Thursday, 22 March 2012

Astro coming to Surrey

One of the most popular "physics with..." courses we offer at Surrey is Physics with Nuclear Astrophysics.  It seems to capture the imagination of applicants, combining, as it does, a couple of the more fundamental areas of physics, linking them with their joint role in the creation of the elements in stars (though the course content is more than just the specialism).

We are able to offer it because of our large nuclear physics research group, which is approximately the largest in the UK, depending how you count.  We do not have such a research group on the pure astro side. At least, not at the moment, but rather excitingly (for me, at least) the University has just advertised for three posts in astrophysics.  I don't know many astrophysicists personally, but I'm sure there are some nice ones out there who'll I'll look forward to having as colleagues.  For those that do not subscribe to THES to see the adverts, there are some details on the University's website.  

Friday, 16 March 2012

An off-topic spot the difference

I wonder if readers have noticed the remarkable similarity in appearance between still-Archbishop Rowan Williams, and the priest sprite from popular 1980s home computer game Jet Set Willy?

Jet-Set Sprite
Re(s)igning Archbishop

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Towards a Low Carbon Future

An interesting report was published today by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.  The whole report can be found here, but I think the key points in the executive summary speak for themselves (except for the strange repetition of "UK" in the second point):

  • If the UK is going to go down the decarbonisation route there is an enormous challenge in meeting the electricity demand, particularly with its increased use in transport and possibly heating. At present the current proposals for new nuclear reactors will be no more than sufficient in replacing the current fleet.
  • If the UK is serious about developing a world leading capability in the UK we need to develop a long term nuclear strategy encompassing both reactors and fuel cycle.
  • Use of nuclear power to a degree that cuts global warming will require either much higher uranium reserves than currently identified or a change of fuel cycle to minimise uranium use. If the fabrication of MOX fuel is to proceed, it should be as part of an overall strategic plan to maximise the benefit to the UK from the burning of UK plutonium in UK reactors.
  • The structure of the UK nuclear industry is aligned more towards the ‘no nuclear’ stance of 2003 than the ‘new build’ stance of 2012. There is a clear need for an independent body to advise and drive a long- term nuclear strategy.

Nuclear plant pictures

I'm not sure I'll get a chance to go to this, but there's an exhibition of photographs of nuclear power plants showing in London at the moment.  As someone whose exposure to nuclear physics research is largely through simulations and calculations, I am always rather impressed whenever I see bits of kit.  Probably never more so when visiting NIF in the US, which was a very hi-tech space age kind of place.  I'd probably rather visit a nuclear power station, but I bet the pictures are interesting.

Edit: Oh, it's even better. It's part of a huge nuclear series of events.

Friday, 9 March 2012

STFC publicise nuclear physics

I may have moaned a bit in the past about the extent to which STFC supports nuclear physics in proportion to other areas, but I was pleased to see today that its latest press release is all about some excellent work by UK nuclear physicists working at the Jyväskylä Laboratory in Finland, looking at isotopes of rutherfordium.

Now around 10* of the 1010 press releases on their website are about nuclear physics, which is definitely a step in the right direction.

*My methodology for coming up with the number is based on the substring "nucl" being in the precis part of the press release.  It may have led to an inaccurate number, but I doubt that it's widely wrong.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Happy Birthday to Neu. Tron.

Okay, I'm a week late in remembering the birthday, as members of my family to whom I send birthday cards may not be surprised to hear, but 80 years ago last Monday a paper was published in the journal Nature entitled "Possible Existence of a Neutron."  It was penned by James Chadwick, and describes his work, which is regarded as the definitive proof that atomic nuclei contain neutrons, as well as protons, and that these neutrons can be observed as separate entities.  He won the Nobel prize for this discovery in 1935.

His experiment built, as most of science does, on the work of others, amongst whom were Irène and Pierre Joliot-Curie.  They had previously been investigating the radiation that is emitted when alpha particles from a radioactive source impinge upon the element beryllium.  This radiation was very highly penetrating - i.e. it could pass easily through matter.  At that time, only gamma rays were known to be so highly penetrating, and neither the Joliot-Curies, or others, such as the German physicist Walter Bothe, who also produced neutrons realised that the observed radiation was anything but gamma rays.

By some careful experimentation and deduction, Chadwick realised that rather than very high energy gamma rays (so high that they would seem to violate the conservation of energy and momentum), the radiation combing from the alpha-bombarded beryllium were in fact neutrons - neutral particles with about the same mass as protons.  The outreach people at Cambridge, where Chadwick performed these experiments, have produced a nice site about the work, going in to a little more detail about it.

I suppose the Joliot-Curies and Bothe were a little peeved that they missed this explanation, but all three went on to win Nobel prizes;  Irène and Pierre Joliot-Curie for the discovery of the transmutation of elements through nuclear reactions (ironically enough, Chadwick's experiment was transmuting elements, but he didn't observe or measure the direct proof of that), and Bothe for experimental techniques in nuclear physics.