Archive for Nuclear Physics

Watch “Why the Universe is quite disappointing really – Episode 2” on YouTube

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, YouTube with tags , , on May 8, 2020 by telescoper

Episode 2, in which I explain how stars limp along unimpressively, making very poor use of the resources available to them, not doing a very good job at what they’re supposed to be doing, and then they die.

Just like people really…

Splitting from Euratom

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on January 27, 2017 by telescoper

This week the government published a short bill in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, announced on Tuesday morning, that Parliament should be involved in the process of notifying the European Union if and when the United Kingdom decides to leave. The Supreme Court (by a majority of 8-3) upheld the earlier decision of the High Court that  the Executive could not take a decision of such magnitude (effectively using the Royal Prerogative) without explicit Parliamentary approval.

The Article 50 Bill is very short. In fact this is it in full:


The government plans to force this  through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons in five days, although will undoubtedly be attempts to amend it.  It has subsequently emerged that a White Paper concerning the process of negotiating the withdrawal will be published, but not until after the Article 50 Bill is enacted. It’s readily apparent that the government is merely playing grudging lip-service to the sovereignty of Parliament. Let’s hope Parliament shows some guts for once and stands up for the interests of the United Kingdom by refusing the give the Executive Carte Blanche and insisting on full Parliamentary scrutiny of the process, including giving MPs the chance to call off the whole fiasco when it becomes obvious that we’re better off not leaving the EU after all.

As another example of the contempt for open government, news broke today that in the explanatory notes for the Article 50 bill, the UK government indicates that it intends for the UK to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). This organization has a number of regulatory roles concerning nuclear energy supply and distribution, but also has a major research focus on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a project aimed at constructing a fusion reactor, which currently involves a significant number of UK scientists. This project is truly international: involving the EU, Russia, the USA, Japan, Korea and India.

Unlike, e.g. CERN and ESA, the organization of Euratom is legally linked to the European Union, so one can argue that withdrawal from the EU necessarily means leaving Euratom, but to announce this in the explanatory notes without any attempt to discuss it either in Parliament or with the organizations involved seems to me yet another manifestation of the UK government’s desire to avoid any consultation at all, wherever this is possible. The Supreme Court prevented them from excluding Parliament, but it is clear that they will continue to avoid due process whenever they think they can get away with it. This announcement now puts a big question mark over the futures of many scientists involved in nuclear research. You can find a blog post on this by a nuclear physicist, Paul Stevenson of the University of Surrey, here.

The decision to withdraw from Euratom poses very serious questions about our nuclear industry as well as nuclear physics and engineering research so it should be discussed and evaluated. Whatever you think about BrExit, trying to force through such important decisions without consultation is not the proper way for a government to carry on.

STFC Consolidated Grants Review

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by telescoper

It’s been quite a while since I last put my community service hat on while writing a blog post, but here’s an opportunity. Last week the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) published a Review of the Implementation of Consolidated Grants, which can be found in its entirety here (PDF). I encourage all concerned to read it.

Once upon a time I served on the Astronomy Grants Panel whose job it was to make recommendations on funding for Astronomy through the Consolidated Grant Scheme, though this review covers the implementation across the entire STFC remit, including Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics (Theory), Particle Physics (Experiment) and Astronomy (which includes solar-terrestrial physics and space science). It’s quite interesting to see differences in how the scheme has been implemented across these various disciplines, but I’ll just include here a couple of comments on the Astronomy side of things.

First, here is a table showing the number of academic staff for whom support was requested over the three years for which the consolidated grant system has been in existence (2011, 2012 and 2013 for rounds 1, 2 and 3 respectively).  You can see that the overall success rate was slightly better in round 3, possibly due to applicants learning more about the process over the cycle, but otherwise the outcomes seem reasonably consistent:


The last three rows of this table  on the other hand show quite clearly the impact of the “flat cash” settlement for STFC science funding on Postdoctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) support:

Constant cash means ongoing cuts in real terms; there were 11.6% fewer Astronomy PDRAs supported in 2013 than in 2011. Job prospects for the next generation of astronomers continue to dwindle…

Any other comments, either on these tables or on the report as a whole, are welcome through the comments box.


Cute Nuclear Physics Problem

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 2, 2013 by telescoper

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything in the cute physics problems folder – mostly because the problems I’m generally dealing with these days are neither cute nor related to physics – but here’s one from an old course I used to teach on Nuclear and Particle Physics.

In the following the notation A(a,b)B means the reaction a+A→b+B and the you might want to look here for a definition of what a Q-value is. The Atomic Number of Phosphorus (P) is 15, and that of Silicon (Si) is 14. The question doesn’t require any complicated mathematics, or any knowledge of physics beyond A-level; the rest is up to your little grey cells!


A Little Bit of Nuclear..

Posted in Cute Problems with tags , , on April 26, 2012 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I posted any cute physics problems, so here’s a little one to amuse you this rainy Thursday morning.

In the following the notation A(a,b)B means the reaction a+A→b+B. The atomic number of Oxygen is 8 and that of Fluorine is 9.

The Q-value (i.e. energy release) of the reaction 19O(p,n)19F is 4.036 MeV, but the minimum energy of a neutron which, incident on a carbon tetrafluoride target, can induce the reaction 19F(n,p)19O is 4.248 MeV. Account for the difference between these two values.


Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2012 by telescoper

I spent a pleasant evening yesterday at a public lecture arranged by Cardiff Scientific Society and given by Professor Mike Edmunds, former Head of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University and now Emeritus Professor here. The subject of his talk was Origin of the Chemical Elements, a subject Mike has worked on for many years. Here’s the abstract of his talk:

When the Universe was 300,000 years old, the only chemical elements with significant abundance were hydrogen, helium and a small amount of lithium. All the atoms of all the other elements in the Periodic Table have been synthesised during the 13.7 billion years since that time. Research in physics and astronomy over the last 64 years has allowed us to identify the nuclear processes involved, including the importance of the humble neutron in the manufacture of the heavier elements. We now have a good picture of the astronomical sites where elements such as the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and iron in our bodies were made, including violent supernova explosions. It is a picture that appears almost, but not quite, complete.

That last sentence is tempting fate a bit, but it’s fair comment! The lecture, which I had the pleasure of chairing, was both entertaining and informative, and very warmly received by the large audience in the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre (in the National Museum of Wales).

Inevitably in a talk on this subject, the subject came up of the classic work of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle in 1957 (a paper usually referred to as B2FH after the initials of its authors). It’s such an important contribution, in fact, that it has its own wikipedia page

This reminded me that one of the interesting astronomical things I’ve acquired over the years is a preprint of the B2FH paper. Younger readers will probably not be aware of preprints – we all used to post them in large numbers to (potentially) interested colleagues before publication to get comments – because in the age of the internet people don’t really bother to make them any more.

Anyway, here’s a snap of it.

It’s a hefty piece of work, and an important piece of astronomical history. In years to come perhaps it may even acquire some financial value. Who knows?

Fukushima – a year on

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 9, 2012 by telescoper

It’s almost a year since the Japanese earthquake that produced a tsunami and consequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant on March 11th 2011.

Here’s a video, produced by Nature magazine, showing the continuing efforts to clean up.

I’ve been teaching Nuclear Physics this term and while I was talking about chain reactions, neutron capture, control rods and the like, the other day I suddenly realised that the class of twenty-somethings in front of me had all been born after Chernobyl and were probably unaware of just how scary it was at the time. The current generation of students, and those following it, will be among those who are going to have to grapple with a very serious problem as oil and gas supplies dwindle over the next decades. People can make their own mind up about what’s the best way to tackle this crisis, but my view is that at least in the short term we’re stuck with nuclear fission reactors for at least some of our energy needs – with improved energy efficiency and appropriate use of renewable sources helping – until fusion power comes to the rescue.