This year's Nobel Prize in Physics has gone to three scientists for developing the technology that makes Plus possible. Charles K. Kao has received one half of the prize for developing the optical fibres that transmit information throughout the world. The other half of the prize is shared by Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for developing the digital camera's electronic eye, known
as the CCD sensor.
Information is transmitted over the internet using light. A flashing laser beam is directed through optical fibres, with the flashes encoding the 0s and 1s that make up digital information. This process works because when the light beam hits the glass walls of the fibre, it bounces off and is moved forward. Optical fibres had been used even before the invention of the laser, for example by
doctors to look into people's stomachs, but they were only capable of transmitting information over very short distances, as the light quickly leaked away when travelling through the fibre. When Charles Kao started working in the field in the 1960s, his aim was to improve the technology so that all of 1% of light would arrive at the end of a 1km long cable. Today, due to Kao's work and the
generation of scientists he inspired, this number has increased to 95%! As a result, the network of optical glass fibres that spans the Earth today is over 1 billion km long. If you wrapped that length around the Earth, you would span it more than 25 000 times.
Light also plays an important role in the work of the other two prize recipients. Boyle and Smith were trying to develop larger memory capacity for computers, when they realised that Albert Einstein's photoelectric effect could be put to good use. According to this effect, electrons can be "knocked about" using light. Boyle and Smith realised that by knocking electrons out of light
sensitive cells sitting in a silicone plate, they could transform an optical image into electric signals, which in turn could be turned into digital information. By 1975 Boyle and Smith had used their invention to construct a digital video camera which was good enough to manage TV broadcasts. In 1995, the first ever fully functioning digital camera was produced, and the rest is history. And
although the CCD sensor has recently been challenged by another piece of technology, the complementary metal oxide semiconductor, bets are still on as to which of the two will rule the future.
Buses may be safer than babies, at least when it comes to swine flu. Preliminary results from an online flu survey suggest that contact with children poses one of the greatest swine flu risk factors, while the use of public transport seems surprisingly safe.
Plus will soon bring you a package of articles on the maths behind swine flu. But first we would like to know what you think has been the best source of information about swine flu? Did the media do well reporting on the virus? What about government information? Or did you go and see your GP to find out what to do about swine flu? Please let us know by voting in this quick poll, or tell
us in more detail what information you found useful, or a nuisance, by leaving a comment on this blog.
Autumn is upon us, and as every year we're anxiously pondering what winter might have in store. According to the Met Office's tentative forecast based on early indications, we're in for a milder winter than last year, with rainfall at or above average. A more definitive forecast is due out in
November, but it wouldn't be surprising if the people at the Met Office were a tad nervous about putting their necks out once again. Their April forecast, stating that the UK was "odds-on for a barbecue summer", sent British tempers flaring when July turned out to be one of the wettest on record. In response to
the miserable weather, and mounting criticism, the Met Office revealed in August that its earlier optimism had been based on a 65% probability of a hot dry summer, and insisted that it had explained at the time that this forecast did "not rule out the chances of seeing some heavy downpours at times". Too right,
you might say, since the overall rainfall for summer 2009 turned out to be 40% above the historical average.
To be fair, the Met's barbecue debacle was down to a failure to communicate its predictions clearly, rather than predictive incompetence.... Read more!
The monthly Maths-Art seminars at the London Knowledge Lab, that explore the connections between mathematics and art, arose out of the Bridges Conference held in London in 2006. In the next seminar, Richard
Henry, an artist and teacher with a specialism in Islamic geometric tiling, will talk about practical geometry and the language of symmetry in Islamic art.
"My work draws considerable inspiration from Islamic art, its history, craft techniques and geometrical ideas," says Henry. "I have a deep interest in the mystical philosophy that underlies the art and how this influences the design of Islamic buildings, with their special sense of sublime tranquility that is often experienced. In explaining these I will present images from an extensive field
study that I carried out in Iran. I will also discuss the occurrence of non-periodic tilings in medieval Iranian designs, and how these are related to the modern mathematical theory of Penrose tilings."
The methods Henry uses to create his beautiful images are based on some of the earliest geometric methods used in mathematics: "I am particularly interested in practical geometrical methods, using compass and straight edge, for pattern construction for artists and craftspeople, and have explored these in my own works in painting, print and tile-mosaic. In this talk I will illustrate some of
these methods for setting out patterns."
The seminar is on Tuesday 13 October 2009, from 6-7.30pm, at the London Knowledge Lab, 23-29 Emerald St, London, WC1N 3QS (travel information & maps). Everyone is welcome and no reservation required, but an email to firstname.lastname@example.org would be appreciated for planning purposes.
There's a significant intersection between sport fandom and science geekdom, and to address it, John D. Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge, will give a free public talk on physics and sport at the Cavendish
Laboratory in Cambridge. Barrow will look at some applications of physics and simple mathematics to a variety of sports, including aspects of weightlifting, rowing, throwing, jumping, drag car racing, balance sports, and track athletics. He'll also explore some of the paradoxical systems of judging used in ice skating, and the effects of latitude and air resistance on some performances.
The talk will take place on the 13th of October at 6pm in the Pippard lecture theatre at the Cavendish Laboratory, Madingley Road, Cambridge.
The best entries will be invited to present their project at the Big Bang: UK Young Scientists’ and Engineers’ Fair, in Manchester in March 2010. You’ll have your own stand to show off all your hard work to over 13,000 scientists, engineers, students, parents, employers, teachers and celebrities. Plus you may even be chosen to
face a VIP panel in the competition finals.
There are over £50,000 in prizes up for grabs, including cash awards and trips abroad. And entrants in the senior category could be crowned the UK Young Scientist of the Year or the UK Young Engineer of the Year.
It doesn't matter if your project has already been entered into another competition, you're still eligible, but hurry up, the closing date is October 30th!
The image above shows last year's winners Peter Hatfield (left) and Chris Jefferies (right).