on Filipe’s journey to Nottingham describes, he’s certainly crossed borders.

[1] Thanks to my colleague Chris Mellor for coining the “atomic force macroscope” term.

[2] It’s not. (The tiresome literal-mindedness of some online never ceases to amaze me. Best to be safe than sorry.)

[3] Great to be asked a question from the floor by a fellow Rush fan last night. And he was Canadian to boot!

“Think Graham Norton meets the Broom Cupboard. In space.”

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It’s not every day you get to sit down and have a chat with someone who hacked their way into space…

…but I had the immense pleasure of doing just that yesterday. Pictured above, very helpfully holding a copy of that book I’ve been (head)banging on about a little of late (see “Other Scribblings” in the sidebar to the right or here if you’re reading on a mobile device), is the powerhouse of science communication — no, let’s make that science entertainment — that is the inimitable Jon Spooner. To whet your appetite, here’s a one minute clip of Jon — and his colleagues, Flight Dynamics Officer Simon Perkins and astronaut Little Jon — in action at the Manchester Science Festival last year. (Jon told me that he and Simon have had a pretty hectic schedule over the last year, having done eight festivals in twelve months).

The quote from a parent included in that video,

It was amazing, brilliantly educational. It brought a tear to my eye.

neatly sums up exactly the reaction that my fourteen year old daughter, Niamh, and I had to Jon’s “How I Hacked My Way Into Space” tour de force at the Blue Dot Festival at Jodrell Bank this weekend. (You’re not getting any spoilers here, however. If you want to know just how Jon hacked his way off our pale blue dot, you’re going to have to go along and experience the adventures of the Unlimited Space Agency for yourself. There’s a list of tour dates here.)

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Before Jon’s high octane performance at 2 pm yesterday afternoon, I was delighted to be one of the guests for his Space Shed interview series. The title of the blog post you’re reading is the description Jon gave me yesterday of the Space Shed: “Think Graham Norton meets the Broom Cupboard. In space.” (Those of you who are Irish or British are likely to be fairly familiar with both of those cultural references. For those elsewhere in the world — and since its reboot, Symptoms… has attracted readers from 70 countries — here’s a brief introduction to Graham Norton. Despite his incredibly successful career as a chat show host and presenter, however, this performance remains for me his finest hour:

And here’s The Broom Cupboard.)

Before I reveal just what we nattered about yesterday — and as a convivial, clever and charming host, Jon could certainly give Mr. Norton a run for his money — I guess I should explain what I was doing at Blue Dot in the first place.

…all the way to The ‘Bank

The eagle-eyed Sixty Symbols viewers among you — and I know that at least some of those who read Symptoms… posts have watched a Sixty Symbols video or two — may have noticed that the schedule for the Space Shed also included my colleagues Tony Padilla and Clare Burrage, both of whom have contributed to Brady Haran‘s YouTube channels. (As I write this, Clare is in the middle of her Space Shed interview. If you’re having even an infinitesimal amount of the fun I had yesterday, Clare, you’ll be having a blast!) Tony, Clare, and myself weren’t the only Sixty Symbols people involved: Meghan (Gray) and Becky (Smethurst) were also at Blue Dot. Indeed, it was Meghan who was not only responsible for our invitation to Blue Dot but who communicated with the “powers that be” in terms of sorting out the logistics (including travel) related to not only the Space Shed appearances but a Sixty Symbols panel discussion in the Star Pavillion on Friday evening. More on that soon. But, first, some thanks.

I jumped (over-)enthusiastically at the chance to contribute to Blue Dot because its innovative blend of music and science really presses all my buttons (or, errrm, turns my dials to 11. I’ll get me coat…). That book (y’know the one…over there…sidebar to the right) and this rather noisy ‘math metal’ song  are two examples of my love of music-physics-maths crossover, but there are others, including this rather more sedate approach to merging numbers and music and this discussion of correlations and fluctuations in drum beats. It turns out that Meghan also has a long-standing interest in music-science crossover: as a high school student she wrote a computer program to produce music in the style of Bach. (Mr. Haran, if you’re reading, I, for one, would be really keen to see a video on this…)

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Meghan publicly and profusely for sorting out the invitation to Blue Dot. (Well, as public as it gets when it comes to the audience for Symptoms… I appreciate you both tuning in again). To say I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the festival would be a massive understatement. In addition to the wonderful atmosphere, the great music, and the incredible range of science, I got to wear one of these “passes”:

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“Artist”.

As a failed and now-follicularly-challenged musician, this made me ridiculously happy, not least because sitting across the way from Niamh and me at lunch yesterday was Gary Numan. Gary f**king Numan. This guy. An inspiration for so many musicians and bands across a wide range of genres, Numan was playing the Lovell Stage at Blue Dot 2018.)

OK, back to that Sixty Symbols panel I mentioned. Here’s how it looked mid-event…

…and this is how we felt directly afterwards:

The panel was great fun, with the Q&A session (following our five minute presentations) being a real highlight. A thoroughly engaged, and engaging, audience asked us a range of questions on topics including, but certainly not limited to, the science we do, the music we like, the YouTube videos with Brady, and women in science. (There’s a certain contingent online who get very, very cross indeed at even the briefest mention of sexism and related issues. If you’re one of those who feels the red mist descending already, this trigger warning may prove helpful. (Having said that, they tend not to read too deeply so almost certainly won’t have got this far into the post.)) As a dyed-in-the-wool experimentalist and a lowly squalid state physicist, I especially enjoyed the light-hearted spat between Clare and Tony on the current state of string theory towards the end of our session.

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My Space Shed interview/Q&A the following day similarly touched on a wide variety of themes, with many perceptive and brilliant questions from both Jon and the audience. (Another big thank you at this point to UNSA’s Flight Commander Alison McIntyre for making sure that the flight was a success and for all of her behind the scenes organisation. Thank you, Alison!)

Jon and I had decided beforehand that we’d give a prize of a free copy of the book — yes, I know, the plugs are getting tedious now. That was the last one. Promise. — to those who asked the best questions. In the end, all eight of those who asked a question got a copy because it was impossible to pick winners. Two that stuck with me were from Evie (aged 7), “Where do the atoms go when there’s an earthquake?” and Oliver, a slightly older (i.e. age > 7) and rather more hirsute PhD student: “If the Schrodinger equation were a riff, what riff would it be?” How much more metal could that question get? None. None more metal.

(By the way, Evie, if you ever read this, I’m so very, very sorry for not concentrating when I wrote on your book so that what I’d written made no sense (because I’d left out a word.) I don’t multi-task well — talking and writing at the same time overtaxes my brain! Thank you for pointing out the mistake to me and giving me the opportunity to fix it. And thanks, of course, for your brilliant question!)

After the Space Shed Q&A, I asked Niamh how it went; did I embarrass her? “No, Dad, you didn’t embarrass me. Well, not entirely.”

What greater accolade can a father expect from his teenage daughter?

“Not entirely embarrassed”.

I’ll take that.