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The €1.22bn European X-ray Free Electron Laser (E-XFEL) in Hamburg, Germany, has been inaugurated at a ceremony held last month at the lab. The opening was attended by several officials including Germany’s research minister Johanna Wanka and the mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz.
The 3.4 km-long E-XFEL uses a superconducting linear accelerator to accelerate electrons before passing them through an “undulator” where they produce coherent X-ray beams 27,000 times per second and with a luminance a billion times higher than that of the best conventional X-ray sources. Each pulse will last less than 100 fs (10–13 s), allowing researchers to create “movies” of chemical reactions and decipher the molecular composition of viruses and cells.
Experiments began last month on two instruments. The Femtosecond X-Ray Experiments will enable the study of fast reactions and can record molecular movies, while the Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules and Serial Femtosecond Crystallography will investigate the structure and transformation of biomolecules and other biological particles such as viruses and cell components. This experimental run will end in November, with the next user programme set for early 2018.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Wanka noted that the establishment of the European XFEL has created a unique cutting-edge research facility, which promises groundbreaking insights into the nanocosmos. Meanwhile, European XFEL managing director Robert Feidenhans’l said that the facility would “open the door to new areas of science”.
The E-XFEL has 11 international partners: Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The UK is currently in the process of joining.
Phases of Matter
Colm P Kelleher, Rodrigo E Guerra, Andrew D Hollingsworth and Paul M Chaikin
2017 Green Frog Publishing 62pp £10.99pb
Visions of Numberland: a Colouring Journey Through the Mysteries of Maths
Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss
2017 Bloomsbury Publishing 144pp £9.99pb
Tushna Commissariat is reviews and careers editor of Physics World
Tushna Commissariat reviews Visions of Numberland: a Colouring Journey Through the Mysteries of Maths by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss and Phases of Matter by Colm P Kelleher, Rodrigo E Guerra, Andrew D Hollingsworth and Paul M Chaikin
Walk into a bookshop today, or even a gift shop, and you will most likely come across an entire section of colouring books for adults. This rather unexpected global trend has flourished over the past five years or so, with such books topping Amazon’s list of bestsellers in 2015. And if you thought that adult colouring books were a passing fad, as I did when they first started popping up everywhere, then you would be wrong – the market is booming.
The idea behind these books was for adults to have an easy and relaxing activity – whether it’s some form of childhood nostalgia, or a way of switching off and doing something completely different from what most of us do at work. Now, you can find colouring books for grown-ups that feature everything from abstract patterns and detailed nature scenes to books based on films, television shows and even celebrity figures.
It’s no surprise then, that there are quite a few colouring books that are distinctly science-themed. Visions of Numberland: a Colouring Journey Through the Mysteries of Maths by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss is one such book that landed on my desk. Its brightly coloured cover is immediately eye-catching and a quick flick through it will reveal a dazzling array of shapes, patterns and illustrations, all waiting to be filled in. The book boasts a total of 60 patterns you can colour in, as well as a “create” section at the end of the book that helps you build your own patterns.
Bellos, who regularly writes about mathematics for the Guardian, is also the author of Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (2010) and Alex Through the Looking-Glass (see September 2014 pp45–46). As for Harriss, he is also a mathematician, teaching at the University of Arkansas, US, but he also specializes in illustrating and creating mathematical art. Between the two of them, Bellos and Harriss have released four colouring books including this latest one, all of which have a mathematical twist.
The illustrations in Visions of Numberland span concepts in algebra, geometry, topology and even computer algorithms. You will come across everything from the familiar Pythagoras theorem to the “hairy ball theorem”. Some of the concepts discussed are well known and understood, while others, such as the Collatz conjecture, are famous “unsolved problems”, making it an interesting mix of things old and new. The square-format book has large illustrations and simple explanations.
But let’s not forget that this is primarily a colouring book, and if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then the proof of Visions of Numberland is in the filling (in). I do own a few other grown-up colouring books (mostly presents), and while I liked the idea of them initially, I had never actually taken the time to sit down and colour. For the sake of this review, I did have a go at some of the illustrations in the book. The first one I coloured in was the seaweed-like illustration of the aforementioned Collatz conjecture, which describes a mathematical number sequence. I did enjoy pencilling in the tendril-like branches and I was pleased with the final blue and purple hues of my completed picture, which you can see above, but I did find myself getting a bit frustrated with carefully filling in the many small sections.
Despite my impatience, I realized by the time I finished that I was focused solely on the colouring – so maybe it does work as a de-stressing activity? My colleague and Physics World features editor Sarah Tesh, who is more artistically inclined, also coloured in one of the images – she picked the “Hopf fibration”, which is (rather confusingly) a 2D image of a 3D structure built to visualize the surfaces of a 4D sphere – and found the activity rather relaxing. Although I did enjoy the colouring activity and the beautiful pictures that feature in Visions of Numberland, what I ultimately liked best about the book was the actual mathematics discussed. More than half of the concepts and conjectures in the book were new to me and I found them fascinating enough to look them up in an effort to learn more about them. This book is therefore less relaxing colouring book and more mathematical popularization in the best way possible.
Another colouring book for adults, released last month, is Phases of Matter, written and created by condensed-matter physicists Colm P Kelleher, Rodrigo E Guerra, Andrew D Hollingsworth and Paul M Chaikin. According to the authors, the book’s aim is to “explore the beautiful patterns create by microscopic particles in the experiments and computer simulations we conduct in our labs at New York University”. At first glance, I thought this book was a fascinating experiment in popularizing an area of physics that doesn’t often hit the headlines, and I am sure that is what the authors intended. Unfortunately, I do not think they were very successful.
While I enjoyed some of the initial write-up on how the researchers image colloidal particles in the lab, how the particles arrange themselves in a lattice, and how changes in phase occur, I do not think it works as an actual colouring book at all. All of the “images” are full pages covered in minuscule triangles or hexagons with little to no variation. While it is clear to see that each image is tessellated in different ways (to show changes in phase) the patterns look mostly the same. While this does show the reader how a solid and a liquid do not differ that much on a microscopic scale, it makes for an extremely tedious colouring book and I could not bring myself to even try fill in the endless tiny shapes. Indeed, the patterns are so repetitive that you could use this as a distraction akin to doodling while you work, rather than a fun activity. Also, some of the initial microscope images are blurry and out of focus – especially frustrating for pictures that mainly consist of a grid of black dots.
Phases of Matter, while a good idea, was unfortunately badly executed – the book could have really used a professional artist or designer who would have taken the basic ideas and shapes suggested by the researchers and made the patterns more compelling.
Andrew Glester is a science communicator based in Bristol, UK. He is the regular host of the Physics World podcast, as well as the Cosmic Shed podcast and co-ordinator of the Space Universities Network
Andrew Glester visits this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and seeks out science-themed shows
“Free musical comedy”, “New play about sharks”, “Science comedy”. The tenth flyer thrust into my hand as I wind my way along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile boldly tells me that Mars Actually has won an “Origins Award for Outstanding New Work”. It’s also the first flyer at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the world’s largest arts festival, which has been running for the past 70 years – that catches my attention.
Mars Actually is the new play from Maria Askew, Frode Gjerløw and Simon Maeder. The trio, collectively known as Superbolt Theatre, make plays with a homespun aesthetic, which are underpinned by their ability to create theatre that explores the human condition. At the Fringe, they alternate nightly between Mars Actually and another original play – Jurassic Parks. A love for the best of science fiction pervades both works – Jurassic Parks is a beautiful play centred around a family gathering to watch the Stephen Spielberg classic…at a memorial service. It’s an homage to the film and explores the intricacies of family relations with a nod to chaos theory.
As for Mars Actually, it has more in common with the book and film The Martian than it does the Richard Curtis movie Love Actually. As I wander into the theatre, I notice the actors, already in character, greeting and chatting with the audience as they file in and so we are immediately dropped into their world. The play follows three characters, new to planet Earth, who are excited to tell us what they’ve learned since arriving from their Mars colony, where they have spent all their lives until this point. It’s a theatrical ploy common to science fiction, enabling us to cast fresh eyes on humanity.
Today’s political landscape is fertile ground for comedians and theatre makers. In Mars Actually, the megalomaniac founder of the Mars colony stridently barks “make Mars great” and “you’re fired” at a series of characters making helpful suggestions. It could have been trite but in these hands, it’s a humorous and wonderfully delivered sequence. It’s a rare moment of unambiguous theatre in the play. In any case, the target of that particular scene prefers things less nuanced.
Colonization is presented in the play as a patriarchal pursuit to conquer something, just because it is there. As someone fascinated by the Moon landings and today’s plans for Mars, I found myself looking at things from a different, difficult angle. Do our plans for the colonization of other worlds parallel the way we treat each other? Good comedy theatre of this sort, like classic science fiction, is not only entertaining, but also poses important questions and makes you think.
Superbolt’s skilful combination of physical theatre and comedy is evident throughout both plays. The way they transform from small children to old men to velociraptors, using nothing but their own bodies, is spellbinding and hilarious. They are equally adept at transforming props. For those of us who love rocket science, the three-stage separation of a clarinet is surely one of the most joyous moments of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
I also caught award-winning comedian and actor Samantha Baines’ Fringe offering 1 Woman, a High-Flyer and a Flat Bottom. Her love for science permeates the show, which explores some of the “lost women of science”. On stage, the story goes that Baines saw physicist-turned-presenter Brian Cox on TV and designed her 2016 show to impress him. Off stage, she tells me that her inspiration came more from her role as a dying physics teacher in a play. That, combined with the BBC TV show Wonders of the Universe, ignited a fascination for space science. Researching for those shows, Baines read about a host of women whose role in space science has been less prominent or less publicly celebrated than their male colleagues. 1 Woman, a High-Flyer and a Flat Bottom brings three of those women’s stories to sold out audiences at this year’s Fringe.
Conspiratorial, self-deprecating delivery endears her to the viewer, and it becomes almost inescapable to join in her wide-eyed wonder at the universe, our place within it and the scientists who explore it. Periodically, Baines dons a scarf and heads to “poetry corner” where she reads self-penned witty poems, which also serve to punctuate the show. Baines’ father recently died, and moments in the show when she talks about him and reflects upon her loss add a balance and poignancy to the piece.
The three scientists Baines chose were Margaret E Knight, an inventor; Lilian Bland, an inventive aviator; and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Ride is the most well-known of the trio, but Baines’ audiences are not predominantly science curious. Even those who know Ride’s story well will probably find out something new about her in the show. Baines tells me she hopes to ignite an interest and if someone goes away and reads a book on the topic thanks to her show, then she’d be delighted.
If Superbolt’s aim is to make you think and Baines wants to entertain you, then Matthew Partridge wants you to learn something. Fibre Optic Sensors Can Save the World! is his show, which aims to bring his research in engineering photonics to the public. The show is educational, packed full of fascinating insight into the invention and uses of fibre optics. Partridge’s knowledge on the subject is exceptional, demonstrated by the show’s format. He tells the history of fibre optics, stopping often to ask the audience to challenge him with real-world problems that he must solve using the technology.
Everything from dentistry to getting to work on time is thrown at Partridge, who is a researcher at Cranfield University, and he expertly fields the questions, thinking on the spot to provide inventive solutions that serve to impress and inform the audience. I came away with a far deeper appreciation of what fibre optics can do for our lives today. The only problem is that just 11 other people saw the show. Partridge tells me that the average Fringe audience is four people, which is not entirely surprising as competition for a crowd is fierce at Fringe. But if comedy shows and theatre are to serve the role of communicating science to the public, then there needs to be more than a dozen audience members.
Superbolt and Baines played to sold out audiences of around 100 viewers day after day throughout August. Pinning down why so few turned up to Fibre Optics Can Save the World! is difficult. Fibre optics is far more interesting than people may know and Partridge is an engaging and impressive presenter. My concern is that they need to see him do the show before they know how interesting it will be. Among the sea of posters and adverts for shows in Edinburgh, it can be hard for the science to stand out.