University applications down

According to Ucas admissions figures,   13,000 fewer applications were received  up to mid-November as compared with last year.  This represents a drop of  8% compared with the same point last year.

The government should now finally admit that its higher education policies are having a significant impact on application behaviour.

We have always said that students and their families aren’t walking calculators capable of working out how much they are likely to repay based on hypothetical future earnings. Regardless of the repayment terms and the small print, students were always going to be deterred by £9,000 tuition fees.

Liam Burns, president of The National Union of Students

Data about previous years can be found at the Ucas website here.


BBC news report

An interview with Dr Helen Czerski

Dr Helen Czerski, Physicist and oceanographer, is a well-known BBC science presenter. Her work includes the major BBC2 series ‘Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey’, broadcast in March 2012. Recently she filmed Operation Iceburg for BBC2 and is a contributor to Dara O’Briain’s Science Club.


She agreed to answer a few questions I had…

Science and Popularisation

What first got you involved in science, and in particular physics?

I don’t really feel that I ever “got involved” – it was just something I did and was interested in. I’m lucky that my parents encouraged us to experiment with the world in a non-pushy way – if I said “what happens when you do that?”, they’d just say “well, let’s try it and see”. I must have shown some specific interest in physics early on because my mum bought me a copy of “A brief history of time” when I was 10 or 11. But I was interested in all sorts of things, like dinosaurs and making stuff from clay, building treehouses, environmental issues, baking and languages. My parents just encouraged us in whatever we were interested in, and the strongest and most important message I ever got from them was “do your best”. That’s crucial – they weren’t bothered about whether we succeeded or not, but they valued trying things out. And they wanted us to be happy far more than they wanted “success”.

As time went on, I think that I chose to read a lot of popular physics books, and I knew from fairly early on that my interested tended towards the sciences. But I very consciously took every opportunity to study other things, because I felt that I’d do enough science later on.

How did you get involved in the popularisation of science? 

Well, going right back, I remember giving a talk on atomic physics to the local women’s group (which my mother was part of) when I was 17. So I suppose that counts as the first time I did anything like that. My Dad has always said that I’m a natural teacher, and when I was younger that mostly came out in the sports coaching that I did. During my PhD, I got involved in doing demonstrations during National Science and Engineering Week, and that led to other public lectures and talks. I was always happy to share my enthusiasm for science, and if that meant fun demos, so much the better!

Which medium  do you think is the most effective at popularising science?

There is no one medium, because what you say is not anywhere near as important as what your audience hears. If you say something in a format that your audience doesn’t see, it’s pointless. So the most effective medium is whatever your audience finds most convenient, and that’s different for every individual. Obviously, tv has a huge reach, but the ways that people get information are changing over time. I think that the one thing that will always be popular is seeing an enthusiastic and charismatic individual in person, and being brought into the world of the human being who is standing right in front of you. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have “science popularization” because everyone who works or uses science and technology would naturally share their knowledge of it with the people around them, and that would be the most effective way of encouraging enthusiasm for science.

What, in your opinion, should be the ultimate goal of science popularisation?

To dispense with the need for conscious science popularization. It’s not a phrase I like. I think that we need science to be part of our culture just like music, literature, art, politics and economics, and we can all have some level of natural curiosity about it. I would love everyone to appreciate science as an important and fascinating part of their world, and to be able to find out as much about it as they liked. In an ideal world, it would be valued appropriately, and it wouldn’t be necessary to “popularize” it.

What were the challenges for you  during the filming of Operation Iceberg?

Being in between two worlds. Usually, in that environment, I’m there either because I’m doing my own experiment or I’m there because I’m filming a tv programme. This time, I was halfway – slightly more on the tv side of things, and without an experiment that I was responsible for by myself. I found that very odd – it was like being the only person in the room who spoke two languages when everyone else only spoke one or the other.

We really enjoyed science club, did you enjoy making it?

The studio days for science club have been some of my favourite days this year. It really is like an inclusive club of fun people, and everyone has something interesting to contribute.

Are we going to see a lot more of you on the BBC?

I’m working on a couple of other programmes at the moment. The one I’m spending most of my time on at the moment is a BBC4 programme all about bubbles.


Can you say a few words about your research?

I study the bubbles underneath breaking waves, and how they break apart and join together in different conditions. This is important because these bubbles act as a transport mechanism between the atmosphere and the ocean, and we need to understand the small-scale mechanisms contributing to global-sized transport effects. I like it because it’s physics that happens on a scale that you can see. My lab experiment is the size of a bench, and you can really see what’s happening. I’m much more interested in phenomena that I can see directly, rather than quantum mechanical things that I can’t experience directly, or cosmological things that are far too far away ever to touch. What gets me going is “the physics in the middle”.

Which one of your papers are you most proud of, and why?

I was the first person to measure the thickness of the coating surrounding an ocean bubble in situ. All ocean bubbles are coated with a thin layer of organic material (effectively natural bubble bath), and it controls a lot of their behaviour but it’s hard to measure. You can’t take the bubble out of the water to look at it directly. I used a combination of acoustical and optical techniques to estimate the coating thickness while the bubble was still in the ocean, from a data I collected in the Pacific. I like it because it was a novel use of experimental data, and I hadn’t thought that I could make that measurement before I collected the data. It was a minor eureka moment when I realized that I could.

What are the major questions faced today in you area of research?

The biggest question is how to integrate all the many effects that work together to influence how our planet works. There are too many for any one person to be able to hold them in their head. How do we manage the data so that we can still get insights into what it means? How do we integrate all the biological, chemical, physical and geological data to test our models accurately? When data sets are too big for a human to hold them in their mind, we lose the human’s amazing ability to recognize patterns. How do we compensate for that?

Anything else?

I think that the world around us is full of physical toys – everyday things that we are completely used to, but which are each an amazing demonstration of some scientific principle. You don’t need to go to far away places or use special microscopes to see fascinating things. They’re all around you. The world would be a richer place if everyone got a bit better at looking at everyday phenomena and asking a few more questions than normal.

About Helen


Helen is a Physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster with a passion for science, sport, books, creativity, hot chocolate and investigating the interesting things in life. She currently works at the Institute for Sound and Vibration Research in Southampton, and is a science presenter for the BBC.

You can find out lots more about Helen via her website.

Paul Frampton sentenced for drug smuggling

Paul Frampton, a physicist from the University of North Carolina, was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison after being found guilty of drug-smuggling on November the 21st.


Paul Frampton

Frampton (68) got into trouble, rather naively, after flying from North Carolina to Bolivia, where he was planning to meet a 32-year-old Czech-born lingerie model Denise Milani. He believed he had been chatting with her on the internet.


Denise Milani, image courtesy of FHM

She did not show up, instead he was met by a man. This man then asked him to take “Milani’s” suitcase to Buenos Aires, where she would then meet up with him. There is no evidence that Milani knew her persona was being used in this way.

Frampton then tried to board a plane back to the US at which point he arrested after airport-security officials discovered the cocaine inside a false lining of the suitcase.

Frampton has always claimed that he was innocent of the drug-smuggling charges. He insists that the cocaine was placed into the luggage without his knowledge.

Despite health issues while locked up, Frampton continued to supervise his two current PhD students by phone and managed to place preprints on arXi.


IOP News

Help Paul Frampton

FHM Magazine

Students to march in London

DEMO 2012, organised by The National Union of Students is going ahead today in London. It will be the first national student protest since the troubles over tuition fees two years ago.

Thousands of students are marching through the streets of central London today against the impact of government reforms to further and higher education.

NUS website


NUS website

Supersymmetry remains elusive

Results from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN point show that the rare B-meson to a muon and antimuon decays are consistent with the standard model. It was hoped that the details of these rare events would provide evidence of supersymmetry, at least for energies up to 8 TeV.

Researchers working on the LHCb experiment announced their results on Monday at the Hadron Collider Conference in Kyoto. A preprint is available on the arXiv.

However, this is not actually inconsistent with supersymmetry, the measurements are still compatible with some supersymmetric theories. For example, Prof. Gordon Kane argues that models based on superstring compactifications are quite compatible with the LHCb results. You can read more about this here.

The energy of the collisions at the LHC will be increased from the current 8 TeV to 14 TeV, which will be engineered over the 2013–2014 shutdown. It is possible that signals of supersymmetry may be found at this higher energy.

Right now it seems that the standard model has again passed at the tests, which include he discovery of the Higgs and the details of the rare B-meson decays.

Klingon style cloaking device, now a little closer

Invisibility cloaking devices have been the subject of science fiction for a long time; for example the famous Klingon and Romulan devices of Star Trek.


Image courtesy of

This started to become reality in two papers in 2006. John Pendry of Imperial College London and David Schurig & David Smith of Duke University laid out the theory of “transformation optics” in [1]. Shortly after the principle was demonstrated using microwaves [2].

Perfect cloaking?

No-one so far has created a perfect cloaking device that works in a range of frequencies. Although one can make an object invisible, reflections from the cloak make the scene a little darker and the presence of the object is clear.

Now Nathan Landy & David R. Smith [3] have developed a diamond-shaped cloak, with properties carefully matched at the diamond’s corners, so that light passes around the cloak completely with no reflections.

Here, we design and experimentally characterize a two-dimensional, unidirectional cloak that makes no approximations to the underlying transformation optics formulation, yet is capable of reducing the scattering of an object ten wavelengths in size. We demonstrate that this approximation-free design regains the performance characteristics promised by transformation optics.

Extracted from the abstract of [3]


It would be very difficult to extend this technique to visible light, so hiding large objects from our view is a little way off. However, microwaves are important in telecommunications and it is possible that cloaking devices could be applied here.


[1] J. B. Pendry, D. Schurig, D. R. Smith, Controlling Electromagnetic Fields, Science 23 June 2006:
Vol. 312 no. 5781 pp. 1780-1782.

[2] D. Schurig, J. J. Mock, B. J. Justice, S. A. Cummer, J. B. Pendry, A. F. Starr, D. R. Smith, Metamaterial Electromagnetic Cloak at Microwave Frequencies, Science 10 November 2006: Vol. 314 no. 5801 pp. 977-980

[3] Nathan Landy & David R. Smith, A full-parameter unidirectional metamaterial cloak for microwaves, Nature Materials (2012) doi:10.1038/nmat3476

IOP comments on George Osborne’s speech

Professor Paul Hardaker, Institute of Physics  Chief Executive, has commented on a speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, at the Royal Society, London.


George Osborne,Chancellor of the Exchequer

It is really encouraging to know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognises the central role that science can play in creating robust economic growth for the UK. The proposed framework for capital investment includes some key features that will be vital to keep this country at the forefront of innovation and research.

Paul Hardaker


Institute of Physics comments on George Osborne’s speech at the Royal Society (IOP News)

Another dimension to Latin America

Dimensional regularization, that is compute in “4 + ε space-time dimensions” and take the limit ε→0 at the end, is a powerful tool in quantum field theory. In fact, Veltman and ’t Hooft won the 1999 Physics Nobel Prize, for dimensional regularization and its application to Yang-Mills theory. The work of Veltman and ‘t Hooft dates back to 1971 and was published in 1972 [3].

However, the original idea may have come from two physicist working in Argentina. According to Wolfgang Bietenholz & Lilian Prado, it was Juan Jose Giambiagi and Carlos Guido Bollini [1] in a paper submitted before Veltman and ‘t Hooft, who first proposed dimensional regularization [2].

The paper of Giambiagi and Bollini, although submitted for publication earlier, was actually published after the paper of Veltman and ‘t Hooft.

Juan José Giambiagi (1924 – 1996)

Read the short preprint by Bietenholz & Prado, which is available on the arXiv, for more details.

Carlos Guido Bollini


Juan José Giambiagi (ICTP biography)

Carlos Guido Bollini (Fundación Konex)

[1]Wolfgang Bietenholz & Lilian Prado,40 Years of Calculus in 4 + epsilon Dimensions,(2012) arXiv:1211.1741v1 [physics.hist-ph]

[2]C.G. Bollini and J.J. Giambiagi, Lowest order ‘divergent’ graphs in n-dimensional space, Phys. Lett. 40B (1972) 566-568.

[3] G. ’t Hooft & M. Veltman, Regularization and renormalization of gauge fields Nucl. Phys. B44 (1972) 189-213.

Indian monsoons may regularly fail in the future

New research suggests that the rate of failure in Indian summer monsoon will increase over the next two centuries, due to global warming [1].

The Indian farmers rely on the monsoons to disperse freshwater on agricultural land. Failure of the summer monsoons could be very detrimental to India’s economy.

Walker Circulation

The Walker circulation is a vast loop of winds that influences climate across much of the globe, including the Indian summer monsoons.


Image courtesy of NOAA

Walker circulation describes the air flow in the tropics in the lower atmosphere. The Walker circulation is generated by the pressure gradient that results from a high pressure system over the eastern Pacific ocean, and a low pressure system over Indonesia.

El Niño

The Southern Oscillation is the natural variation in the temperature of the surface of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean and the surface air pressure. This occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean roughly every five years. The extremes of this climate pattern’s oscillations, El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cool), cause extreme weather events across many regions of the world.

The Walker circulation brings areas of high pressure to the western Indian Ocean, bringing the monsoons. However, in years when El Niño occurs, the winds get shifted eastward, bringing high pressure over India and the effect is to suppress the monsoons.

The predictions

Jacob Schewe and Anders Levermann simulations suggest that as temperatures increase in the future, the Walker circulation, will on average bring more high pressure over India; even though the occurrence of El Niño doesn’t increase.

The effect of this will be an increase in the occurrence of monsoons failing to form and an increase in drought across India.


Jacob Schewe and Anders Levermann (2012), A statistically predictive model for future monsoon failure in India, Environ. Res. Lett. 7 044023


Indian monsoon failure more frequent with warming, IOP News

University finances could be hit by fall in applications

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has just published a report Financial health of the higher education sector 2011-12 to 2014-15 forecasts [1] outlining English universities’ finances.

In the report they highlight risk factors, which include:

  • fall in student recruitment and retention in an increasingly competitive market
  • failure to manage student number control
  •  further unanticipated public spending cuts
  • failure to achieve growth in overseas fee income
  • changes to visa regulations resulting in reduced overseas student demand
  • failure to comply with UKBA requirements resulting in removal of ability to sponsor non-EU students.


Income predictions


The outcome

Overall, the finances of English Universities are predicted to be generally sound, at least up to 2014-15. The report however highlights just how dependent the sector is on student numbers and student retention. And this is at a time of introducing higher fees, generally low levels of graduate employment and a financial crisis.

Non-EU students pay the highest fees and are a good source of income for universities. In fact they generate about 32% of universities’ fee income, while making up about 11% of the total undergraduate population. I posted about that here.


[1] Financial health of the higher education sector 2011-12 to 2014-15 forecasts, November 2012 | ref: 2012/30