Category Archive: A-Level Physics

Jan 27 2014

Can flywheel technology drive out the battery from car hybrids? | Corrinne Burns

Can flywheel technology drive out the battery from car hybrids? | Corrinne Burns

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Jan 11 2014

Black hole to ‘eat biggest meal’

Black hole to ‘eat biggest meal’

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Dec 03 2013

What is the second law of thermodynamics?

What is the second law of thermodynamics?  from The Observer

Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. At its heart are laws that describe how energy moves around within a system, whether an atom, a hurricane or a black hole. The first law describes how energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely transformed from one kind to another. The second law, however, is probably better known and even more profound because it describes the limits of what the universe can do. This law is about inefficiency, degeneration and decay. It tells us all we do is inherently wasteful and that there are irreversible processes in the universe. It gives us an arrow for time and tells us that our universe has a inescapably bleak, desolate fate.

Despite these somewhat deflating ideas, the ideas of thermodynamics were formulated in a time of great technological optimism – the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-19th century, physicists and engineers were building steam engines to mechanise work and transport and were trying to work out how to make them more powerful and efficient.

Many scientists and engineers – including Rudolf Clausius, James Joule and Lord Kelvin – contributed to the development of thermodynamics, but the father of the discipline was the French physicist Sadi Carnot. In 1824 he published Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which laid down the basic principles, gleaned from observations of how energy moved around engines and how wasted heat and useful work were related.

The second law can be expressed in several ways, the simplest being that heat will naturally flow from a hotter to a colder body. At its heart is a property of thermodynamic systems called entropy – in the equations above it is represented by “S” – in loose terms, a measure of the amount of disorder within a system. This can be represented in many ways, for example in the arrangement of the molecules – water molecules in an ice cube are more ordered than the same molecules after they have been heated into a gas. Whereas the water molecules were in a well-defined lattice in the ice cube, they float unpredictably in the gas. The entropy of the ice cube is, therefore, lower than that of the gas. Similarly, the entropy of a plate is higher when it is in pieces on the floor compared with when it is in one piece in the sink.

A more formal definition for entropy as heat moves around a system is given in the first of the equations. The infinitesimal change in entropy of a system (dS) is calculated by measuring how much heat has entered a closed system (δQ) divided by the common temperature (T) at the point where the heat transfer took place.

The second equation is a way to express the second law of thermodynamics in terms of entropy. The formula says that the entropy of an isolated natural system will always tend to stay the same or increase – in other words, the energy in the universe is gradually moving towards disorder. Our original statement of the second law emerges from this equation: heat cannot spontaneously flow from a cold object (low entropy) to a hot object (high entropy) in a closed system because it would violate the equation. (Refrigerators seemingly break this rule since they can freeze things to much lower temperatures than the air around them. But they don’t violate the second law because they are not isolated systems, requiring a continual input of electrical energy to pump heat out of their interior. The fridge heats up the room around it and, if unplugged, would naturally return to thermal equilibrium with the room.)

This formula also imposes a direction on to time; whereas every other physical law we know of would work the same whether time was going forwards or backwards, this is not true for the second law of thermodynamics. However long you leave it, a boiling pan of water is unlikely to ever become a block of ice. A smashed plate could never reassemble itself, as this would reduce the entropy of the system in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. Some processes, Carnot observed, are irreversible.

Carnot examined steam engines, which work by burning fuel to heat up a cylinder containing steam, which expands and pushes on a piston to then do something useful. The portion of the fuel’s energy that is extracted and made to do something useful is called work, while the remainder is the wasted (and disordered) energy we call heat. Carnot showed that you could predict the theoretical maximum efficiency of a steam engine by measuring the difference in temperatures of the steam inside the cylinder and that of the air around it, known in thermodynamic terms as the hot and cold reservoirs of a system respectively.

Heat engines work because heat naturally flows from hot to cold places. If there was no cold reservoir towards which it could move there would be no heat flow and the engine would not work. Because the cold reservoir is always above absolute zero, no heat engine can be 100% efficient.

The best-designed engines, therefore, heat up steam (or other gas) to the highest possible temperature then release the exhaust at the lowest possible temperature. The most modern steam engines can get to around 60% efficiency and diesel engines in cars can get to around 50% efficient. Petrol-based internal combustion engines are much more wasteful of their fuel’s energy.

The inefficiencies are built into any system using energy and can be described thermodynamically. This wasted energy means that the overall disorder of the universe – its entropy – will increase over time but at some point reach a maximum. At this moment in some unimaginably distant future, the energy in the universe will be evenly distributed and so, for all macroscopic purposes, will be useless. Cosmologists call this the “heat death” of the universe, an inevitable consequence of the unstoppable march of entropy.

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Nov 30 2013

UK China nuclear deal ‘Orwellian’

UK China nuclear deal ‘Orwellian’

Security fears over ‘Orwellian’ Chinese nuclear deal

By Rob BroombyBritish Affairs Correspondent, BBC World Service

George Osborne with Chinese nuclear workers in Taishan

It was hailed by UK Chancellor George Osborne as a “new dawn” – but serious questions remain about the security implications of Britain’s nuclear energy deal with China.

The UK government has refused to say whether China’s planned investment in the British nuclear industry was approved by the National Security Council – the body that assess the risks from foreign investment in critical national infrastructure projects.

Chancellor George Osborne announced during his trip to China in October that Chinese state owned companies CGN and CNNC would be allowed to take a 40% stake in the company planning to build the Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset.

In the future Chinese firms could become “majority owners of a British nuclear power plant subject to British safety rules and policed by the British,” said Mr Osborne.

Tim Yeo, chairman of Parliament’s energy and climate change committee, said Britain should “warmly welcome investment from China in the nuclear industry” but said he did not know whether the National Security Council had formally discussed or approved the investment.

“It would be a great pity if on some security reason this was thrown back into jeopardy.” he told BBC Radio 4′s The World Tonight.

But other members of Mr Yeo’s committee are worried.

Conservative MP Dr Phillip Lee said it was “perverse” and “Orwellian” to allow Chinese state owned firms a role in critical infrastructure projects like nuclear power at a time when questions over Chinese cyber-attacks on the west had not been resolved.

He said future conflicts would not be about the “physical possession of nations” but would involve “control of information, control of infrastructure, water electricity and communication.”

Military links

The Chinese could not take away a nuclear power station in the event of tension between the two countries but they could “virtually switch it off” if they wanted to, he claimed.

It would also bind Britain’s hands in respect of China diplomatically, when it comes to speaking out on human rights.

On the website of the China National Nuclear Corporation – one of the companies connected to the Hinkley project - the company boasts openly of its military links.

“China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is the large state-owned enterprise under the direct management of the central government. Historically, CNNC successfully developed the atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb and nuclear submarines and built the first nuclear plant in the main land of China. CNNC is the main body of the national nuclear technology industry, the core of the national strategic nuclear deterrence”.

The company website says it “shoulders the dual historical responsibility for building the national defence force, increasing the value of state assets and developing the society.”

Hinkley Point CHinkley Point C is set to take 10 years to become fully operational. It will be made up of two nuclear reactors and will be built next to Hinkley Point A and B.

Just days after George Osborne made his nuclear announcement Chinese state-run TV was showing-off its nuclear armed submarines for the first time in 42 years accompanied by rousing music.

Official Chinese news agency Xinhua called the subs an “assassin’s mace that would make adversaries tremble”.

Labour MP Dr Alan Whitehead, also a member of the energy and climate change committee called the Chinese nuclear company CNNC an “arm of the state”.

“There doesn’t appear to be a clear distinction between the role of the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation in developing civil nuclear and developing and forwarding military nuclear,” he told the World Tonight.

“Big corporations particularly national corporations in China are not companies in the way that we would see them in the UK.”

He said the Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army – would be involved in some of the decisions made by the firm.

He has called on the UK government to state publicly how the investment in critical national infrastructure was approved and by whom.

Corruption case

Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the decision to invest in the British nuclear project would have been a “strategic decision” that would have been approved by China’s State Council – the nation’s ruling executive.

The UK Cabinet Office said in a statement that “the process for dealing with such issues falls under the aegis of the National Security Council”.

It said the government had “put in place an approach which enables it to assess the risks associated with foreign investment and develop strategies to manage them.

Cost of generating electricity, Nuclear £92.50 from 2023, onshore wind £100, offshore wind £155, tidal and wave £305, biomass £105, solar £125, electricity (gas/coal generated) £55.05, all other prices from 2014.

The National Security Council “brings together the economic and security arms of the government and is the forum that ultimately balances the risks and opportunities of inward investment decisions,” added the Cabinet Office statement.

But despite repeated requests the Cabinet Office has refused to say whether Chinese investment in Hinkley or the possible full majority ownership of nuclear reactors in the future has been formally discussed, assessed or approved by the National Security Council.

Critics fear Britain may be sleepwalking into nuclear relationship with China it will regret especially if in years to come China wants to introduce its own nuclear technology to the UK.

“The Chinese domestic nuclear programme certainly leaves much to be desired” says Dr Paul Dorfman of the University College London Energy Institute.

‘Safe power’

He is worried by the lack of transparency in the Chinese nuclear industry and cites the arrest and dismissal by the Chinese Government in August 2009 of the President of CNNC in a £260m corruption case involving allegations of “bid-rigging in nuclear power construction”.

Chinese investment in key energy infrastructure is “deeply problematic,” he said and industry experts were worried about “China’s weak regulatory structures”.

The UK Cabinet Office says Chinese firms have a “track-record in delivering safe nuclear power over the past thirty years. And that in the long-term it will deliver lower and more stable energy prices.”

“Any company involved in the UK nuclear power industry does so in accordance with the most stringent regulations in the world. On this basis, we welcome companies which can demonstrate the capability to contribute to safe nuclear power generation in the UK.”

The economics of the Hinkley C project have also been slammed. Peter Atherton of the respected city firm Liberum Capital said they were “flabbergasted” by the deal.

At £8bn per reactor, Hinkley Point is “the most expensive power station in the world (excluding hydro schemes) on a per megawatt basis,” said Mr Atherton.

He said the French and Chinese state owned firms would earn between £65bn and £80bn in dividends from British consumers over the project’s lifetime.

“The UK government was taking a massive bet that fossil fuel prices will be extremely high in the future. If that bet proves wrong then this contract will look economically insane when HPC (Hinkley Point C) commissions” added Mr Atherton.

Tim Yeo said the budget was so high “because they have factored in a much bigger contingency in to this project”.

But he added: “I do believe it is in Britain’s interests to have part of its electricity generated by nuclear power.

“It is a secure, safe, clean, low- carbon source of electricity.”

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Nov 29 2013

New Scientist News: Beer brewing could help make better bricks

Beer brewing could help make better bricks

THERE’S more to brewing than beer. A by-product of the process could be about to give an upgrade to a workhorse building material – red clay bricks. By blending in the grains left over from making beer, the bricks can be more environmentally friendly and better insulators.

Bricks are often impregnated with polystyrene as a way to enhance their heat-trapping abilities. This is appealing, because the bricks remain strong, and they can be built into energy-efficient buildings, says Eduardo Ferraz of the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar in Portugal. However, EU restrictions on carbon emissions have made it expensive to incorporate polystyrene and other synthetic materials into bricks.

Ferraz and his colleagues have now shown that brewery grains can be mixed into clay bricks to enhance their ability to trap heat, without compromising strength.

Spent grain for the process should be easily available, because commercial breweries produce huge quantities of it as a pulpy mixture that is usually used in animal feed or ends up in landfill.

With a clay paste containing 5 per cent spent grains, the team was able to create bricks just as strong as the conventional type, while reducing the amount of heat they lost by 28 per cent (Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering, The reason for this, the team says, is that the grains make the bricks more porous, and so they trap more air, which increases heat retention.

One thing could stand in the way of using this process, though: the smell. Bill Daidone of the Acme Brick Company, one of the largest brick manufacturers in the US, says his lab abandoned experiments because the stench of the moist grains was overpowering. “We opened up the bucket and it was terrible,” he says. This problem vanishes once the bricks are fired, though, says Ferraz.

Bricks that provide insulation without sacrificing strength could be a big boost to the brick industry, says John Sanders, a researcher at the National Brick Research Center at Clemson University in South Carolina.

“With the current concern for energy codes, I think the industry is open to change,” Sanders says.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Brewing benefits? Alcohol, hangovers and better bricks”

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Nov 23 2013

Graphene – the new wonder material

Graphene “The New Wonder Material”


Scientific interest rolls in for a material that is more solid than steel and a better conductor than copper

  • Graphene 3D illustration
3D illustration showing a sheet of graphene. Photograph: nobeastsofierce/Alamy

The molecule is priceless but it is not a matter of cost – a few hundred dollars per kilo. The value lies in its potential. The molecule in question is called graphene and the EU is prepared to devote €1bn ($1.3bn) to it between 2013 and 2023 to find out if it can transform a range of sectorssuch as electronics, energy, health and construction. According toScopus, the bibliographic database, more than 8,000 papers have been written about graphene since 2005.

As its name indicates, graphene is extracted from graphite, the material used in pencils. Like graphite, graphene is entirely composed of carbon atoms and 1mm of graphite contains some 3 million layers of graphene. Whereas graphite is a three-dimensional crystalline arrangement, graphene is a two-dimensional crystal only an atom thick. The carbons are perfectly distributed in a hexagonal honeycomb formation only 0.3 nanometres thick, with just 0.1 nanometres between each atom.

This 100% pure carbon simplicity confers some remarkable properties on graphene, very close to the calculated theoretical ones, as observed by the authors of A Roadmap for Graphene published in Nature last year.

Graphene conducts electricity better than copper. It is 200 times stronger than steel but six times lighter. It is almost perfectly transparent since it only absorbs 2% of light. It impermeable to gases, even those as light as hydrogen or helium, and, if that were not enough, chemical components can be added to its surface to alter its properties.

“Graphene is a platform, like a chessboard, on to which one can place the pawns you want. The subtlety lies in finding the right positions. There is a real beauty in its simplicity,” explained Vincent Bouchiat, from the Institut Néel in Grenoble, part of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). “The future lies in pencil graphite!” said Annick Loiseau, from the National Office for Aerospace Studies and Research (ONERA), coining a slogan. She is the French representative to the executive office of Graphene Flagship, a research consortium funded by the EU for the next 10 years.

The project was officially launched last month. ”We have already learnt a great deal but new results could emerge in certain situations – only we don’t yet know which ones,” said Mark Goerbig, another CNRS researcher, who works in the solid physics department at Paris-Sud Orsay University.

This miracle material has come a long way. In theory, such a two-dimensional structure was believed to be unstable and therefore better rolled up, as observed in the 1990s with carbon nanotubes.

In 2004 two Russian-born scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, along with others, published the first electronic measurements proving they had isolated graphene. They had removed carbon flakes from graphite using bits of sticky tape – which ultimately led to them winning a Nobel prize for physics in 2010.

“The theory only really held true for two dimensions, but in actual fact the crystal grows in a three-dimensional space and the small surface fluctuations, like waves, stabilise the crystal,” said Goerbig. Experiments rapidly confirmed the marvellous behaviour of this new material, which can be explained by a kind of sea of electrons on the surface that nothing can stop and that do not interact with each other. It’s as though the electrons have no mass and move at a speed 300 times slower than light. The mathematical equation to describe them is closer to that for high-energy particles than for solid matter, hence this outstanding performance that suggests so many potential uses.

Being transparent as well as a good conductor, graphene could replace the electrodes in the indium used in touchscreens. Since it is light, graphene could be integrated into composite materials to eliminate the impact of lightning on aircraft fuselages. It is also waterproof and would be perfect to use in hydrogen reservoirs.

Since nothing can stop the electrons, graphene cannot be “switched off” so in theory it is of little use in transistors, which are the key components of modern electronic goods. However, research is being carried out into ways of creating an artificial band gap that would enable it to be switched off and therefore used for that purpose.

The European consortium has decided to focus on a number of applications. ”Our goal is to support innovation in Europe but also to create a network of specialists in contact with companies for long-term R&D projects,” said Stephan Roche, in charge of one section of the project, and a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies in Barcelona.

graphene illustrationA piece of graphene aerogel – weighing only 0.16 milligrams per cubic centimeter – is placed on a flower. Photograph: Long Wei/EPAThe major steps in this process have already begun. Several start-up companies are already manufacturing graphene, mainly for laboratories, using a variety of techniques. The “historical” one with sticky tape has been replaced by chemical exfoliation. An alternative is to use a carbon and silicon substrate, which is heated to remove the silicon atoms, leaving a layer of graphene on the surface. Yet another method is to place carbon on the surface of copper which, after heating, catalyses the graphene formation reaction. A team from Rice University in the US has even used a cockroach leg as a source of carbon.

In Europe, Applied Graphene Materials (AGM) in the UK and Avanzare and Graphenea in Spain are the spearheads. “If we want graphene to become the equivalent of silicon in microelectronics today, it is important to control the material and its quality,” said Etienne Quesnel of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, in charge of the energy aspect of Graphene Flagship, which also works with manufacturing specialists.

Industry giants are in the running too. IBM has produced several electronic component prototypes, while Samsung has produced a flat screen (70cm in the diagonal) with graphene electrodes. The tennis racket maker Head used tennis champions Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova to promote rackets made with graphene. BASF and Daimler-Benz have designed a concept electric car called Smart Forvision that incorporates graphene in a conductive e-textile. In 2012, BASF produced a report on the future of graphene, forecasting a market worth $1.5bn in 2015 and $7.5bn in 2025.

It goes without saying that China is also in the race, with 2,600 articles published in Europe. And with more than 2,200 patents it has surpassed Europe and the US.

Last summer one start-up, Bluestone Global Tech, announced a partnership with a mobile phone manufacturer for the first graphene-based touchscreens to be launched on the Chinese market in the coming months. Nevertheless, mass applications are not yet in the pipeline.

“People are being sold graphene that is really graphite only more expensive,” said Marc Monthioux, from the CEMES research centre in Toulouse at a conference on graphene-based composite materials held in Paris earlier this year. Strictly speaking, graphene is single-layered, but manufacturing processes may create stacks of several layers. When more than 10 layers are created, the properties change enormously and resemble graphite more than graphene. “To date graphene is not absolutely superior to carbon nanotubes,” said Monthioux. According to Loiseau, “In composites it is necessary for the carbon, graphene or nanotube molecules to ‘touch’ each other to be conductive. That is easier for elongated nanotubes than for flake-shaped graphene, which explains the difference.” It takes a long time to develop a composite material and nanotubes have the advantage of being the more mature material. Nanotube researchers were not happy to see graphene arrive and grab both attention and funding.

Nevertheless, accumulated nanotube experience is very useful to speed up work on graphene. “It took six years to produce the first transistors with nanotubes,” said Loiseau. “With graphene, we had the first electric measurements in a year.”

As far as its medical use is concerned, knowledge of one material serves for the other. A crucial aspect of the European project is devoted to how to protect the people working with graphene as well as end users, in addition to researching possible medial applications. “At present we have studies showing no effect while others indicate a potential risk,” said Alberto Bianco, CNRS head of research at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology in Strasbourg, who co-heads the health and environmental aspects of the European project.

In fact, as with carbon nanotubes, the considerable diversity of types of graphene need to be taken into account. Size certainly matters, but so does the chemical state. The molecule may be oxidised to a greater or lesser extent, or contain different amounts of residual impurities as a result of how the graphene is synthesised, or how its layers are built up. There is no definitive answer. In an article published in April in Angewandte Chemie, scientific journal of the German Chemical Society, Bianco quoted several contradictory studies, some of which found toxic effects on micro-organisms where others did not. Nor has any light been shed on the way graphene could cause damage to cells. Does the graphene cut through the cell wall perpendicularly or does it coat the cell?

“One optimistic note is that chemistry may enable us to modulate the biological activity of this nanomaterial,” said Bianco. For instance, by binding different chemical groups one might make the graphene more or less soluble, or guide it towards a given therapeutic target. Additional work is therefore required. The consortium will study the effects on different types of cells (cancerous, neuronal, related to the immune system etc)as well as on amphibians.

Another advantage of graphene is that is opens up paths to other two-dimensional materials as small as atoms. Boron nitridemolybdenum sulphate and tungsten or even 100% silicon sillicene are some of the peculiar sounding names that could become more common. Some isolate, others conduct. Piling up these molecules layer-by-layer would create new materials with new properties. The game is on.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde


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Nov 22 2013

IceCube detector finds first solid evidence for cosmic neutrinos

IceCube detector finds first solid evidence for cosmic neutrinos

Thu 21 November 2013
Scientists have found the first solid evidence for cosmic neutrinos, ghostly particles created in violent events in the far reaches of the universe.
Neutrinos are subatomic particles that hardly ever interact with the atoms that make up stars, planets and us. Detecting them is tough: in the latest study, researchers detected 28 at the IceCube detector, built under the ice of the south pole.
“This is a huge result. It could mark the beginning of neutrino astronomy,” said Darren Grant, assistant professor of physics at the University of Alberta and one of the leaders of the IceCube Collaboration, which involves more than 250 physicists and engineers from a dozen countries.
Neutrinos are electrically uncharged particles that have a tiny mass, formed in the nuclei of atoms. Travelling at near the speed of light, they hardly interact with anything and could easily fly through a light year of lead. But there are unimaginable numbers of them in the universe: trillions of them from the sun pass through each of us every day.
Scientists know that neutrinos with even higher energy than those already observed should come from cosmic explosions, such as gamma ray bursts, black holes and active galactic nuclei, far away in the universe. Detecting these high-energy neutrinos would give scientists a way to peer inside some of the most violent processes going on at the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
Until now, scientists have used other detectors to see low-energy neutrinos created in cosmic-ray collisions in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and particles from a nearby supernova known as 1987A. The 28 neutrinos detected at IceCube are much higher energy and come from as yet unidentified sources far out in the cosmos. The results were published in the journal Science on Thursday.
“I’ll bet that 20 years from now we’ll look back and say, yeah, this was the start of neutrino astronomy,” John Learned, of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, told Science magazine.
To find the particles, scientists built a detector into a cubic kilometre of ice in Antarctica. After melting holes in the ice, they lowered 86 strings of light detectors, around 5,000 in total, to depths between 1.5km and 2.5km. Neutrinos can interact with atomic nuclei, and when that happens in the ice around a detector the collisions create an avalanche of charged light-emitting particles. That light can be measured by the detectors and, the brighter the light, the more energetic the original neutrino was.
IceCube has been on the hunt for neutrinos since 2010. Since then scientists have found evidence for 28 neutrinos with energies higher than 30 teraelectronvolts (TeV). Two of the particles had energies greater than 1,000 TeV. In comparison, the biggest particle accelerator ever made, the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, will collide particles at 14TeV when its upgrade is completed in 2015.
Since they do not interact with anything, the cosmic neutrinos found at IceCube are useful to scientists because they point in straight lines to where they came from. The few they detected are not enough to pinpoint any location in particular but, according to the project scientist Gregory Sullivan, of the University of Maryland, the IceCube team will look for further detections in coming years, “like waiting for a long exposure photograph”, to fill in their emerging picture of the faraway cosmos.

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Nov 11 2013

Microwave signals turned into power

Microwave signals turned into power

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Nov 08 2013

Physics probes ‘splashback’ problem

Physics probes ‘splashback’ problem

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Nov 05 2013

Liquid metal inter-atomic distance shown to contract on heating, surprisingly | National Academy of Sciences

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Oct 23 2013

What are Maxwell’s Equations?

What are Maxwell’s Equations?

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Oct 23 2013

The Higgs boson particle – digested

The Higgs boson particle – digested

The Higgs boson particle – digested
The secret of life and the universe, explained by our science editor

An experimental result in the search for the Higgs boson particle, released by Cern.

In the aftermath of the big bang that flung the universe into existence 13.82bn years ago, the forces of nature were one. But as the universe expanded and cooled, they separated out into the four seen today. The electromagnetic force, which is carried by photons, allows you to see, and stops you falling through your chair.

The strong force holds atomic nuclei together. The weak force goes to work in the sun and helps to make it shine. Then there is gravity, which is not really a force at all, but that is for another time.

One trillionth of a second after the big bang, an invisible field that spread throughout space switched on. This Higgs field wrenched two intertwined forces apart – the weak force and the electromagnetic force. How? By making the particles that carry the weak force heavy, while leaving the photon weightless.

The weak force travels less than the width of an atom, but the electromagnetic force ranges over an infinite distance.

The Higgs field gives mass to other particles too, such as quarks and electrons, the building blocks of atoms. The Higgs boson comes with the field, a subatomic smoking gun that proves the field is there.

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Oct 18 2013

How to write a personal statement for history

How to write a personal ucas statement for history

History is the tenth most popular subject to study at degree level in the UK, and with many universities forgoing candidate interviews, your personal statement is the most important way to make yourself stand out. The competition is fierce (the top universities require grades of A*AA), and a muddled or mediocre statement will harm your application.

So how can would-be historians impress application tutors? Dr Elizabeth Tingle, of Plymouth University, wants the statement to reflect the candidate who wrote it. She says: “When we talk about originality inpersonal statements, we really mean individuality.”

Southampton University’s Dr McHugh agrees that many applications are “too generic and vague. We want to get a sense of who you are as an individual, and what kind of student you would be.”

This individuality should not be achieved through wild or outrageous methods; your statement doesn’t need to be written in old English, or abstractly represent the consciousness of Thomas Cromwell. If you do something outrageously different, there’s probably a reason why no one’s done it before.

Instead, a personal statement should show something of you as a person, and convey your own unique engagement with history. Dr Ryrie, historian of religion at Durham says:

“The kind of personal statement that warms an admissions tutor’s heart is the kind which is honest: which describes, in genuinely personal terms, quite why the student loves the subject, and conveys something of their passion for it”.

‘Passion’, however, is a controversial word. UCL’s Dr Jason Peacey complained that “it gets a bit tiring reading hundreds of forms where the student proclaims that they have a ‘passion’ for history”.

Dr Ansari, head of history at Royal Holloway, agrees, and wants “genuine expressions of interest in history, but not in terms of ‘I am passionate about…’. Simply wanting something strongly is not enough”.

You need to convince admissions tutors that you have the intelligence and academic ability needed to successfully undertake a degree in the subject.

Dr Peacey says: “Students don’t always do enough to explain what it is about history that interests them, why this interest can only be met by undertaking more study at a higher level, and what should make me think that they have the potential and ability to study at this level”.

The same sentiments are also mentioned by Dr McGladdery, admissions officer at St Andrews. “Studying and writing about what happened in the past has little purpose if students cannot develop the skill of critical evaluation. Historiographical awareness is very important, as is the ability to present an opinion supported with evidence and cogent analysis.”

Students who show that they have considered the subject in relation to other academic avenues are likely to impress. As Dr Gadja, of Oxford university, says:

“Historians like to take insight from a huge range of perspectives, so we are always delighted when students can demonstrate how their interest and ability at foreign languages, philosophy, or political thought, literature, and so on, might intersect with their historical interests, and be of use in their development as historians”.

A clear, competent analysis of the ways in which your different subjects interact, and how this has aided your ability as a history student, can be a valuable inclusion in your personal statement.

Dr Gadja says that it is important to mention extra-curriculur interests. For Gadja, an interest in visiting museums, going to public lectures, and anything that shows an interest in history beyond the demands of one’s A-level course, would be relevant.

If you have had any relevant work experience, do mention it, but it must have had a definite impact on your approach to thinking about history. If you haven’t managed to gain experience in a historical field, though, don’t worry too much.

Gadja says: “we certainly don’t look for relevant work experience when making decisions – most applicants will not have had the fortunate opportunity to work in jobs relating to the heritage industry or similar, and that doesn’t put them at a disadvantage at all”.

Mention of non-academic areas in which you are wonderfully talented should be limited to a couple of sentences at most, and should always be linked back to the ways in which they have contributed to your academic or personal development; such as by improving time-management, or organisational skills.

Dr Simon Smith, of Oxford University, say: “Unlike some US universities or colleges, UK universities are not seeking to admit quotas of musicians, sports people, or thespians.”

It is important to write the statement in clear, concise prose, avoiding the use of formulaic words or phrases. Dr Peacey says:

“If I had a pound for every time I had been told that history is important because, as George Santayana said, those who fail to understand the mistakes of the past will merely repeat them… then I would be a rich man indeed.”

Try and avoid stilted references to the “eternal value” and “enduring fascination” of the past. Far more impressive is to explain and analyse what it is that makes you so interested in history, and specific areas in particular.

Above all, you should engage with the concepts that you are discussing, rather than just stating them. As Dr Ryrie says:

“Make us feel that you are a person of vision and imagination, for whom your outstanding A-level performance is just the beginning.”

Avoid anything bland or dull, and make the personal statement a reflection of your individual talents and interests. You want your statement to be different and engaging, otherwise it will slip through admissions tutors’ fingers without leaving a mark.

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Oct 08 2013

Blu-Ray albums target hi-fi fans

Blu-Ray albums target hi-fi fans

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Sep 23 2013

New Scientist: Leaky microwaves can power your kitchen gadgets

New Scientist: Leaky microwaves can power your kitchen gadgets.

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