Monday, March 18, 2019

A Physicist's guide to the International Year of the Periodic Table

Ernest Rutherford, a booming voiced Physicist once said “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” He went on to win a Nobel Prize for...stamp collecting (chemistry). Chemistry has been called the central science, which is where physicists or biologists will claim a cool thing in chemistry as their own. So with that, let me share with you how physicists use the periodic table.

2019 is the International year of the periodic table, which is great for the chemists, but it’s also really good news for the physicists too. The periodic table is a phenomenally useful tool used by chemists and memorised by school students. It still makes mainstream media when a new element is found, and so it should. 

The periodic table is more than just a smart list of well arranged elements used by chemists. physicists are just as excited about this year and what the periodic table means to us! so in 2019, I've been asking some physicists what their favourite element is and their answers have been very interesting.

It’s a running joke in Astronomy that the universe is made of only three elements. Hydrogen (H, #1), Helium (He, #2) and the rest. Astronomers call these “heavy metals.” In some ways it is a bit silly and simplistic, but it also makes at least a bit of sense. The most abundant element in the universe is Hydrogen, followed by the second most abundant element, Helium. The first stars were Hydrogen and Helium, and stars are mostly made from these two elements. If you want to understand stars, you need to understand H and He.

Having said that, there are many astronomical processes that depend on other elements, like Lead (Pb, #82). A star is a machine for that “smashes” atomic nuclei together, and makes energy. It fuses elements together to make new elements. When that process can go no further that the stable element Lead, the process of nuclear fusion stops. This eliminates the outward pressure balancing the inward pull of gravity and it collapses, this is sometimes called a supernova, and it is spectacular. This event and other events like it, create unique and incredible conditions of energy and pressure that manage to make every other element in the periodic table. Incredible. You can’t have chemistry without Astronomy.

I asked Astronomer Professor, Tim Bedding what was his favourite element and he said Technetium (Tc, #43). Why? Because there are some processes that happen when a star enters a red giant phase (this is when it’s fusing mostly Helium, rather than Hydrogen) of its life, through transfers or neutrons in the star, it creates Technetium. So if we observe Technetium in a star, then we know that it is in its red giant phase. Professor Bedding's work is on Asteroseismology (starquakes), which is using information about stars to tell more about the exoplanets that orbit them.

Quantum physics
Quantum physics is a fascinating area of physics that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about. It spans the gap between people that change physics and physics that changes people. From fundamental understanding of the natural world, to applications that will change how we interact with the natural world. When dealing with interactions of matter at such small scales, we really need to understand properties of some elements and components of elements, such as electrons.

I asked quantum physics researcher Professor Michael Biercuk why the quantum control group uses Ytterbium (Yb, #70) and Beryllium (Be, #4) in their research into quantum control, why they use those two elements. His response was: 

“Because you want atoms that when singly ionized have a single valence electrons like Hydrogen and you want atoms with optical transitions that are accessible with commercial lasers.”

In other words, electrons are really important in quantum physics and we need to be able to access them in a predictable way, using predictable technologies.

Image: Tom Gordon
There is an international race on at the moment to find the potentially revolutionary solutions to achieving room temperature superconductivity. Properties of superconductors include zero electrical resistance and perfect magnetism, ridiculously efficient computation, electricity storage & transport and revolutionary medical applications. One of the dirty little secrets in science is that we still don’t understand fully the physics of superconductivity. We do know a couple of things though:

  1. At extremely low temperatures, metals like Copper (Cu, #29) Niobium (Nb, #41) and Mercury (Hg, #80) are particularly useful superconductors.
  2. At slightly higher temperatures, ceramics like Yttrium Barium Copper Oxide, YBa2Cu3O7, (Y, #39, Ba, #56, Cu, #29, O, #8) seem to work, but we aren’t exactly sure why. Most other ceramic superconductors seem to have Copper Oxides as their base. It’s got something to do with the structure of the crystals, but we’re not 100% sure
  3. An exciting avenue for discovering new superconductors that operate at room temperatures, rather than at cryogenic temperatures is certainly in the structure of the materials we’re looking into. Perovskite, or calcium titanate (CaTiO3) (Ca, #20, Ti, #22, O, #8) is an interesting material that some people are getting very excited about.

Without fibre optics, you couldn’t download a movie – the data transfer rate would be too low across the network. Computers, communications, the internet and just about every part of our modern life depends on optics. The field of optics going through a very important period at the moment. We are pushing the limits of how much information we can send through an optical fibre. This is an issue as humans are increasing in number while also increasing the amount of information we’re sending to each other. For example there are about 300 hours of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute. To solve this problem of the data transfer rate being too low in fibre optic cables, we either need more higher capacity cables, at great expense, or develop techniques to use the existing cables more efficiently.

This is where group 16 of the periodic table which is the group that contains Oxygen (O, #8) comes in. This group, called the Chalcogens is the basis of a lot of research into more efficient fibre optics with some very cool properties. A specific type of Chalcogenide glass which is a mic of Arsenic (As, #33) and Sulfur (S, #16) As2S3, has some pretty fantastic properties, like slowing light down and changing the frequency of light. Essentially, researchers are trying to do all the things that we can do with electrons and wires, but with light.
Image: Wikipedia

I asked optical physicist Professor Martijn De Sterke what his favourite element is and he said it was Osmium (Os, #76):

Because of its density and he thought it would be cool to hold it in your hands. It is the element with the highest density (22 tons per m3), coming in at twice the density of lead. I’d love to feel it in my hands. 

Medical Physics
Medical physicists use the properties of a few elements such as Iodine (I, #53) and Strontium (Sr, #38) in order to create radiation for diagnosis and treatment of some conditions and diseases. For example, we’ll use beta emitters such as Strontium and fire them at a high density material like Lead (Pb, # 82). When we do that we create x-rays through a process called Bremsstrahlung Radiation, or braking radiation. Literally, slowing down electrons produces x-rays. 

I asked Medical Physicist Professor Zdenka Kuncic and she said her favourite element was Technetium (Tc, #43) as it is used in medical physics research a lot as a tracer element which when injected into a patient's bloodstream helps with the imaging of some parts of the body. In addition, the half life of Technetium is very short so it doesn’t stay around in the body too long, so it’s relatively safe.

Let’s all party!
The periodic table of the elements is one of the most recognisable and useful tools in science, and while we should be celebrating the chemists, as a physicist I’d really like to join in the party with the chemists and all scientists. It’s great to have a periodic reminder that scientists are collaborative and welcoming and love to share successes and knowledge. After all, that is in fact how science works.

Image: Wikipedia
If you’re wondering, my favourite element is Ruthenium (Ru, #44). My daughters favourite number is 44 and Ruthenium is element number 44. It’s atomic mass is 101.7, and my house number is 101. Also, my wife’s name is Ruth!

What’s your favourite element?

Friday, October 7, 2016

The three E's

I do Science Communication with the three E’s in mind:
Spectrum of a mercury discharge tube
with a home made spectroscope.
Photo Credit: Tom Gordon

  • Engagement and the public awareness of science (PAS)
  • Education and the public understanding of science (PUS)
  • Enrolment and the public involvement of science (PIS)

Each approach has relevance and to be honest most of the time all three have a part to play in any communication of science. Kind of like when we throw a ball in the air as an example of  Newton's first law, it’s actually an example of all three of Newton's laws, and more! The three E’s also apply to more than facts, they apply to Meta Science Communication1 and the scientific method as well. The skills of science like determining good and bad arguments, like understanding logical fallacies, like the ability to interpret graphs, and the discipline of staying with an argument.

Engagement is to wow an audience/group. It’s to hook them and show them the wonders of nature. Not to teach them, but to have them not afraid of the word Science, or to have warm fuzzy feelings when they remember the thing you showed them or talked to them about. As an example I love talking about Narwhals. I love to ask people why we need to believe in unicorns, when we have real life unicorns...real life aquatic unicorns! Or, we have put Robots on other planets! Facts like those bring a smile to my face, a smile that tells a story of someone who loves what he does, and wants to share it with others.

Education is to teach people about science formally or informally. We do this with facts. We learn things and we learn how to learn more things. The reason we teach people Science, is so they can apply what they have leant in order to do more science, or apply science and science understanding in their respective areas. Again, this can involved narratives and stories. There is a whole move in Science education towards SHE or Science a Human Endeavour. Where the objective is to find out what scientists do, who they are, why they do it etc. A human story.

Enrolment is to encourage people to find out more. It could be that they go and study a course at uni, or other place, it could be that they enrol in a MOOC, or read a book/blog listen to a science podcast, or just try and find out some more for themselves through other means.

This is mostly a joy, as a science communicator I get to talk to a lot of people who like to learn about science. I wouldn’t say this is preaching to the converted or tribalism. Most people do want to learn more, even people ‘on the inside’ I love to hear what others think, even from inside my field, there’s a chance I might learn something! And that excites me.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

World Record Astronomy

Last year, I organised a school community to do something amazing. I organised over 200 people to participate in and break a world record, do some fundraising for the school community, have a fun night out and do some astronomy! Amazing on all counts!

The event was a part of a world record attempt run by Dr Brad Tucker and the people at Mt Stromlo for the most people stargazing at one time across different locations.

We smashed it by the way! A total of 7960 participants . 114 of those contributed by me and the wonderful people of my kids’ school community! A small but very important contribution.

This event was one of my highlights from last year and from that success, I’ve been asked to do it again, and I’m really considering it! The was so much happening on the night, we had dinner prepared by the Parent & Citizens to raise some money for the school, We had 2 lectures by our resident Scientist in School about astronomy & planets, we had a couple of episodes of COSMOS by Neil DeGrasse Tyson playing, we had a Starlab (a mobile planetarium) and of course the main event, a world record attempt at stargazing. To complete the night, a few families even stayed back on the school grounds and had a campout! Wonderful! It was a to to pack into a few hours and it was a lot of fun!

Some highlights included:
  • Breaking the world record!
  • The parting of the clouds right when we needed to start our times world record attempt. The sky was very cloudy for the entire night but right 8:30 when the 10 minute viewing window was happening, the clouds parted to reveal the moon and a single star. I couldn’t place the star as there was no other star available to locate it, but it was pretty bright so it might have been Sirius.
  • The talks and the Starlab. Such a hit and a great intro into some really exciting astronomy.
  • Getting a call from an amateur astronomy group the day before asking if he could bring their 16” Dobsonian. My answer was yes, and Wow! It was a huge telescope!
  • Getting to talk to over 200 students and parents for more than 3 hours about. astronomy, planets, stars, galaxies, the big bang etc. I love talking about this stuff, and on this occasion, and to this day, everyone wanted to join in.
  • After the event, I calculated that the viewing area of all the telescopes that we had on the night, was more than double the size of the Hubble Space Telescope
The coolest part of the event though, was when I did the countdown to 8:30, our start time. I counted down from 10 and in between numbers 7 and 6, I thought to myself, "I've just organised for over 200 people to do something science-y that they would normally never do, all at once, ON PURPOSE!" Such a great moment. I could barely contain my excitement! I was like a little kid with a telescope looking up at the moon and the stars for the first time.

Apart from smashing the world record, the stargazing night was a huge win for astronomy communication and science. People will remember this night for a long time, and a few of the students will remember the excitement when they’re about 15 and deciding which subjects they want to do in school. A huge number of students are now more comfortable talking about astronomy and still use their small telescope to look at the stars in their own time. For pure levels of engagement, I don’t think I’ve been a part of, or helped organise a more successful single science communication event. I encourage everyone to host a viewing night for a school, community, group of friends, local amateur astronomy society etc. A viewing night is a great example of astronomy communication at its best. If you need help, I can let you know more about how we did it. When you do run your own event, let me know, I’ll do what I can to join you!

I am officially inviting and challenging everyone to break our world record. It’ll be really tough to do, but I’d love to see you try!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

STEMpunk podcast

I've started to make/produce a podcast as a science communication exercise. The podcast, STEMpunk, (nice name huh??) came out of a meeting with me, Christie Mcmonigal from UTS and Shane Hengst from UNSW.

In Science week 2015, we sat down for a lunch and I asked what can we do together? I basically wanted to firstly, pursue another way to communicate science, and secondly, to communicate science with other science communicators. Essentially, if we can't communicate science with other science communicators, then we might not be doing our jobs very well!

We've interviewed some pretty cool people so far and also have had some interesting discussions, and of course, because of the interesting contacts that we all have with our repsective roles, we'll have some very cool guests coming up soon.

You can contact Christie, Shane and I through the STEMpunk podcast website, on facebook, or Twitter.

Our podcast is on iTunes and PlayerFM (Android)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Candle timing experiment

I was challenged to do some science communication with a candle. I wanted to try a simple citizen science project, so that everyone else can be a part of the experiment too! So I thought of how I can learn something about candles and citizen science, and now you can learn with me!
The aims of this experiment are:

1. To find how accurately we can measure time with drops of wax from a birthday candle. 
2. To try a collaborative citizen science and science communication project using online tools and mobile devices.
The thing I hope to learn, is if it is possible to run an experiment in this way. The thing I hope you learn, is something about candles, something about the scientific process, the fact that you can do a unique science experiment with everyday objects and a phone (seriously, as far as I can tell, no-one has done this before, perhaps there's a reason for that)! I also hope that you engage in the scientific process a little bit.
Once enough data has been collected, the results will be published and advertised here: There is a good amount of data we're collecting here, so hopefully we'll be able to find out something interesting together!
Candles have been used for timers in the past, but they were custom calibrated candles. The historical candle timers were designed to show a rough passage of time.
What are we looking for in this experiment? Certainly not a new timing device, we have extremely accurate timing devices available. We will not discover a new accurate timing device to rival caesium clocks.
What we will do, is participate in an online science experiment. You can do this entire experiment on one device (phone, tablet etc), the measurement, the data entry and analysis! This shows off the simplicity of this experiment, and also the complexity of our mobile devices. We can do an entire science experiment on a phone!
This experiment is for everyone, but has been designed for simplicity as well as with some obvious links to the "Working Scientifically" syllabus requirement in primary and high school science. Please feel free ot send it along to anyone you think might be interested.
If this works, I'll be trying it again for sure!
Contact me if you have any questions or issues with the experiment
Also, feel free to take a picture of your setup and tag me on instagram @kickstartphysics, or twitter @Gordeauz

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Is my observation right?

Recently I ran and organised a couple of science communication events for students, community members and academics. At each of those events I had a telescope for either a cool photo op with a politician during science week, or a solar filter on it for observing the sun for a university open day. It was on for young and old!

There are 2 places you can look in a telescope, this is not the right place!
Hundreds of people walked past my telescope to see what was going on, and while the telescope was unattended, 9 out of 10 people looked down the barrel of the telescope, not in the very obvious eyepiece. At first I was annoyed. "Why don't these people know how to look through a telescope?" But then I got a bit sad. These people do not know how to look through a telescope. They've never directly observed the sun and seen a sunspot. They've never seen the moons craters, they've never interacted with the universe they live in this way.

By the way, I still love that moment when you show someone Saturn through a telescope and they firstly say a big" WOW!" then try to look in the mirror to find the sticker of Saturn I put there!

I don't mind if most people don't know what the suns life cycle is, or how the colour and temperature of stars are linked, or if anyone has seen, heard of or understands the H-R diagram or stellar spectra, that's ok. but I do think we should all know at least, which part of a telescope to look through. Sure it might not be obvious at first. But it should be known.

The H-R Diagram.
It tells us about a stars life cycle
While my telescope was being stored ready for its science week appearance with a politician, it had not moved its orientation, even though I know it had been used for a number of photo opportunities during the week. This indicated to me that people were so afraid of moving it and breaking it, that they didn't. Again, a huge lack in their knowledge of how a telescope works! Further, I have a great photo of a federal politician looking through the telescope in the daytime, indoors, pointing up at the roof, with the lens cap on, and using his closed eye! I would love the opportunity to go to Parliament and give a quick tutorial on how to use a simple amateur telescope.

If I present someone with microscope, I'm pretty sure they're not going to try and look up the lens the wrong way. So why did 9 out of 10 people look through the wrong part of a telescope? The answer is I think simple...No one has shown them. A major part of Science is observations, and if we can't get that right, or we have never been shown how to use simple instruments to help us with these observations, then we really need to try harder at science education.

While I was teacher I would often get the question during a student experiment, "Is my observation right?" A fascinating question! My answer was always, "It's your observation, you observed it, record what you saw." It seems as though our observation skills are very poor, and our understanding of equipment to assist in our observations is also poor.

I'm not blaming people for not knowing, but I am inspired to do more science education because of it. It has renewed my enthusiasm to share my passion for science. If I can be the one that shows as many people as possible how to use a telescope, and to not be afraid of it, and actually excited about it, then that'll make me happy! And if you don't know how to use a telescope, please ask me, I'd love to show you!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

An Australian Space Policy

Australia is a user of space. We consume it. We've done so for a very long time and we are very good at it. There are some people (myself included) that really think Australia should take a few steps beyond this relationship we have with space, the international space industry and space based technologies. We have a lot people working on space in Australia and we are renowned worldwide for our contributions and ingenuity.

This blog post is what I think an Australian space plan should look like. It is taken from the Space Policy I wrote for the Future Party.

This plan has been developed to take the best ideas from the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) National Committee for Space Science (NCSS), who have studied it, and who know how best Australia can be a part of it.
The three main ideas are:
  1. Adopt expert recommendations of the Decadal Space Plan from the National Committee for Space Science.
  2. Create an Australian Space Agency, ASTRA
  3. The Woomera launch facility
1. The Decadal Plan 
The plan's vision is ‘Build Australia a long term, productive presence in Space via world-leading innovative space science and technology, strong education and outreach, and international collaborations’. The plan has 14 recommendations with five key imperatives in mind:
Spooky Dish
The Parkes Radio Telescope
Photo Credit: Tom Gordon
  • Enable Australia to develop a strong space industry, and offset the risks of depending primarily on foreign space capabilities.
  • Position Australians to solve major scientific and technological problems.
  • Actively nurture, coordinate, and manage Australia’s investment in space science.
  • Leverage increased public investment in space science.
  • Provide government, community and business with the information needed to guide investment in space science and technology.
The plan document outlines the importance and current status of space science in Australia, and the specific scientific goals of the Australian space science community the next decade and build on our strengths.
With a very large group of experts in their field of astronomy and space science, and a sizeable group of experts from industry and business. I would like Australia to be a place that is known for not only its innovation with existing space based technologies but also an innovator in the field and a provider of world class facilities and programs.

The decadal plan seeks to establish government, commercial, industry and public collaborations to better develop and strengthen our niche technologies in order to be a contributor to the international space industry. 
There's even a cheeky reference to creating Australia's own space agency (like NASA) in the plan. I'd like to go that extra step and I'll come to that now.

2. ASTRA: Australia’s Space Agency
ASTRA (Australian Space Technology & Research Agency) will serve many purposes including:
Spooky Dish
Australia from Space
Photo Credit: NASA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia
  • Developing a strong, internationally recognised, Australian space capability.
  • Create partnerships of Australian and international government and private stakeholders such as NASACSAESA,JAXA and SpaceX for example.
  • Provide strong economic, educational, government, and strategic benefits to Australia.
  • Provide structure for further research into space and space-based technologies.
Space provides exciting opportunities for humanity to advance itself. Technological development occurring in space research and related fields has already provided us with new technology in the fields of communication, transportation, energy, physics and biology as well as some amazing spin-offs from space-based technologies. Some of these technologies are used regularly by people all over the world.

I think that Australia has the potential to be a hub of space investment and technological development. To do so, however, would require Australia to make serious plans to invest in space research domestically and to attract investment from abroad. Establishing ASTRA will allow us to collaborate with the other major space agencies (and not major ones) around the world and start becoming a part if the conversation and benefit from those membership.

3. Woomera Launch Facility

Australia’s launch facility at Woomera in South Australia will once again become world leading, open to governments and commercial groups wanting to use the facility.
Spooky Dish
Launch Area 6. Woomera, South Australia
Photo Credit: Max Ryan

The conditions are perfect for this redevelopment (images of the phoenix rising out of the ashes are invoked here!) due to recent technological developments in the space industry such as reusable launch vehicles that would benefit greatly from a vast area to land.

The Woomera Launch facility is a largely flat, featureless, quiet electromagnetic and vast terrain of 124 000 km2 the largest landlocked range in the world, approximately the size of England, which allows easier access for test object recovery (an important safety feature for launch activities). Rainfall is rare, and the climate is generally warm and dry. 

The stable conditions virtually assure the ability to conduct year-round operations, with little downtime.
Although Woomera isn’t as close to the equator as some launch sites, (the issue being the further from the equator you are the more speed, or delta-v, you need to get to the right orbit) this is out weighed by the fact that a launch can almost be guaranteed and launch insurance considerations, time and costs will dramatically decrease.

The town of Woomera, meaning spear thrower, is perfect for redevelopment into a support community for the launch facility with heavy influence from Industry, instrumentation, education & research, technologies and services. You have heard of charter cities, well Woomera would be a perfect candidate for that!


Australia is currently a user of space and space based technologies. We have good relationships with countries that have big and exciting space plans and projects and we let them spend their money on those things. However, I think believe our chance and indeed our duty to become a formal member of that group has arrived. We too must spend our money, and of course reap the benefits of that investment into the future!

Technologies are moving so fast, and although we contribute to the efforts and have some world class researchers and industries here, there is a chance to gain some national benefits from actively contributing and supporting the international space industry with our resources, expertise, facilities and ingenuity.

With such an impressive number and quality of experts in their fields and in the space industry, it is imperative that we listen to them and trust their evidence backed advice and recommendations. This, together with some future thinking and planning, Australia’s place in the space industry will be worthwhile and beneficial.