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Ben Gilliland's blog

Curiosity: The beating heart of science

HUMANITY IS AN INHERENTLY curious species. From the moment of our birth we seek to understand ourselves, the world we inhabit and all the space beyond. Curiosity defines us. 

The need to ask ‘what if?’, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ liberated us from the limits of an existence driven by survival alone and allowed us to become the first species in the history of the planet to live life for life’s sake. Curiosity made us masters of our fate. 

Perhaps the ultimate expression of our curiosity is science. If curiosity is raw instinct, then science is curiosity channelled, focused and refined – curiosity can survive without science but science can’t survive without curiosity. 

Remove curiosity from science and you tear out the beating heart from the very thing that made us and sustains us. 

Yet that hasn’t stopped policy-makers in Canada from attempting to do just that. Last week, Canada’s National Research Council announced that it will only fund science that has a defined economic and social gain – stating that ‘scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value’. In other words, they want to remove curiosity from science. 

The science of the Dam Busters

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the iconic ‘Dam Busters’ raid on German dams. The strategic impact of the raids is still a matter of debate, but that doesn’t detract from the technical innovation of Barnes Wallis’ ‘bouncing bombs’ and the bravery of RAF 617 Squadron

ON THE EVENING OF MAY 16, 1943, 19 modified Lancaster bombers set out from RAF Scampton to attack the dams of the industrial Ruhr region in Germany.

The planes of the newly-formed 617 squadron were carrying a very special ‘bouncing bomb’ that, although it would have very little impact on the outcome of the war, would ensure the aircrew that deployed it and the man who designed it would be forever remembered as the Dambusters.

At the height of World War II, Bomber Command was tasked with destroying as much of Germany’s industry as possible.

They had tried targeting factories but these were quickly rebuilt so they turned their attention to targeting the power sources that supplied them – coal mines, oil fields and hydroelectric dams.

Coal mines were too easily repaired and the oil fields were too far away, so the dams, which supplied both power and water to industry, became the target. Unfortunately, aircrews faced two problems: first, dams are (damn) difficult to destroy – after all they are strong enough to hold millions of tonnes of water at bay. Only a very large bomb, or an underwater torpedo strike would do the job.

Second, Hitler was aware of the importance of his dams, so they were well defended by submerged anti-torpedo defences.

The large bomb idea was abandoned because the RAF lacked an aircraft big enough to carry it, so it had to be the underwater option. But how would the crews get past the defences?

Einstein passes toughest test


EINSTEIN'S THEORY of general relativity (GR), which describes how gravity is the result of mass, energy and the curvature of spacetime, has passed every test thrown at it since it was thought up in 1915.

But, despite its success, relativity isn’t expected to be the last word in gravity. 

Although it makes superbly accurate predictions for everyday gravitational objects, relativity hasn’t been tested in more extreme circumstances.

You don’t get much more extreme than this pair. The larger object is a fairly unremarkable white dwarf star, but the smaller one, a newly discovered pulsar, is an extremely remarkable object indeed.

Imagine an object that could sit quite happily on the Isle of Wight and you could walk around in just a few hours – now imagine that bundled up inside it is enough atoms to make two Suns; its surface is burning away at millions of degrees and it shoots high-energy jets of radiations out into space at millions of miles per hour. That’s extreme.

A series of unfortunate events that led to a medical revolution

It is 1912 and, in the polar desert at the bottom of the world, a man is freezing to death. Within his cells, the mitochondrial batteries that power his body are shutting down, leaving him without the energy he needs to battle the cold. 

To stem the flow of heat that is hemorrhaging into the Antarctic air, his hairs stand on end in a futile attempt to provide insulation. The blood vessels near his skin and throughout his extremities contract, shutting off their supply of blood and forcing its dwindling warmth into his core. 

His body is racked by violent spasms as his muscles attempt to shiver every last ounce of energy from their plummeting reserves. 
Finally, the cells that regulate the electrical activity of his heart can no longer do their job and, after a violent death dance, his heart arrests.
The legendary British explorer Robert Falcon Scott has died – just a few miles from safety and burdened with the knowledge that he had already failed to become the first man to stand at the South Pole.

Conquering the realm invisible

IMAGINE THAT THE MOST INTIMATE workings of the world around us were charted in a single sacred book, which, in a Greek myth fashion, the gods had denied mankind access to. We could gaze at the book on its shelf, but we couldn’t lift it, open it and leaf through its pages. Around it, there grew a white-clad priesthood who devoted their lives to unlocking the book’s secrets, but even they could never see beyond its spine. Then, one day, a father and son gave the priests a way to see inside the book and reveal the knowledge of the gods to all mankind...

Ok, that’s a little melodramatic but, in essence, it reflects the state of science at the start of the 20th century. The inner workings of the world were indeed locked away from the eyes of scientists – if it was too small to see with a microscope, it was beyond our reach. Then came what is probably the most important discovery you have never heard off.

One hundred years ago this week, a British physicist,William Henry Bragg, and his son, William Lawrence Bragg, found a way to look beyond the realm of the microscopic into the kingdom beneath of molecules and atoms and, in doing so, they unlocked the hidden mechanisms that drive the world in which we live.

Desperately seeking SUSY

THE STANDARD MODEL of physics, which describes the quantum world of particles and the stuff that makes them up, is one of the most successful theories in science. Since it was first thought up in the 1960s and 1970s, it has made hundreds of predictions that have been successfully tested – the most recent of which was the discovery of the Higgs boson (the particle representative of the Higgs field, which imbues particles with mass).

Despite its success in the quantum realm, the Standard Model (SM) only explains one part of the Universe – gravity, space and time just don’t fit. 

One theory that seeks to integrate SM with the workings of the Universe at large is known as Supersymmetry (or SUSY). SUSY is collection of theories (to be weeded out as evidence – or lack there of – come in) that predicts, for every particle in the SM pantheon, there exists a hidden, super-sized partner. 

Physicists are hoping the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will do for Supersymmetry what it did for the Higgs boson

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