What’s in our browser tabs? August 2019

Welcome to our new monthly link round-up! As editors of physics journals, we love reading the latest research papers, but we also love a bit of lunch-break popular science reading. Here are some pieces that caught our eyes in August:

  • Ready, set, bake — Physics World. Rahul Mandal, 2018 Great British Bake Off winner — and metrologist  — writes about the science of baking. (PS: if you like cake, check out Rahul’s instagram)
  • Nathalie Walchover’s account in Quanta magazine of the latest developments in the Hubble constant saga. This summer the tension between different measurements of H0 got more dramatic with new papers coming out and a dedicated meeting at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics.
  • There are some stunning images in the shortlist for the RPS 2019 science photographer of the year award.
  • How Ancillary Technology Shapes What We Do In Physics.Why is the definition of the second based on cesium atoms? Why do MRI scanners use such large magnets? Partly because of physics, but largely because of technology and history, as Chad Orzel explains.
  • We can’t believe we only just discovered this gem from 2017: Twelve LaTeX packages to get your paper accepted by Andreas Zeller. Examples include “The significance package.  Alters your experiment settings until results become statistically significant, repurposing LaTeX’s built-in formatting algorithm for advanced p-hacking.  Use as \usepackage[p=0.05]{significance}.” and “The award package.  Makes your paper win an award, as in \usepackage[bestpaper]{award}.”
  • The physics professor who says online extremists act like curdled milk. Over at The Guardian, Julia Carrie Wong talks to Neil Johnson about his work analyzing online extremism and hate in terms of gelation.

Interactions: Ed Simpson and the 3d nuclide chart

An example visualization from the 3D Nuclide Chart

The nuclide chart is a staple of nuclear physics, visualizing the properties of nuclides arranged by their number of protons and neutrons. The chart appears in text books, talk slides and Lego form (in the Binding Blocks science outreach programme). The 3D Nuclide Chart is a web app put together by Ed Simpson (@SuperSubatomic on Twitter) of the Australian National University. The app lets users plot the nuclear data of their choosing (taken from published data tables), play around with the 3D viewpoint (or work in 2D), set colour schemes and fonts, and then export the visualization as a png file or export the relevant data. The results are rather pretty, and the app is easy to use.

We asked Ed a few questions about the chart.

For our non-nuclear-physicist readers, what does the nuclide chart show?

The nuclide chart is like a nuclear physicists’ periodic table, and is a basic tool of the nuclear science community. Instead of visualising the elements, it plots the properties of nuclides. A nuclide is a specific type of nucleus, defined by its number of protons (Z) and neutrons (N). Plotting nuclides as a function of Z and N gives insights into basic nuclear properties such as radioactive decay and half-lives. It also allows us to spot patterns in nuclear structure, such as the “magic numbers” of protons and neutrons, which greatly add to the stability of nuclides.

Can you let us know a little about the history of nuclide charts?

The earliest nuclide charts date back to the mid 1930s. The evolution of the chart after that is somewhat hidden in the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, where much of the development took place. Declassified Los Alamos reports do tell us, however, that it had reached a recognisably modern form by 1945. The 2D visualisations of the nuclide chart have changed very little since then, though we’ve discovered many more nuclides: from 540 in 1946, to more than 3200 today!

What made you decide to make a new visualization tool for the nuclide chart?

Ed Simpson in an accelerator control room

Nuclear physicists often use nuclide charts in publications, talks and outreach materials. The existing online tools were more focused on data than visualisation, and I developed the 3D Nuclide Chart with the primary aim of producing high quality images for reuse elsewhere. The chart has fine-grained control over the appearance – everything from the colour palette to fonts can be changed. Being 3D, it’s perfect for use in outreach and teaching, and being online, all that’s required is a recent web browser.

What are your plans for future developments of the visualization?

The main thing I’d like to add is loading of data from users (e.g., a set of calculations of nuclear masses). Plotting data as a function of time would also be really cool for visualising the abundances of nuclides during astrophysical events like the r-process, which is responsible for creating half the heavy elements we see around us today. I’m always open to suggestions, and many of the developments have come following feedback from users.

 

What it’s like to be a Reviews editor

Have you ever wondered what reviews editors do? Chasing authors to submit and making edits to the text of the reviews? That is just a small part of it.

In this editorial we outlined the story of a Review from commissioning to publication. As editors, we spend a lot of time searching for ideas for potential reviews. We travel to conferences and visit labs to find out what the community is interested in and whet types of reviews are missing. Then we work closely with authors to develop the idea of the review, and then polish the text before publication to make it accessible and self-contained so that physicists from other fields can follow, make use of — and enjoy — the article.

Some of the crew on an ice skating trip last winter

Being an editor is a busy and stimulating job. Producing monthly issues means regular deadlines and a lot of planning ahead. We coordinate and liaise with authors, referees, art and production editors to make sure that the content is published regularly as the readers expect. The job is also very sociable. We are part of the journal teams and the wider physical sciences reviews journal teams and even wider reviews team. We also interact a lot with our colleagues at Nature, Nature Communications and the Nature research journals. All editors have academic backgrounds and we all share the love of science and common experiences from our PhD and postdoc years.

Here are some comments from editors of Nature Reviews journals in the physical sciences:

Iulia Georgescu, Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Physics: I think the role of reviews editors is not well understood. We are not gate-keepers, but guides walking together with the authors all the way from idea to publication. We often think of manuscripts as ‘our babies’ because we are as invested as the authors who wrote them. It is a wonderful thing to see a Review evolve from a vague idea, to a well-structured outline and then a full manuscript. We feel great satisfaction when we see the reviews we worked on published and take pride when they are well-received by the community. I often think: look at my baby and how well it’s doing.

The editor’s natural habitat

Giulia Pacchioni, Senior Editor at Nature Reviews Materials: Being a Reviews editor is a lot of fun — I like keeping an eye on how ideas evolve from initial results presented at a conference to a flurry of publications as the topic becomes more established, and deciding when is the perfect moment to commission a Review. I am lucky to have the opportunity to travel to plenty of conferences and lab visits to keep in touch with the community, and to spend a lot of time reading and thinking about science.

Claire Ashworth, who works for our inter-journal team providing support to Nature Reviews Physics, Nature Reviews Materials and Nature Reviews Chemistry: I enjoy seeing an idea develop into a published Review and working with authors at each stage of the publication process to achieve this. I think that Reviews editors are quite unique in terms of the amount of time that we invest into each article and the extent to which we use both our scientific knowledge and editorial experience to help to ‘shape’ an article.

Stephen Davey, Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Chemistry: The Reviews editor role is rather different to that of a primary research journal editor – and not just because I spend my time chasing authors rather than being chased by them. I get to put a lot into every manuscript that I handle. And I do it all while travelling the world, meeting interesting people and slaking my thirst for knowledge.

Zoe Budrikis, Associate Editor at Nature Reviews Physics: Every day — every hour, sometimes! — in this job is different. I can go from looking for commissioning ideas in soft matter physics, to line-editing a review on the physics of climate modelling, to discussing with editors in other journals about what the latest trends in complexity research are.

Interactions: Daniel Hook

Daniel Hook  is CEO at Digital Science and in his free time continues to work in theoretical physics.

What did you train in? What are you doing now?

I spent 11 years studying physics and theoretical physics at Imperial College London.  Originally, I joined the Physics with Theoretical Physics BSc program in 1996, I carried on to do a 1-year MSc in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces in 2000.  I then studied part time for a PhD in Quantum Statistical Mechanics with Dorje Brody finishing in July 2007, submitting just before the RAE deadline. I’m now CEO of Digital Science, a technology company that aims to improve the research ecosystem by providing better tools for researchers, administrators, librarians, funders, publishers and corporates.  While the leap from theoretical physics research to trying to improve how research is done is an improbable one, I will attempt to explain (below) how that happened.

How do you introduce yourself (I am a physicist/entrepreneur/…)

I always claim that Theoretical Physics is not a job that you do but rather it is the person that you are.  As such, it’s difficult to answer this question since I’ve always felt I’m both physicist and entrepreneur – I certainly bring a lot of aspects of theoretical-physics thinking to how I approach business.  Introducing myself as CEO, entrepreneur or academic all seem to be disingenuous to one or other of the communities of which I consider myself to be a part, so I usually introduce myself as “someone who helps software start-ups to support researchers”.

How did you your career progress from a PhD in theoretical physics to leading Digital Science?

That’s a long story, but an abbreviated version goes something like this. Carrying on in theoretical physics after a PhD usually means 5-10 years of postdocs in several geographic locations; the often-taken alternative being working for a bank as a quantitative analyst.  Neither alternative seemed to be very attractive to me, or to my office mates at the time, so we founded a software company called Symplectic together. We liked academia, but had noticed that the software that academics had wasn’t too good, so we started working with a variety of parts of Imperial College to develop better software to support academics.  In particular, the Faculty of Medicine was very collaborative and together we developed a piece of software that would later become Symplectic Elements, our research information management platform. By 2009, we had started to sell Elements outside Imperial College and had been noticed by Nature Publishing Group, who were already planning to launch Digital Science at the time.  Symplectic became one of Digital Science’s first investments in 2010.

By 2013, I was spending about equal parts of my time working on Symplectic and helping to establish the Research Metrics group at Digital Science, which wasn’t really fair to either company.  As a result, in the middle of the year, I moved to become Director of Research Metrics at Digital Science and Symplectic promoted Jonathan Breeze to become the new CEO of the company. Two years’ later, Digital Science’s founding Managing Director, Timo Hannay, decided to launch his own start-up SchoolDash and I was asked to lead Digital Science as his successor.

How did you co-found Symplectic? Do you have any advice for young scientists who would follow your career path?

Co-founding Symplectic, as I’ve mentioned, was in part a decision based on the idea that the four of us who co-founded the company didn’t want to leave academia, but also didn’t see a route to do theoretical physics in a way that worked for us. We also wanted to give back to an environment that we loved and where, through our PhD studies, we had seen lots of things that could have been done better with a good software solution.  Luckily, in a lot of theoretical physics research, you usually need to learn some level of coding. In those early years between 2002 and 2008, the four of us wrote about 12 pieces of software from a web content management system to an examination management system. It was a great way to learn the tools of our trade and to learn how to run a company.

I would not recommend following my career path to anyone – it was very much a personal choice and one that, by luck, has turned out to suit me.  That said, undergraduates and PhD students are often taught a definition of success that is very narrowly defined – specifically in the academic context.  What I have learned from my non-standard path is that success can be many things and that ultimately it is about finding a way to make a difference in a way that is personal to you.

Why are you still involved in active research?

As I said earlier, I don’t believe that theoretical physics is just something that you do.  I really love doing research and I’m very lucky in that the type of research problem that interests me is the type of problem for which I only really need a pen, some paper and perhaps a computer.  At the same time, I happen to think that if you’re going to write tools for researchers you can only do that well if you understand what challenges researchers actually face on a day-to-day basis. As such, I think it’s important that I continue to do research to be constantly reminded of what the challenges are and what doesn’t work as well as it could.

I should also say that I’m very fortunate to work with some really great collaborators who put up with my very busy travel schedule and who continue to work with me after all these years.

What is your vision for the future of science communication?

This is a really complicated question.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem and I’ve given a few talks on it in the past couple of years. You can find one of them here.  If you can’t sit through the whole 55 minutes of the video, then I can try to summarize my position as follows.  I think that:

  • Communication must become more open and more collaborative – I think that material will be shared earlier in the research process with a greater range of people and that there will be credit and incentives that help this to become a reality;
  • The mechanisms that capture the research outputs of experiments or other data gathering activities will become smarter, more nuanced and more complete in the contextual data that they capture – current equipment and approaches are far too narrow and focused, and don’t capture nearly enough context around the experiment;
  • Communication will become more iterative – we can already see this starting to happen in that researchers now release datasets independently of a publication; there are often versions to the dataset as more data are collected and added to the public release; preprints are also changing our relationship with versions of record and the concept of priority in research.
  • We will move away from the scholarly article.

Ultimately, what makes the scholarly article and the monograph the two preferred forms of communication are three key factors:  Firstly, the fact that they are published on a specific date. This allows them to, secondly, have a physical form, which happens to be fundamentally the same as one that we learn to interact with from a young age. Thirdly, that physical form encapsulates an elegant structure of information that quickly gives us contextual information about what we’re reading.

In short, we are conditioned to hold something in our hands that feels like a book. With research literature that is only possible because a particular version is published on a particular day.  As Geoffrey Builder has observed, by just looking at the front page of a paper, any researcher can identify where the authors, affiliations, title, abstract, main text, journal name, page number, date and DOI are located in the layout without seeing even a single word.  Indeed, in many cases researchers can identify the name of the journal from layout alone.

However, the past few years have seen the nature of research results in many fields change completely.  An increasing number of researchers now have vast amounts of data that they need to share in order for their research to be reproducible; they have developed software; their data needs to be consumed as a video or audio file or using a specific viewer in order to interpret it.  On top of this, many researchers are beginning to see significant value in sharing negative results to increase the efficiency of the research system. None of these aspects can easily be fitted into the standard, flat, paper-based article or monograph.

As a result, I see the principal research outputs becoming the research objects rather than the papers.  I see a deep need to change research evaluation and incentives to take this shift into account. I see research communication becoming more like computer software in the sense that it should be highly versioned, highly collaborative and quite open.  I believe that “co-authorship” of research objects will be fluid and changing in time. I think that research reviews may be created by AIs at our request – relating research objects that interest us and pulling together the thinking of multiple researchers to meet our current need for information.

Even if my predictions are not accurate, it seems clear that there are many opportunities to rethink how publication works and that there are a number of transitions that are likely to take place in the next few years.

The matter that apparently doesn’t matter

Guest post by David Schilter, Senior Editor Nature Reviews Chemistry

Artist’s impression of the expected dark matter distribution around the Milky Way

ESO/L. Calçada [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]

We interact with ordinary matter all the time. It is the bed in which you wake up in the morning and the food that you eat for breakfast. It is the people we love and the pets we often love even more. It is us. Being fairly prominent stuff, ordinary matter is often referred to as ‘the matter that matters’ and without doubt deserves our attention. But we should not forget that it only makes up 5% of our Universe, the remainder of which is dark matter. Indeed, dark matter crosses paths with all of us but unless you’re a physicist it is unlikely to have crossed your mind. This prompted The Science Gallery London to present Dark Matter (free admission, June 6 – August 26), an exhibition that finally brings this ubiquitous yet elusive subject to the masses. “95% of the Universe is missing”, the Gallery asserts, so they commissioned collaborative works from teams of artists and scientists to show us what and where this mass–energy really is.

For laypersons, the thought of dark matter is more likely to cue spooky music than to evoke thoughts about baryons (or the lack thereof). Dark Matter depicts the eponymous concept in an approachable way by using everything from music and mirrors to maps and movies. To be sure, the exhibition is not only a feast for the mind but also for the senses, which is ironic because none of our five senses can detect dark matter (perhaps we really do need that sixth sense…). Although we can’t see dark matter, perhaps, like false-colour imaging, we can guess how it would look like if we could see it. Similarly, we can’t hear, touch, taste or smell dark matter, but what if we could?

The mystery associated with dark matter is not limited to laypersons. Among physicists, the subject remains controversial because much of our knowledge comes only from indirect observations that implicate the existence of matter beyond the ordinary. For example, the velocities, X-ray spectra and gravitational lensing from galactic bodies are explicable in terms of an ‘invisible’ mass. Our poor understanding of the spacetime-bending dark matter concept isn’t for lack of trying, and this exhibition highlights the sophisticated experiments carried out by great consortia seeking to fill our knowledge gap. The scale of these mammoth efforts is conveyed to us in HIGGS, In Search of the Anti-Motti, a video in which artist Gianni Motti does his best proton impersonation and circumnavigates the Large Hadron Collider. Walking 27 km in less than 6 hours isn’t bad, although a proton does do it a hundred millions times faster. Efforts to spectroscopically detect dark matter have been likened to tuning a radio in search of a station that might not even exist. In Dark Matter Radio, an installation with a circular array of audio speakers playing sounds at different frequencies, and as we walk around we experience strange interferences and beats that Aura Satz uses to depict this tuning.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain dark matter is in terms of something invisible, this being despite most visitors to Dark Matter knowing full well that there’s plenty of ordinary matter we can’t see either. Nevertheless, artists Carey Young, Nina Canell and Robin Watkins present us apparently empty vessels that, statistically speaking, contain a lot of dark matter (not being under vacuum, they also contain plenty of normal matter, but that’s not the point). Much like our knowledge of Earth’s geography evolved into what it is today (The Maps of Phantom Islands by Agnieszka Kurant is a must-see), our knowledge of dark matter will surely develop commensurate with our technologies. The artist Satz is frank in her admission that these developments are unlikely to come from a fertilization of breakthroughs in these artist–scientist collaborations. But if the only breakthrough these collaborations achieve is to take the most esoteric topic and pique the attention of the general public then that will be breakthrough enough.

There was nothing sane about Chernobyl

Guest post by Christine Horejs, Senior Editor Nature Reviews Materials

The new British-American miniseries ‘Chernobyl’, aired on HBO and Sky in May and June 2019, takes you on a dark ride through the insanity that accompanied the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Five haunting episodes depict the night and aftermath of the explosion of reactor 4, using the style of disaster films to vividly show how the combination of bad nuclear reactor design, irresponsible scientists, a totalitarian system and human error led to one of the biggest nuclear disasters, with devastating consequences within and outside the Iron Curtain.  

In Eastern Austria, where I grew up, the weather was rather bad in the last days of April 1986. We children did not know at that time that the rain that fell on our sandbox in the garden carried radioactive waste.

On 26th April 1986, reactor 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine had exploded. Once the news of the catastrophic nuclear accident spread across the Iron Curtain – on 28th April – we lost our sandbox for good, were fed iodine tablets by our parents and stopped drinking milk and eating berries or mushrooms. Many of the children growing up in Eastern Austria in the 1980s had thyroid problems later in their lives. I had to get my thyroid removed a few years ago – whether this is related to Iodine 131 released in Chernobyl and absorbed by my thyroid remains unclear. Indeed, many facts about Chernobyl have long remained in the dark, as neither the Americans (or Europeans) nor the Russians had an interest in telling the truth about nuclear disasters and the consequences of radiation for human health.

Three important books1,2,3, published over the last year, and a new HBO TV drama, now dissect every minute and (known) consequence of the Chernobyl accident. Being slightly obsessed with this topic, I read them all and I certainly could not wait to watch the HBO series. And, yes, ‘Chernobyl’ drags you right into the agonizing hours after the disaster and creates this feeling of horrifying fascination that often accompanies apocalyptic movies – but this time it is real (most of it)!

Many people are familiar with the ever reoccurring stories about Chernobyl – the spreading wildlife in the exclusion zone, the awkward selfies taken in front of deserted Pripyat or the liquidators as heroes of the Soviet Union. But this series is definitely something else. It not only shows how an RBMK reactor (like the one in Chernobyl) works or does not work and how high doses of radiation literally dissolve the human body, but also how totalitarianism and secrecy provided the basis for what happened at Chernobyl. In particular, the complete refusal of the scientists and politicians in charge to acknowledge the fact that the graphite core of reactor 4 had exploded and that high doses of radiation had been released, despite overwhelming evidence. Highly radioactive graphite pieces from the reactor core lying on the ground outside the reactor and nuclear engineers disbelievingly staring into the remains of the reactor core from the roof while their skins turn red. And yet, Nikolai Fomin, the chief engineer who approved the safety test that ultimately caused the explosion, constantly repeats that the “the core of an RBMK reactor cannot explode,” – like a prayer. Meanwhile, invisible radioactive particles fall on the town and people of Pripyat (the Atomgrad —atomic city – located 2km from the power plant) and accumulate high up in the clouds to make their way across Europe. It is this invisibility that creates the true horror of ‘Chernobyl’. You, the viewer, know, but the children playing in the radioactive dust and their parents gathering on a railway bridge in Pripyat to check out the burning reactor don’t. In the credits at the end of the series, we learn that none of the people on the railway bridge in Pripyat survived.

In ‘Chernobyl’, we experience the actual explosion from the window of the wife of the firefighter Vasily Ignatenko. At 01:23 on 26th April 1986, a bright light appears in the distance, followed by a massive thud leaving behind a bright blue flash in the night sky above the Chernobyl power plant (caused by radiation ionizing air). The few nuclear engineers present in the control room of the power plant anxiously look at each other. “What just happened,” asks Anatoly Dyatlov, deputy chief-engineer of the power plant and supervisor of the fatal safety test. The scene perfectly captures the essence of what went wrong during and after the Chernobyl disaster. The nuclear engineers remain paralysed after the accident, not comprehending its magnitude or cause. Similarly, the director of Chernobyl, Viktor Bryukhanov, who is brought in after the accident, wastes crucial time by convincing local politicians that the accident is under control and that he cannot be held responsible for any damage. Outside, one of the firefighters, who were called to Chernobyl right after the explosion, grabs a piece of the graphite core. What happens to his hand in an instant after he touched the piece of graphite is the stuff of zombie movies.

‘Chernobyl’ is mesmerizing owing to the sheer drama of actual facts. For example, biorobots (that is, human beings) have to clean up the roof of reactor 3 to make room for the concrete wall, which will become famous as the sarcophagus shielding the world from reactor 4. Even a rover designed to work on the moon failed in this radioactive environment. Each liquidator has only 90 seconds to shovel graphite pieces back into the open core of reactor 4. The graphite is so radioactive that exposure for longer would be fatal. Ninety seconds never felt so long.

Liquidators (biorobots).

IAEA Imagebank [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

The reality of ‘Chernobyl’ could have maybe been even more emphasized by using Russian-speaking actors, as, sometimes, hearing a Russian nuclear engineer speaking English with a British accent seems slightly inappropriate for a historical drama set in Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s.

And then there is the very last episode – the trial. Valery Alekseyevich Legasov, a chemist, who, together with Boris Yevdokimovich Shcherbina, vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers, investigated the Chernobyl disaster, explains what went wrong during the safety test. Legasov theatrically illustrates the combination of errors that caused the explosion of reactor 4 using red and blue panels on a wooden board, to depict the factors that can speed up or slow down the nuclear reaction. He also explains two crucial design flaws of RBMK reactors: the dangerously high ‘positive void coefficient’ and the graphite tips of the control rods, which together make this reactor type inherently difficult to control. Cooling water absorbs neutrons, but once steam is generated, a bubble is created that does not absorb neutrons. This bubble void leads to a reduction in moderation, that is, neutrons are not slowed down, which can cause a runaway condition. RBMK reactors have the highest positive void coefficient of any commercial reactor ever designed. In addition, the ultimate stop button (AZ-5), which should theoretically shut down a reactor as all control rods are inserted at once, can – for a short time – increase the reactor power output, as in RBMK reactors, the rods initially displace coolant with their graphite tips before the neutron-absorbing boron is inserted. Thus, when the nuclear engineers in the control room of reactor 4 pressed the AZ-5 button to shut down a reactor out of control, they ultimately caused the explosion. If only the engineers operating the nuclear power plant would have known about this fatal flaw of the AZ-5 button – but they didn’t as this would have compromised the reputation of Soviet nuclear physics. These construction errors in combination with all the errors previously made during the safety test led to the nightmare that followed.

The episode perfectly rounds up the story, showing what actually happened in the control room before and after the accident (which is well in line with what has been reported in recent books1,2). But in reality, Legasov was not present at the Chernobyl show trial, and even if he had been there, I doubt that he would have openly criticised Soviet science. At an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in August 1986 Vienna, he had reported that it was only human error that caused the explosion. One wonders why there is the need to introduce fiction in a story that certainly does not lack dramatic historical figures and facts. Especially, because this might open up the room for criticism – as it already happened in the Russian media. Despite these flaws, ‘Chernobyl’ is definitely worth watching and forces you to comprehend the destructive combination of nuclear power going out of control and an authoritarian system – not only for Chernobyl-obsessed people like me, but for all present and future children of the nuclear age.

1 Serhii Plokhy. Chernobyl, the history of a nuclear catastrophe. 2018

2 Adam Higginbotham. Midnight in Chernobyl. 2019

3 Kate Brown. Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. 2019

Watch the Chernobyl miniseries here.

Nuclear fusion: Creating artificial stars

Too little does the public hear about nuclear fusion — a process in which two light nuclei collide at high speed and fuse into a heavier nucleus — which is surprising considering the need for alternative energy sources and fusion’s promise to deliver limitless clean and safe energy. If the word fusion brings anything to the mind of the wider public, this is likely related to ITER, a research reactor under construction in France that has repeatedly made the news by over blowing its budget and being substantially behind schedule. Is this all there is to know about fusion? By all means, no. “Let there be light – the 100 years journey to fusion” brings the audience on a fascinating journey across time and ideas into the complex landscape of past and present fusion research.

The documentary, directed by Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Ryoko, was released in March 2017, and explores the world of fusion mainly through the eyes of four of its protagonists, each bringing a different point of view.

Credit: Heath Cairns

Mark Henderson works at ITER, a reactor based on a tokamak design, in which a powerful magnetic field confines the plasma in a toroidal shape. ITER is poised to become the biggest fusion reactor in the world, and its goal is to demonstrate that fusion at the power-plant scale is feasible. At ITER, Henderson is in charge of the systems heating the plasma.

Eric Lerner develops a fusion concept called dense plasma focus, in which large electrical currents run through the plasma, harnessing its natural instabilities to confine and compress it; this type of reactor has the advantage of being much smaller and cheaper than other designs, but technologically is not as advanced. “The first error of the governments in the 1970s was to put all their eggs in the tokamak basket”, he comments. “But actually we still don’t know which route will lead to practical and economical fusion: you should invest not in ideas you think will work, but in all ideas you can’t prove won’t work”.

Michel Laberge is the founder of General Fusion, a private company developing a fusion power device that, instead of employing magnetic fields, uses pistons to compress liquid metal surrounding the plasma to create fusion conditions. “It’s pistons and its’ rings, it’s metal and pipes, it’s plumbing,” he explains. “Turning that into a power plant would actually be not that complicated. I have a saying, I tell my engineers: if you can’t find it at Home Depot it doesn’t go in the machine.”

Finally, Sibylle Gunter is the scientific director of Wendelstein 7-X, an experimental reactor in Germany that is the largest stellarator device in the world. Stellarators, which have worst plasma confinement than tokamaks but can run continuously — an important advantage for future power plants — are based on complicated coils optimized to generate a specific magnetic field configuration. Although stellarators are technologically behind tokamaks, some believe it is stellarators that will eventually deliver fusion on the grid.

The documentary takes the audience right at the beginning of the history of fusion, to the time when, in 1939, Hans Bethe understood the proton–proton reaction that powers stars. A decade later, in the USSR, a self-educated Red Army sergeant posted to a remote island suggested a concept that would become the tokamak; physicist Andrei Sakharov completed the projects for the first reactor in 1950. That same year, the claim (then proven fraudulent) that fusion had been achieved in Argentina inspired Lyman Spitzer, an American physicist, to develop the stellarator. The importance of international collaboration to achieve fusion was recognized already during the cold war (it helped that fusion has no military applications), and in 1985 Gorbachev and Reagan agreed to start a collaborative international project to develop fusion energy, laying the basis for the ITER project.

Among scientists, a period of tremendous enthusiasm in the 1960s was followed by a decade of doubt and skepticism when it was realized that the problem was more complex than initially thought. In the 1980s, on the wake of a new wave of enthusiasm, it was believed that fusion would be on the grid within 50 years, and indeed until 2000 advances were fast. But to take the next step a new machine was needed, bigger, more complex: ITER, which is likely the most complex machine ever built.  I know I will be retired by the time ITER is successful” says Henderson, “so I’m like the guy building a cathedral, who knows he is gonna […] spend his entire career putting bricks together, but he will never see the end piece.

Indeed, ITER is more than a decade behind schedule — first plasma was originally planned for 2016 — and several billion dollars over budget. In a management assessment back in 2013 the problem was pinned down as poor management, ill-defined decision-making processes and poor communications within the project. In 2015 a new Director General was appointed, Bernard Bigot. ITER now has a new date for first plasma, Christmas 2025. “I think ITER will probably work; it will demonstrate that fusion is doable,” says Laberge. “They are gonna blow their budget and their schedule big time, it will burn money at twice the rate you need to, but it will get built and it will work, and this will give a big shot in the arm of fusion.”

One point everybody seems to agree on is that more funding is needed to develop fusion. “The more money you put in, the faster the return. And we have really being putting in peanuts,” comments Henderson. “Fusion is about 20 billions for 20 years. One billion a year. One fancy bridge a year. Peanuts! Let’s do it!” says Laberge. “How long it will take to achieve fusion? At current levels of financing, it will take approximately the age of the universe,” concludes Lerner.

With its beautiful images, helpful animations and an engaging soundtrack, the documentary, which is all narrated through interviews and original clips, is informative and enjoyable. It does not shy away from the challenges and doubts about the feasibility of a complex project such as ITER, but keeps a positive outlook.  It is a welcome reminder that achieving fusion is an extremely important goal, and all potential avenues need to be explored. Whether expert on fusion or curious onlooker, in “Let there be light” there is something for everyone.

Interactions: John Hammersley

After a PhD in theoretical physics (specifically, holography and the ADS/CFT correspondence), John left academia and later co-founded Overleaf in 2012. He has been developing Overleaf ever since to bring it to more and more users.

What did you train in? What are you doing now?

My background is in mathematics and physics; I completed an MPhys at Warwick in 2004, before heading up to Durham for my PhD, which I completed in 2008. I then moved out of academia into industry, working for Ultra PRT, the company behind the world’s first driverless taxi system. I joined the company as a research scientist, and my role later broadened out to be bid manager for the various projects the company was involved in.

How did Overleaf start?

When joining Ultra PRT, I was lucky enough to be mentored by Prof. Martin Lowson, a former rocket scientist and aeronautical engineer. He founded Ultra PRT out of Bristol University in the mid-nineties, and always maintained a strong link with academia, encouraging us to write up and share our research into large scale driverless taxi systems with the wider community. This involved collaborations both internally and with others at partner universities/organizations, and it was whilst collaborating on these research papers that we discovered Etherpad, a new browser-based collaboration tool. This made it easy for us to share and collaborate on notes, but because we typically use LaTeX for our papers, it wasn’t quite what we needed.

So one weekend, my co-founder Dr John Lees-Miller built the prototype for Overleaf (then called WriteLaTeX), which allowed us all to collaborate in the browser on LaTeX documents, and would generate a PDF output by compiling the LaTeX on a server. We also found that this greatly lowered the barriers to collaborating with others who were new to LaTeX, as there was nothing to install — all that’s needed is a web browser. Usage of the site continued to grow through word-of-mouth and being featured on sites such as HackerNews, and in late 2012 we decided to found our own company and work on Overleaf full time!

Who is using Overleaf today?

Today over four million people worldwide are using Overleaf! These range from students taking their first steps with LaTeX, through to large scale collaborations between hundreds of the world’s leading scientists. I’m always amazed at the wide range of uses people find for LaTeX and Overleaf. For example, one of the first projects on Overleaf that wasn’t one of our research papers was a set of wedding invitations!

We also see Overleaf helping to extend LaTeX out into fields where it’s less common, such as in the humanities and social sciences (for example, see this a short interview with Brian Lucey, Professor of Finance at Trinity College, Dublin, who started using LaTeX through Overleaf and is now part of our Advisor programme).

We’re also collaborating with partners in the publishing industry to try to help streamline the authoring, submission and publication workflows for journals and preprint servers, by providing updated templates and simple submission links. Overleaf is the natural place for authors and editors to be able to check that all the files for a submission are present, and that there are no compilation errors within a manuscript. Because of the built-in error reporting, and friendly interface, it also helps when there are any problems to resolve!

What I personally find most exciting is that Overleaf is helping students create and share their work in ways not easily possibly before. For example, the ‘Nano Ninjas’ — a group of 7th and 8th Graders in the US — used Overleaf to write up the engineering notebook from their school Robotics challenge! They won an award for their notebook, and have shared it in full on Overleaf as a template for future students to see and take inspiration from!

You can read more about the Nano Ninjas here, and some of their members also went on to form ‘The Three Musketeers’. It’s amazing to see, and hopefully provides an inspiration to future researchers and scientists everywhere 🙂

 What are the main challenges when starting a company? Do you have any advice to share?

There’s a lot I could talk about here! Although, I’m a bit reluctant to start by listing out challenges; you have to be somewhat naively optimistic to start a company, and focusing too much on any perceived challenges can be (wrongly) off-putting. So I’ll focus on advice instead.

If four points is too many, just read point four: don’t run out of money!

  1. Take everyone’s advice with a pinch of salt: we all give advice based on our own experiences, and in the early days it’s easy to get side-tracked by advice that’s well-meaning, but not relevant for you.
  2. Talk to people about your idea as early as you can, but don’t be put off if the first people you talk to seem a bit confused as to what you’re proposing. It’s natural, as you’re still developing the idea, and it’ll help highlight where you need to be able to explain your idea more clearly. Early on, you’ll need positive reaction for motivation, early adoption for validation, and any critical feedback for development. But remember to take any advice they give you with a pinch of salt 🙂
  3. Focus on solving the immediate problems that you need to get done to get yourself to the next stage (whether that’s finding a co-founder, building the MVP, or getting feedback from your first users), and don’t worry too much about things beyond that. At the start this is focusing one week or one month at a time, and certainly no more than six months ahead. If you focus too much on the long term, you’ll find it takes you too long to get the important stuff done now, and you’ll run out of time/money.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, it’s the CEO’s main job to make sure you don’t run out of money — whoever the CEO is in your founding team needs know how long you have with initial money you’ve saved/raised to get started, and needs to focus on getting the next funding secured before this runs out. If you run out of money, it doesn’t matter how close you are to solving any of the other problems; that’s usually game over.

I also wrote on a similar topic in a blog for ErrantScience, and in my Reddit AMA from a few years ago. If you’re interested in my longer thoughts on this, those are both good follow-on reads.

If you are starting a company, good luck, and feel free to reach out to me directly if you think I can help! If it’s in the #TechForGood space, I’d also recommend talking to the Bethnal Green Ventures team; they’re very friendly, and have a lot of experience helping start-ups develop in the very early stages. We were part of their summer cohort in 2013, and I still help out as a mentor and alumni!

Do you have a favourite Overleaf tip(s)?

If you’re at a university, check if your institution has a site license for Overleaf! You can see the list of institutions here, and if they do, you’ll be able to get a free upgrade to an Overleaf Professional account through that license!

My other top tip isn’t for Overleaf specifically, but can greatly help if you can’t remember the LaTeX command for a symbol — you can use detexify to find it! Simply draw the symbol, and it’ll give you the corresponding LaTeX command!

Finally, if you’re new to LaTeX itself, we’ve put together this short introduction which can be completed in about 30 minutes, to help you get started. Good luck, and if you do use Overleaf, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Rivalry, crystal structure prediction and discovery of new materials

Post by Artem Oganov.

The review in Nature Reviews Materials can be read here.

The story of our review started in 2006 when my group and the duo of Chris Pickard and Richard Needs published papers that changed the view of the scientific community in an important way. Prior to this, it was widely believed that crystal structures are, in general, not predictable: the number of possible structures is just way too large, and going through all of them is impossible. Our works showed that this problem can be handled, and this opens a way for computational materials discovery. I developed an evolutionary approach, while Pickard and Needs used random sampling. Within a few years we found ourselves in an increasingly intense competition which drove us to develop our methods and explore new applications for them, which, of course, is good for science.

At some point it became clear that if the intensity of this competition was allowed to develop further it could slip into bitterness, and potentially outright hostility. Did I need to win such a fight, if it brought me nothing positive in the end? The question was how to change this. I knew two things: first, that every problem has a solution. Second, I knew that with the right approach every problem can be turned into an advantage. At some point Qiang Zhu, my former PhD student and now Assistant Professor, found a brilliant solution: to write together a review. First, we felt that the community really needed such a review of many years of hard work, now not just of two groups, but also of many others who joined this field later. Second, writing a review with your rivals makes the review actually better: reviews have to be balanced, and rivals are the best people for ensuring this balance! Third, working on something together helps to build bridges. So, with this in mind, after a thorough discussion with Qiang Zhu, Chris Pickard and Richard Needs, I talked to Giulia Pacchioni, an editor at Nature Reviews Materials, and convinced her that we could write something important for the community.

We began working on the review from a position of low trust. We had countless debates, and the writing initially went very slowly. This delay risked us losing the invitation. However, the editors were very patient and encouraging. However, the editors were very patient and encouraging. The first skeleton, basically, a set of bullet points, was sketched by Richard Needs, and then each of us expanded these points, transforming them into a more or less coherent text (I think I took the most bullet points, Chris Pickard took many as well). We tried different ways of co-writing, experimenting with Google-docs and Overleaf, but there was not one technical solution that everyone liked, so eventually we just created our own versions of the review and let Qiang Zhu merge and edit them all. Much later he told me that he quietly cut a lot of text which had a potential for igniting arguments; funny that at the time no one noticed this, which I guess shows that our differences of opinion are actually of little importance. Once we had a complete draft, everyone started editing the text written by everyone else. By the end of this process we were all on the same wavelength. After submission we had one round of peer review and quite a bit of proofreading, mostly handled by me. The end result is one we can be proud of: a nice review of a field that we were fortunate to catalyze. But also a human victory. Rivals becoming friends and gaining a shared understanding is so much more important than winning a competition.

Artem Oganov
Center for Energy Science and Technology
Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, Moscow, Russia.

Escape into the wonders of physics

Post by Giulia Pacchioni

LabEscape is an escape room based on physics – I got the opportunity to explore it during the APS March meeting in Boston, where it was set up for one week away from its usual site in Urbana, Illinois.

Prof. Schrödenberg went missing, and an important grant needs to be submitted. As her new interns we need to log into the computer and hit the submit button. Easy… well, we need to figure out the password, but luckily the professor left hints around the lab in case she forgot it!

Together with a team of five other physicists (the other interns in the lab), before entering the room I was handled information sheets covering some essential physics concepts laid out in a very digestible way. Indeed, the room, which is the brainchild of Paul Kwiat, a physics professor at the University of Illinois, is by all means not designed for physicists (even though it’s an absolute delight for them). It was created to provide an experience that demonstrates to the general public that physics is useful, permeates everyday objects and is, yes, fun.

Peter recommended we read the material carefully no matter how well we thought we knew it already, as knowing which concepts are illustrated in the room can help understanding how to crack the puzzles inside. Apparently, a group of physicists who refused to go through the material couldn’t escape in the set time, whereas a family with no scientific background who did their reading (as any good intern should do!) aced the challenge.

The main suggestion from Paul was to work as a team, with two or three people looking at each hint or object to combine different points of view, and to share all information with the others. He had to help us a bit, reminding us to work together each time we went our separate ways exploring the fascinating bits and pieces scattered around the lab.

The room contains a clever mix of challenges ranging from the usual looking around for hints and tools to actual small experiments using lab equipment that needs to be manipulated and sometimes completed with missing pieces. As in any good lab, instructions on how to use the instruments are provided, accompanied by extra explanations about how each experience works for the curious explorer. I don’t want to give too much away, but we got to play with an oscilloscope and a laser, polarizing glasses and, of course, a dead/alive cat in a box!

The riddles are generally simple, but require some lateral thinking and careful observation, which makes the experience fun and varied without it ever getting boring or frustrating. The experiments use scientific instruments in very creative ways, the type that stimulates a wow reaction both in science novices who think ‘how is this even possible!’ and physicists who think ‘I never thought of using it like THIS!’ Marveling at the various tricks was so fun that escaping the room became a bit of a secondary focus. Even after we did work out the password and could have escaped, my fellow interns had plenty of questions for Paul about how everything worked and how they could use some of the ideas in their own outreach activities.

For me, the take home message is that that working on a problem together and listening to each team member’s ideas is essential for overcoming challenges in the lab. Also in real life.

Interactions: Chen Fang and the Materiae database

Post by Anastasiia Novikova.

In theory, many ordinary materials can have exotic topological phases. But how can we find them? In 2018 a research group from the National Laboratory for Condensed Matter Physics in Beijing scanned 39519 materials to predict which phases of the already-known compounds might exhibit topological properties. These materials were summarised into an interactive database Materiae, where you can browse compounds containing particular elements, check if they have any topological phases and visualise their band structure.

We asked Prof. Chen Fang — one of the team members who worked on Materiae along with Prof. Hongming Weng —  to give us more details of the project, which has now been published in Nature.

When did the database start? What were the main challenges of this project? What goals do you have for the future?

The database has been online since 23 July 2018; it appeared simultaneously with the posting of the corresponding paper on arXiv. By now there have been over 10000 unique visitors (1=ip*day). The most difficult part is, naturally, the calculation that was done to obtain the topological properties of about 30000 materials. The theory, the underlying work was accomplished back in late 2017 (arXiv:1711.11049 and 1711.11050), but even so, it was an effort to implement the fully automated algorithm shown in the flowchart. Currently we have the band structures plotted for topological materials only, and in the future we will add the band structure plots for all materials, topological and non-topological.

Using your algorithm, you scanned 39519 materials. How much time did the whole calculation process take?

We didn’t track the CPU hours used on this, but if we count the time spent on debugging small bugs now and then, it took us about three to four months in total for the bulk results to come out.

You mention that 8056 materials from your database are actually topological. How many of these materials were experimentally studied?

All materials have been reportedly synthesized in literature, but most of them were not studied from a “topological perspective”, but were studied for superconductivity or ferroelectricity, for example. I think at most few hundreds of these materials have been studied for potential topological properties.

What is the most “underestimated” material?

One example is Tl2Nb2O7. Oxides are seldom considered as topological materials in literature, yet our database registers it as a topological semi-metal. Surprised by this result, we further looked into this material, and realized that the mixed-valence nature of Tl ion is the origin of the nontrivial topology.

Another is Ba3Cd2As4. The layered structure made us expect it to be a weak topological insulator, but our database shows it to be a new type of topological crystalline insulator (having so-called C2-anomalous surface states). Shortly after the prediction, experimental groups have started synthesizing this material.

We expect the study of certain materials, like the ones above, may be “revived” by what we show in the database.

The database contains only non-magnetic materials. Is it possible to envision a similar type of database for magnetic materials?

The entire prediction is based on first-principle calculation, but magnetism is notoriously difficult to predict/include in any first-principle calculations. Therefore, while some theoretical work on the mapping between symmetry data and topological data has been out there for a while (arXiv:1707.01903), I do not think a similar material database can be obtained in near future because of the inherent difficulty of DFT mentioned above.

Interactions: Luke Fleet

Luke Fleet is a Senior Editor & Team Leader at Nature. He joined Nature Research in 2013 as an editor at Nature Communications, before moving to Nature Physics in 2014, and then to Nature in 2017. He’s responsible for selecting the research papers that are published across a range of fields, including applied physics and electronics, and also assists in devising and delivering the goals for the physics team.

 What made you want to be a physicist?

It was more chance than an active decision, so let’s go with luck and curiosity. Like many people, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was younger and so I decided to carry on in education to basically avoid having to choose. In doing so, I pursued something that I found interesting. Luckily for me, that was physics!

If you weren’t a physicist, what would you like to be (and why)?

If I could choose anything, then I’d want to be a musician or a footballer, as these are my hobbies, but I think people have already said these so I’m going to go with joiner. I actually worked for several years when I was a teenager building things like rabbit hutches and dog kennels, and there are lots of things about working outside crafting something that are satisfying so that’s my back-up if this career goes south.

Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?

There are so many to choose from but let’s go with Leonardo Pisano (Fibonacci). He convinced Europeans to switch from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numbers and if you ever have the pleasure of visiting Pisa you’ll see that he also inspired the Church to put a Fibonacci sequence-based artwork above the main entrance to the church of San Nicola. Relatively little is known about Fibonacci so I’d love to know how he managed to convince so many people to embrace arithmetic mathematics during the Middle Ages.

What would be your (physics) superpower?

When I was a researcher I worked with magnets and if they were big enough then then I liked to think that I was like Magneto from the X-men, so that’s the superpower I want: mastery of electromagentism, without trying to instigate a civil war.

What’s your favourite (quasi-)particle?

I’m really a condensed matter physicist at heart, so is has to be a quasiparticle. And whilst there are so many to choose, I’d have to say Weyl fermions. Physicists had been searching for these particles for decades but they were discovered not long after I started working as an editor. It was pretty exciting covering these advances at the time, so I think I’m always going to have a Weyl soft spot.

If you could have an effect or equation named after you, what would it be?

I love playing football and like to think I have some mastery over the Magnussen effect. I know that already exists but I’d like to discover a new effect related to spinning objects so that I can improve my shooting, which is definitely getting worse with age.

Interactions: Federico Levi

Federico Levi is a Senior Editor at Nature Physics.

What made you want to be a physicist? 

I was a rather curious kid — the annoying kind that asks a lot of ‘why’ questions. But I never found my interests to be limited to the natural world. The adolescent me somehow decided that good learning opportunities would come from a degree in physics or history or English literature. While I like to think that some natural inclination towards analytical thinking nudged me in the direction of physics, the reality is that my parents were pretty persuasive in their case against a career in the humanities. But once I started learning physics for real, I was hooked. When I got to quantum mechanics, I was totally sold.

If you weren’t a physicist, what would you like to be (and why)?

I would like to write novels, I think. Too bad I’m not very good at it.

Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?

Thomas Kuhn, to thank him for having written a great book.

What is the development that you would really like to see in the next 10 years?

Understanding so much better the foundations of quantum mechanics, cosmology or the interplay between quantum physics and general relativity to realize that what we all assumed was clearly right is actually rather wrong.

What would be your (physics) superpower?

Skipping stones for hundreds of meters.

What Sci-Fi gadget / technology would you most like to have / see come true (and why)?

A time machine to undo stupid mistakes. Could probably have other uses too.

Interactions: David Abergel

David Abergel is an Associate Editor at Nature PhysicsBefore joining Nature Physics in 2017, David carried out theoretical research on graphene and other two-dimensional crystals, and quantum topological materials. 

What made you want to be a physicist? 

When I was a kid, I was really into astronomy, so I guess I’ve always had an inclination towards science. Then, as a teenager, I read John Gribbin’s In Search of Schödinger’s Cat. I loved it. The vivid picture he painted of how quantum mechanics works, how it’s so different from the classical world that we experience, and most importantly how we can use maths to understand it had me hooked. From that point on I never wanted to be anything else.

If you weren’t a physicist, what would you like to be (and why)?

I would probably have ended up as a forensic scientist working for the police. I’m sure it’s nowhere near as cool as it looks on TV, but the idea of trying to piece together a lot of small clues to provide evidence for case seems like a really interesting type of problem solving.

What would be your (physics) superpower?

Getting code to compile first time!

What’s your favourite (quasi-)particle?

Undoubtedly the Cooper pair. I find it counterintuitive that the jiggling of an atomic lattice can make two negatively-charged electrons ‘stick’ together. And the fact that there is most likely a completely different mechanism that we don’t understand going on in high-Tc superconductors is a fascinating mystery.

What Sci-Fi gadget / technology would you most like to have / see come true (and why)?

Apart from the obvious ones like time travel and teleportation, I want someone to come up with a material that is soundproof, but allows cool air through. It would be the perfect window covering for warm summer nights.

Which physicist would you like to see interviewed on Interactions — and why?

Is this like one of those facebook things where you have to nominate five of your friends to keep the game going??!! But more seriously, seeing as he kind-of came up with the idea, I want to hear what Lev Landau’s favourite quasiparticle is.

Interactions: Elena Belsole

Elena Belsole is the Chief Editor of Communications Physics. An astrophysicist by training, Elena was the executive editor of New Journal of Physics, before joining Nature Research.

What made you want to be a physicist? 

Since the age of 8 I wanted to be a medical doctor. I have always been a very inquisitive person and I would have pursued any direction that was giving me as many answers as possible on what the world is all about. But the truly determining factor was meeting my physics teacher in high school. He was so inspirational and made things look so fascinating; he even introduced the Schrödinger equation to the class. I could not leave it at that. I had to learn more.

If you weren’t a physicist, what would you like to be (and why)?

An herbalist I think. I love how you can forage and use herbs for medicinal use and being able to find a remedy for any minor ailments.  I also considered theatre acting for a short time.

Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?

Since I started University I had Richard Feynman lecture notes on my bedside table and always found the simplicity of his explanations fascinating, but I would probably not want to go for dinner with him. If I have to choose one person to take out for dinner I would go for `the queen of carbon’, Millie Dresselhaus. She has guided and inspired so many people and she was a great physicist in an environment that was (and to some extent still is) quite adverse to women, while also having a family. I would like to know how she did it all.

Which is the development that you would really like to see in the next 10 years?

I would like to see physical methods effectively used for controlling and stopping cancer and other diseases in a way that is not intrusive and not damaging for the patient.

What would be your (physics) superpower?

Definitely teleportation. I cannot even imagine how many places on Earth and beyond I could visit if that was true.

What’s your favourite particle?

The neutrino. It is such a versatile particle. Perhaps it is because of my fascination with cosmic rays from astrophysical objects, perhaps because it can be used to probe the Standard Model, or maybe just because thousands of them cross our body every second and are impossible to see and difficult to detect. Regardless, they are fascinating and may be a key to solve the mysteries of the Universe.

 

 

Interactions: Vittoria Colizza

Vittoria Colizza is Research Director of the EPIcx lab at INSERM and Sorbonne Université.

What did you train in? What are you working on now?

My formal training is in theoretical physics, but already during my PhD my work was at the interface with biology. Since then, I’ve been working on the characterization, modelling and surveillance of infectious disease epidemics, moving progressively from theoretical approaches to increasingly applied research informing public health. If I have to use a single tag to describe my research it would be ‘Computational and digital epidemiology’, integrating statistical physics, mathematical epidemiology, computer science, statistics, medicine, public health, complex systems approaches, network science, data science, surveillance, numerical thinking and geographic information systems.

My research focuses on real epidemic outbreaks to gather context epidemic awareness and provide risk assessment analyses for preparedness, mitigation, and control. Applications range from human epidemics (e.g. 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza, MERS-CoV epidemic, Ebola virus disease epidemic, childhood infections, antimicrobial resistance spread in hospital settings) to animal epidemics (e.g. bovine brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease, rabies).

In 2011 I joined the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), after several years spent in interdisciplinary departments/institutions (my only affiliation to a Physics Dept. was during my education at Sapienza University in Rome).

How do you introduce yourself (e.g. I am a physicist/biologist/…) ?

It depends on the audience.

In front of an epidemic/medicine/public health community I’d just state that I’m a modeler, as this is the key information they would need about my profile, e.g. to distinguish my expertise from the one of field epidemiologists, biostatisticians, public health professionals, MDs, and others. But a few exchanges about my approaches would often identify me as a ‘stranger’ and force me to reveal I’m a physicist by training. I tend not to state that upfront as it may induce an unneeded distance that is not beneficial for the interaction.

Talking to physicists, I would introduce myself as ‘originally a physicist’ to establish a common ground facilitating the communication, but I would specify that my work is fully framed in the context of infectious disease epidemics (and therefore, it’s not physics anymore – at least most of the times).

In all circumstances, I try to introduce myself in a way that could avoid misunderstandings, assumptions, cross-disciplinary suspicion, and would allow putting my audience more at ease to have a comfortable and fruitful dialogue.

What did you find most difficult when you first had contact with other disciplines?

Definitely a long list of painful aspects that all interdisciplinary scientists experience – lack of shared language/notation/methods/practices, huge investment of time, confusion, need for uninterrupted nurturing of the interdisciplinary dialogue, mutual suspicion. These aspects are more or less foreseeable before embarking in an interdisciplinary endeavor (though experiencing them directly is unforeseeably painful).

What caught me completely by surprise was realizing that the very same reason behind interdisciplinary research – mindset diversity bringing additional richness – was also its biggest obstacle. Mindsets are mainly rooted in the disciplines of training of each scientist, thus shaping their ability to frame and interpret concepts. While each offers a different perspective to a given problem, they all need to be reconciled and synthesized in something new to achieve the knowledge advancement that interdisciplinary research aims to produce. And reconciling different mindsets, under varying conditions of rigidity, may be extremely challenging.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?

For me there was no other shortcut than reading reading reading out-of-my-field papers and books, attending Schools to complete my training, and discussing infinite times and for infinite hours with experts from other fields. And clearly I learnt a lot through the collaborations, as I still do.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.

It was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. On the low points there was definitely the intimidating feeling of being an outsider along with the depressing realization that the community didn’t feel any need for outsiders… Up to the moment I realized that my just-developed model was able to answer the questions left open by the keynote speaker – so after all, the community didn’t have all the solutions within the boundaries of its discipline. This was a very powerful impulse for a young post-doc starting interdisciplinary science.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?

I don’t think there is a single recipe for success. But I learnt that there are many important skills –beyond scientific expertise –  that are crucial to a successful and effective interdisciplinary dialogue. Among them, respect for other disciplines, for other points of view, as well as tolerance for ambiguity. These are not taught in courses and should be fostered and practiced in the everyday lab life. The aim is for young researchers to learn how to establish comfortable, engaging and unassuming scientific interactions, lowering cross-disciplinary barriers and removing perceived hierarchies of discipline importance.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?

Oh yes, I have so many! Are you coming to the Nature Reviews Physics event in London on Feb 26? 😉

Interactions: Athene Donald

Athene Donald is a professor of soft matter and biological physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

What did you train in? What are you working on now?

I was educated in Cambridge in the so-called Natural Sciences Tripos, ultimately specialising in Theoretical Physics. That meant a broad course in the first year – physics, chemistry, materials science and maths – that narrowed down by the third year. I could easily have studied some biology in the first year, but as I had been so put off it at school by the fact it seemed to consist simply of memorising facts, it never crossed my mind to do so. So my formal biology education simply consists of two years at school, not even an O Level.

Although I specialised in Theoretical Physics I soon realised I did not want to spend my life only doing theory and went on to do an experimental PhD (‘Electron Microscopy of Grain Boundary Embrittled Systems’). Although electron microscopy – as well as other microscopies – has formed the core of my research, I have switched the kinds of materials I look at considerably during my career. After a first post-doc continuing on metals I switched to polymers and, over time, moved to biopolymers (first polysaccharides and much later proteins) and ultimately cellular biophysics.

How do you introduce yourself (e.g. I am a physicist/biologist/…) ?

A physicist working at the interface with biology. For my postdoctoral years, however, I was working, not in a physics department but in materials science and, in the USA for four years, that was within the Engineering Faculty.

What motivated you to move away from active research?

It was not a conscious decision! Back in the 1990s I was invited to serve on one of the very first government-organised so-called Foresight panels, looking at the future of the Food and Drink industry (at that time my biopolymer research largely related to food rather than biology per se). The broad range of people on that committee, and how they came together, fascinated me and I realised committee work was actually rather interesting. Over time I served on many different sorts of committees, internally within the university, with research councils and more and I found it taking up increasing amounts of time but also, on the whole, rewarding.

What really pushed my research over the edge was in 2010 when I took on two roles (neither to do with interdisciplinarity!): I became the University’s first Gender Equality Champion, which gave me the opportunity to work with the senior management to try to implement real policy changes and interventions to level the playing field for all across the university; and I became chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, dealing with 5-19 education at the time that Michael Gove as Secretary of State was introducing enormous changes to the curriculum. Neither role had any formal associated time commitment, but  they inevitably grew to fill (and more) the time available.  Both rewarding, both taught me a lot about different issues and ways of interacting with people from very different backgrounds. I continued in both those roles until 2014 when I became Master of Churchill College.

What did you find most difficult when you first had contact with other disciplines?

As I indicated, I had essentially no formal biology training and the world of genetics – and the language – had anyhow changed radically since my education. So the initial problem I faced was in understanding the language. When I was first involved in a collaboration with a plant scientist in the area of starch I suspect we both spent about a year just understanding what the other was saying and what our disciplines could and could not offer each other. To my mind, what is absolutely crucial in this formative stage, is finding the other person congenial enough you want to spend the time working together through this potential barrier.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?

Time! There is no short cut to getting to grips with a subject unfamiliar to you. I think it is also important to realise that working at the interface with another discipline does not mean you need to know everything about the other discipline. Recognizing what you absolutely do need to know but also there is plenty that, at least at that point, is not necessary so you can home in on the essentials, is crucial. Otherwise it can just seem an insurmountable problem. Of course over time what is vital to know may expand, but by that point it may seem less formidable a challenge. I think having someone you feel comfortable asking naïve questions of is also important; this comes back to having a good relationship with your collaborators. If you don’t feel relaxed about asking something basic the collaboration is probably not going to flourish. Of course sometimes collaborations will be with multiple individuals, possibly multiple disciplines, and then the tactics may need some modification.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.

A general sense of confusion is what I remember most clearly. The diagrams – of protein structures – seemed mysterious as their presentation was so different from how a physicist would have approached the problem – and that left me with a profound sense of being out of my depth. If the basics seem incomprehensible it is hard to extract much useful information, however willing one may be. Coming into a new field also means that you probably don’t know anyone else in the room and that sense of isolation can be quite intimidating. Once you have some results (even if only a poster) it provides an entrée, so that other people will come up and introduce themselves. But that first step into the unknown can be daunting.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?

Remember everyone comes with different experiences, skills and jargon. Somehow your job is to keep that constantly in mind like an orchestra conductor, to make sure people respect each other’s skills and make the best use of these they can. It is important not to let someone who is an expert in one area make another student whose skills sit elsewhere feel stupid or group dynamics can go sadly awry.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?

Moving away from the heart of a discipline can make colleagues very uncomfortable. Working with starch, not the typical sort of material a physicist in the 1990s would have thought ‘respectable’, meant I came in for a lot of flak from my seniors. Being told ‘things have come to a sad pass when people at the Cavendish study starch’ by one of these was depressing. Added to this is the fact that, as a woman, people’s biases probably gave them a lower opinion of me anyhow at the time. Hence I was accused at a conference of doing ‘just domestic science’ – and that after I’d given an invited paper. It was sometimes hard to feel positive in an atmosphere like that. Again, having people around you who you trust and can rely on is vital to provide the balance to any such hostile colleagues.

Interactions: Bart Hoogenboom

Bart Hoogenboom is a professor of biophysics at University College London.

What did you train in? What are you working on now?

My undergraduate degree was in physics, I did a final-year research project on the electronic properties of buckyballs (C60), and a PhD project on high-Tc superconductors, that is, all solid-state physics. During my PhD, I learnt how to build and use scanning tunnelling microscopes, which came handy when as a postdoc, I developed atomic force microscopy methods to image solid–liquid interfaces at atomic/molecular resolution. At present, my lab still makes extensive use of atomic force microscopy, complemented by other methods, largely to study — often by real-time, nanoscale visualisation — how biological molecules interact with each other and self-organize to collectively carry out tasks that are important for health and disease. Examples of such tasks are the repair of DNA damage (important in various cancer therapies, for instance), the perforation of cellular membranes (such as in bacterial attack and immune defence) and the regulation of transport into and out of the cell nucleus (exploited by viruses and in gene therapies, for example).

How do you introduce yourself (e.g. I am a physicist/biologist/…) ? 

By my training and way of thinking, I am very much a physicist. That said, I try to do interesting science, and in doing so am not too concerned about the question whether that science happens to be more physical or biological.

What motivated you to change your field of research?

For my PhD, I was working on intellectually challenging questions regarding local electronic excitations in superconductors, which was great fun. However, to keep me motivated and interested on the longer term, I felt that I would benefit from broadening my research horizons and learning about other fields of science. Biology has the advantage of such broadness, with a nigh-infinite collection of questions and problems and ample scope for physicists to make meaningful contributions.

What did you find most difficult when you first had contact with other disciplines? 

I find biologists on average more conservative than physicists. In my experience, physicists tend to be more open to new concepts and methods, even if their immediate use or validity in a practical context is unclear. By contrast, most biologists know that many concepts may apply in nature and many methods may a priori be helpful; however, the hard work is often not in defining a new concept or new method, but in determining which ones (out of many) are useful for the particular biological problem that they are working on.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?

To start with, I worked my way through a cell biology textbook. That took quite some patience, but in the end I could read relevant scientific literature and talk to biologists without feeling excessively ignorant. Next, in such discussions across disciplinary boundaries, it helps to be honest about gaps in one’s knowledge. I must have asked many, many naïve questions (and still do), and I count myself fortunate with many fantastic collaborators willing to answer such questions and even do research projects with me.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.

I felt rather lost and was wondering what on earth I was doing there.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?

A good interdisciplinary research team is a treasure chest that contains much more knowledge and skills than a PI can have on his/her own, and this can be further enhanced by collaborations with labs that have complementary expertise. For a PI leading such a group, my main advice is to appreciate and make best use of such knowledge and skills, encouraging the team to help each other and show a similar open, communicative and collaborative approach when interacting with other labs.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?

Interdisciplinary communication can sometimes get a bit lost by lack of proper translation. Some years ago, I had done preliminary experiments to visualise the assembly of immune proteins that punch holes in target cell membranes. My postdoc at that time struggled to replicate my results in a room where the heating – not for the first time on our building – was failing. When he next reported to our biological collaborators how he had solved the problem, ‘I put the sample on a hot-plate’, our collaborators went through the roof. To alleviate their major concerns over what we had done to the delicate proteins, it sufficed to give them the appropriate biological translation of my postdoc’s remark, ‘He incubated the sample at 37oC.’