Return to the lab

As coronavirus restrictions have been easing over the past few months, increasing numbers of researchers are starting to return to labs and begin experimental work again. Nature Reviews Physics organised a photo competition, inviting submissions of photos which depict lab-life in the era of COVID-19.

Here are some of our favourite entries:

 

Safety first – particles from outer space second! In this picture you see Claire Antel (left) and Lydia Brenner (right) in the lab of the FASER Experiment at CERN. This new dark matter detector will be installed 100 meters underground before the end of this year. This picture was taken on the 10th of July when we for the first time managed to test the detector by measuring cosmic ray particles. You can see the normal protective gear we always have to wear, such as steel-reinforced work boots and helmets, as well the face-masks that are now mandatory in all indoor work areas at CERN. You can also see that we have to maintain distance at all times, which makes working on the same small machine, between us in the picture, slightly more complicated, but we managed. Submitted by Lydia Brenner

 

Luca Naticchioni (INFN) and Maurizo Perciballi (INFN) working on the installation of a new underground seismic station at the candidate site for the Einstein Telescope in Sardinia, Italy (Sos Enattos – Lula, August 2020). Submitted by Maurizio Perciballi.

 

Marco La Cognata is mounting experimental set-up for a Nuclear Astrophysics experiment at INFN Laboratori Nazionali del Sud (in Catania, Italy). The 27Al beam for this experiment was the first delivered in Italian laboratories after the lock-down. Taken in May 2020. Submitted by Sara Palmerini.

 

Part of the SMOG2 group installing, in front of the LHCb detector, the first gas fixed target at the LHC. LHC will have not only beam-beam but also beam-gas interactions. A new frontier for quantum chromodynamics and astroparticle physics, LHCb cavern, CERN 6th of August 2020. Submitted by Pasquale di Nezza.

And finally, our winning photo is:

 

Optical alignment of microscopy setup at IIT GENOVA. Immediately after Italy announces a little relaxation (mid of May 2020) for the researcher to continue their research activities following the strict norms and regulation advisory. Submitted by Rajeev Ranjan

Congratulations Rajeev! Rajeev will be receiving a one-year personal subscription to Nature Reviews Physics. Stay tuned for our next photo competition which will announced soon via Twitter – follow us @NatRevPhys for more information!

Strike4BlackLives

Post compiled by Ankita Anirban.

10 June 2020 is #Strike4BlackLives and we urge you to participate in this strike. Organised by a group of physicists, led by Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, this is a day to #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM in solidarity with Black colleagues, Black students and Black people who are excluded from academia. Learn more about the strike here.

“As researchers, teachers, students, and staff we devote an immense amount of our time and mental energy to learning more about the world and ourselves within the framework of our own discipline. The strike day gives us the space and time to center Black lives, show solidarity with academics with marginalized ascribed identities, to educate ourselves about the ways in which we and our institutions are complicit in anti-Black racism, and to take concrete action for change.” –  Particles for Justice call to action.

Thousands have pledged to join the strike, including the arXiv and the American Physical Society. Today, take time to pause your academic work and reflect on your role within the academic institution. Talk to your colleagues, organise within your department and work to become anti-racist.

In the UK, just 1.7% of first year physics undergraduates in 2016 were Black and an IOP report from 2012 shows that for PhD- holding researchers, the number is even lower at 0.1%. If you are not Black, take a moment to count how many Black physicists you have come across in your academic career.

Source: https://cx.report/2020/06/02/equity/

It is clear that academic institutions are in need of radical structural change. Yet with so few Black voices within the system, there is an urgent need for non-Black allies to take an active role in campaigning for change.

Here we provide some starting points we have found useful for learning more about racism in academia, how racism and science are inextricably linked and the case for a more inclusive and pluralist science.

Being Black in physics

For non-Black academics, the first step to understanding the extent to which racism pervades academic life is to hear the stories of Black academics. One place to start is the  #BlackintheIvory hashtag on Twitter which has been used to share experiences of Black academics.

Op-ed: The ‘Benefits’ of Black physics students by Jedidah Isler, New York Times, 2015

News: Why are there so few Black physicists? by Ryan Mandelbaum, Gizmodo, 2020 

Perspective: Curiosity and the end of discimination by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Nature Astronomy, 2017

Blog: Ain’t I a woman? At the intersection of gender, race and sexuality by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Women in Astronomy blog, 2014

Addressing the inequalities and discrimination within academia requires structural change. As an individual, you can campaign within your department to recognise the need for this change and enact it in policies regarding hiring, mentoring and support for Black students. When organising a conference or a new collaboration, reflect on your choice of participants and strive to include more Black voices in the conversation.

500 Women Scientists – Black History Month

Fellows of the National Society of Black Physicists

Who are the Black Physicists? A historical list

Science and colonialism

Modern science as we practise it today has inextricable links to empire, colonialism and the slave trade. Here are some accessible resources which introduce how colonialism has shaped science:

Podcast: BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – on astronomy and the British empire

Blog: Black Women Physicists In the Wake by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, 2017

Reading list: Decolonising science reading list compiled by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Building a more inclusive science

In addition to recognising the historical impact of colonialism on science, it is also important to acknowledge the influence it continues to wield within scientific practice today.  Here are some resources that re-centre Indigenous science:

Australian Indigenous Astronomy 

Blog: The fight for Mauna Kea and the future of science by Sara Segura Kahanamoku, Massive Science, 2019

Comment: Towards inclusive practices with indigenous knowledge by Aparna Venkatesan et al., Nature Astronomy, 2019

Article: Challenging epistemologies: Exploring knowledge practices in Palikur astronomy by Lesley Green, Futures, 2009

Article: ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ and ‘Science’: Reframing the Debate on Knowledge Diversity by Lesley Green, Archaeologies, 2008

Long Reads:

Superior by Angela Saini.

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician by Katherine Johnson

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence by Erica N. Walker 

A different kind of dark energy: placing race and gender in physics, BSc thesis by Lauren Chambers, Department of African American Studies, Yale University

Behind the paper: CP violation in neutrino oscillations

In 1967, Andrei Sakharov proposed conditions required in the early universe for generating
matter and anti-matter at different rates, to explain the abundance of matter in our universe
today. Charge-Parity (CP) violating processes are essential under these conditions.
Measurements of the CP violation in quarks, first performed in 1964, are too small to explain
the difference, and finding other sources of CP violation is an ongoing quest in the physics
community. In April 2020, the T2K collaboration published a paper in Nature suggesting
large CP violation in the leptonic sector, namely in neutrino oscillations. Some of the
researchers involved in the project tell us their story.

A guest post by Ciro Riccio (Scientist, Stony Brook University), Patrick Dunne (Scientist,
Imperial College London), Pruthvi Mehta (Ph.D. student, University of Liverpool), Sam
Jenkins (Ph.D. student, University of Sheffield), Tomoyo Yoshida (Graduated Ph.D. student,
Tokyo Institute of Technology), Clarence Wret (Scientist, University of Rochester)

The oscillation analysis, whose results were recently published in Nature, is the last link in a
long chain of work. It amalgamates the effort of the entire collaboration, from those designing
and constructing the experiment 20 years ago, to the countless hours of detector operations
taken by people all over the world, to the development of the analyses.

The project
There are over 400 people working on T2K, in 12 countries, at 69 institutes. Many of us have
spent years building our bit of the experiment, from physical objects like detector or beamline
instrumentation, to abstract items like data analysis frameworks. Looking at the author list,
you’ll see that T2K consists of collaborators from all over the world. Our daily
communications happen online; in video meetings, emails, and chats. It’s sometimes a
challenge to find good time-slots for connecting people over 16 time zones, and it’s not
uncommon to sign-off from a meeting with a good-night, only to be met with a good-morning,
and vice versa.

Our international collaborators frequently fly to Japan to spend a week or two monitoring the
experiment in Tokai—on the east coast—where the neutrino beamline and Near Detectors
are, or Kamioka—just west of the Japanese alps—where the Far Detector is. In addition to
the flashing computer screens and sounding alarms, we get to witness a very different side
of Japan from the bright lights of Tokyo, from the beautiful mountains and rivers of rural
Japan, to the delicious local specialities. Avoiding the risk of data loss often occurs at the
cost of sleep for the operations experts (as the contributors to this blog post can attest)—but
all is forgotten after a morning visit to the local onsen (hot-spring).

It’s impossible to overemphasise the fantastic experience of Japanese culture as an added
bonus of partaking in T2K. Many of the restaurants in the Tokai and Kamioka areas are
familiar with members of the collaboration, and are very accommodating to international
collaborators. The owner of one particular restaurant in Tokai often recognises Sam and
remembers that he can speak a small amount of the language (chotto), and indulges him to
order in broken Japanese (we like to think it’s good for practice, and not solely their
entertainment). A favourite annual event is the sweet potato festival (imo matsuri), a
community event in Tokai held in November to celebrate the root vegetable that the Ibaraki
prefecture is renowned for.

T2K collaboration meeting, Paris 2019, Credit: Pieyre Sylvaineat

The measurement
The Super-Kamiokande Far Detector started construction in 1991 in Kamioka, and operates
24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so as not to miss rare astrophysical events, such as
supernova bursts. The neutrino beam and the Near Detectors started construction 2001
(beam) and 2007 (Near Detectors) in Tokai, and are continuously operating when we have
pre-allocated beam time, sometimes up to seven months per year.
To make our measurement we not only need the neutrino beam and the detectors, but also a
computer-simulated model of the entire experiment, painstakingly quantifying how we think
each component behaves and how certain we are of that description. This includes
everything from the neutrino beam (and the proton beam collisions that creates it), to the
neutrino interactions in our detectors, to the density of the Earth between Tokai and
Kamioka, to how good our detectors are at measuring the neutrinos.

To characterise the neutrino beam, we have two detectors (“ND280” and “INGRID”) 280m
from the neutrino source, which have a staggering amount of neutrinos passing through
them. Occasionally these neutrinos interact at the Near Detectors, occasionally they interact
300km later in Super-Kamiokande, but most of the time they continue out through Earth’s
atmosphere, propagating deep into space. To put things into perspective, this analysis used
about 3×1021 (3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) proton interactions to create the neutrino
beam. Roughly one neutrino is created per proton interaction, but due to their rare interaction rate with matter, we observe a mere 120,000 neutrino events at ND280 (60,000
of which were used in our analysis) and about 500 at Super-Kamiokande over the course of
nine years. In the early neutrino beam experiments of the 1970s, the data are often on less
than 500 neutrino events, with the experiments sitting right next to the neutrino source for
tens of years. Today we have about the same number of neutrino events in a similar amount
of time, but sitting 300km away from the source at Super-Kamiokande. It’s only recently that
we have the technology, international funding support from governments, and scientific
community in place to produce such powerful neutrino beams, which are the backbone of
these precise measurements.

Presentation of final results of the oscillation analysis. Credit: Pieyre Sylvaineat

Once the neutrinos are characterised at the Near Detector, the oscillation analysis takes all
the models of the neutrino beam, the detectors, the neutrino interaction, and neutrino
oscillations, combines them with their constraints, and blends them together to describe our
observations. The analysis and all of its inputs turns PhD students’, scientists’ and
professors’ daily work into many cycles of communication-implementation-validation, over
the course of more than a year. When validations and tests are satisfied, we finally get to
look at the data and make our measurement of the neutrinos’ oscillations. That last link in
the long chain has the privilege to see the final result first in the collaboration. The moment
when the plot pops onto your screen and you’re the only person who knows what it shows is
pretty special. For this result, published in April 2020, we first saw the results internally in
Autumn 2018, and spent the time between then and now extensively validating and testing
alternate explanations.

Looking ahead
T2K is currently in the process of updating the analysis using more data taken during
2019/2020, and using better models of the experiment, all thanks to the continuing dedicated
work of all our collaborators. Many of us are also working on upgrades of the neutrino
beamline, the Near Detectors and the Far Detector, to squeeze out more science from the
neutrino beam. Our results published in Nature are the strongest constraint on the CP
violating phase in neutrinos to date, but we have only taken about half of our allocated data.
There is much more to come and the prospects are truly exciting for all of us. As we
continue, we’re including the work of even more people than the analyses that came before;
new students, scientists and professors. We hope they, like us, get their share of the
pleasant, stressful, lovely, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding experience of being on an
international science collaboration such as ours.

Party at Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay. Credit: Pieyre Sylvaineat

Don’t make it so

Christine Horejs reviews the latest series in the Star Trek franchise, the recently broadcasted Star Trek: Picard.

We live in almost surreal times: it feels as if Q was playing another one of his evil games, expecting humanity to fail again it its attempt to prevent a catastrophe (remember the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation?).  Precisely because of this, the new Star Trek: Picard promises to be the show to watch. Wait, is this the biased view of a Trekkie, who cited Jean-Luc Picard at the beginning of her PhD thesis? Maybe. But Star Trek has always been at the forefront of scientific advance, has solved unsolvable moral and medical problems, has gone where no women or men had gone before. Right now, this is exactly what we would like to see. We need the flagship of the Federation with its wise Captain and crew, who can solve pretty much every problem in the Galaxy using science and diplomacy.

Jean-Luc Picard 2

Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard. Credit: Patrick Caughey[1]derivative work: Loupeznik / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Star Trek: Picard is a ten-episodes series, the follow-up of the legendary Star Trek: The Next Generation, centred around captain Jean-Luc Picard – Captain, Sir or Jean-Luc, but certainly not JL.  The story is set at the end of the 24th century, that is, 20 years after we last saw Jean-Luc commanding the USS Enterprise. He has now retired from Starfleet, following his great disappointment with the Federation, who refused to help the Romulans after the destruction of their home planet by a supernova. What follows is a complicated conspiracy theory story, involving the Romulans, Starfleet, the Borg (or rather Ex-Borgs and their cube) and the ‘Synthetics’, who are essentially Data’s children, designed based on his positronic memory.

The plot remains rather unexciting and to prevent any potential spoilers, I will jump right into the scientific vision – if only I could. Thinking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are numerous scientific and technological inventions and visions that made every scientist’s heart jump a beat.  Voice activation (long before Siri or Alexa), virtual reality (especially now, I would give everything for a holo deck), replicators (could they make toilet paper?), touch screens (long before iPads), video calls (what would we be without them), diagnostic beds (Beverly Crusher could diagnose everything using those beds and her medical scanning device), to name only a few (see also Boldly going for 50 years). And then there was the really big science: matter-antimatter generators, cloaking devices, the warp drive. In fact, every time a species was close to developing the warp drive, the Enterprise would pay a visit to ensure diplomatic first contact. So, what are the major scientific stories in the new Star Trek: Picard series? Ethical questions related to AI or synthetic life? Well, this has all been discussed at length throughout all The Next Generation episodes with Data, his brother and his father Noonien Soong.  De-assimilation of the Borg? That is indeed interesting; however, the science behind this is not given any room in the series. Making Picard an android? Yes, that is new, albeit without any (valid or not-valid) scientific explanation.  Indeed, the creators managed to take the science out of science fiction.

Then there is the crew. At the heart of every Star Trek series are the smart, adventurous, highly trained crew members, comprising multiple species from all over the Galaxy. Spock, the legendary Vulcan science officer of the original series, Worf, the grumpy Klingon, growing up with humans, always in between two worlds, Geordi, the best engineer in Starfleet, Beverly, the clinician with a passion for fundamental science, Neelix, the Talaxian, who has numerous jobs on board the Voyager, Major Kira, the Bajoran, who certainly is one of the strongest female characters of Star Trek on Deep Space Nine. We meet some of the beloved characters of Next Generation again. Seeing William Riker and Deanna Troi finally happy together is certainly a highlight of the show. And the appearance of Data and Spot 2 are intriguing. However, Seven of Nine as action figure killing Romulans and taking over the place of the Borg queen is rather disturbing. Picard’s new crew members cannot even remotely reach the depth of the old Star Trek characters, and the fact that the majority are human goes against the very principle of Star Trek and the United Federation of Planets.

One of the most hilarious scenes of the new Star Trek: Picard series, in which he calls his dog ‘Number One’, is in the very first episode. And unfortunately, it goes downhill from there. The only thing that will always remain the same is the amazing acting of Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who still spreads the same optimism and belief in the peaceful solution of conflicts as he always has. Make it so!

Why so serious? PowerPoint Karaoke at MRS Meetings

Guest post by Daniel Stadler, PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Cologne and organizer of the PowerPoint©  Karaoke at the Materials Research Society (MRS) meetings

The idea that karaoke is fun and a great ice-breaker is shared by all those who have ever participated in a karaoke event.  But karaoke in science — where you have a PowerPoint© slide instead of a teleprompter and music — can also be hilarious, as was shown at the recent Materials Research Society (MRS) meetings. What if you have never seen a slide you are asked to present: welcome to PowerPoint© Karaoke!

Power Point Karaoke at the Fall MRS meeting 2019 in Boston. Image courtesy of Daniel Stadler.

An initiative of the Student Engagement Subcommittee of the Materials Research Society dedicated to promote the engagement of the younger generation in science, the PowerPoint© Karaoke was coordinated and organized by a group of highly motivated volunteers, and the event was featured at both the Spring and Fall editions of the 2019 MRS meeting. In the words of Sanjay Mathur, a professor from the University of Cologne who chairs the broader committee of which the Student Engagement Subcommittee is part,a science karaoke can be both intimidating and thrilling at the same time, but it creates an excitement that is best described as an amalgam of a delightful social gathering and scientific presentation”.

At this event where you don’t know the content of your slide, you have to come up with your own interpretation and ideas. And because this slide was made by another person, it is sometimes difficult to get the intended message, but this gives the presenter the possibility to create their own, sometimes very entertaining story. A dozen of participants took part to the two editions of the MRS PowerPoint© Karaoke before an audience of more than 200 people, and really nailed it. In the serious and sometimes exhausting frame of a conference, with a lot of discussions, scientific networking and debating, people could see that there is also a room for entertainment and fun in science. Sometimes it just needs one presentation to remind people that this fun is needed to create new ideas.

The event also has some educational aspects. On the one hand, the slide authors have to prepare a clear, readable and – most importantly – understandable PowerPoint© presentation. On the other hand, the presenter needs to get the idea and come up with a catchy way to deliver the message. In fact, the presenter needs to be brave enough to give this kind of presentation in the first place. At this point, the audience comes into play. By cheering and supporting the presenter, the audience creates a relaxed environment: stuttering is not awful, missing a word not a big deal. From this, the role of an audience in any presentation becomes clearer, and should be a take home message for everyone. The interplay between presenter and audience is critical, and the beauty of PowerPoint© Karaoke lies in the fact that people are experiencing this without deliberately noticing.

Going up on stage and giving a three-minute performance on an unknown topic requires self-confidence and courage and I have great respect for everyone who was willing to participate in this very enjoyable event,” says Isabel Gessner, MRS PowerPoint© Karaoke enthusiast since day one. “All participants, presenters and slide authors did a fantastic job, and I am very thankful to the organizer who let us include this scientific and entertaining event in the MRS Meeting program.” 

During the organization of the first event, I did not know in which direction PowerPoint© Karaoke might evolve. Now, one year later, I look back on many wonderful talks and lots of good memories. A good presentation does not need to be only scientifically sound, but also natural. Be yourself, present yourself and deliver the message you see in the PowerPoint© slide. See you at the next MRS PowerPoint© Karaoke event!

CERN Science Gateway – for audiences of all ages, and for the scientific community

Ana Godinho, the Head of Education, Communications and Outreach at CERN, talked to us about the CERN Science Gateway, a very exciting outreach project.

 

On a recent trip to Lisbon, the taxi driver asked me where I had flown in from.

“Geneva,” I replied.

“And what do you do there?” he asked.

“I work at CERN,” I said.

“Ah, CERN. Where they accelerate particles round the huge tunnel,” the taxi driver cheerfully offered.

 

Was I surprised that someone from outside the scientific world was familiar with CERN? As a matter of fact – no, I wasn’t. Over more than a decade, concerted communications and public engagement programmes have contributed to CERN becoming part of popular culture. The start of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in 2008, and the discovery of the Higgs boson, in 2012, captured the imagination of both scientific communities (notice the plural) and the so-called lay public alike.

CERN is one of the world’s leading laboratories for particle physics. Today, it is also recognised as a source of inspiration and engagement for citizens around the world. The taxi driver could well have been one of the over 100 000 visitors that visit CERN each year (he wasn’t), or he could know one of the close to 1000 teachers that take part in CERN’s programmes, or any of the almost 7000 students that each year participate in hands-on physics workshops at CERN.

To expand and diversify its education, communication and public engagement portfolio, CERN is preparing to build a new education and outreach centre – CERN Science Gateway. Housed in an iconic building designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, CERN Science Gateway will enable a diverse audience across all ages and all sectors of the public to engage with the science, the discoveries, the technologies and the people working at CERN. A series of three pavilions and two tunnels, joined by a bridge floating over the road running in front of CERN, will house exhibitions, laboratories for informal learning and a 900-seater auditorium. An ample and forest-like outdoor area will consolidate the vision of a village, where people will meet to explore CERN Science Gateway, and depart on a discovery of the CERN sites.

CERN Science Gateway Credit: Renzo Piano Building Workshop

CERN Science Gateway’s permanent exhibitions will be housed in the two suspended tubes. In ‘Discover CERN’ children and adults alike will feel they are behind the scenes at CERN, interacting with technologies and discoveries in their actual setting, embedded in stories featuring real scientists and engineers. ‘Our Universe’ will be a journey through space and time back to the origin of everything we see around us today – the Big Bang. It will also be a journey into the future, inviting visitors to discover the big mysteries that govern our universe: dark matter, gravity, extra dimensions and more. Another hands-on exhibition area (located in one of the pavilions) will explore the quantum world – visitor will investigate on a macro scale the weird world in which particles move and interact.

Hands-on and minds-on is the motto for the learning laboratories in CERN Science Gateway. Through enquiry-based learning, children (from age five), students and families will work independently on experiments linked to the research carried out at CERN. Specially trained tutors will guide the visitors on their exploration into the working methods, technologies and research of the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.

CERN Science Gateway Credit: Renzo Piano Building Workshop

The modular auditorium will provide a unique space (in fact, several spaces) for both the scientific community and for public events. It will be a privileged venue for the meetings of the collaborations of the experiments at CERN and indeed for the wider particle physics community. For the public of all ages, science shows, film festivals, theatre, performances, debates will be part of a wide-reaching and diverse programme, making CERN a hub for multidisciplinary debate, learning and participation.

This ambitious project (as all projects at CERN) costs at CHF 79 million, and is fully covered by external funds, raised through a dedicated fundraising strategy. Several important donations have been secured since the work started on the project, in 2017, setting us confidently on the path to start building work in 2020 and opening CERN Science Gateway in the third quarter of 2022.

 

Make a note in your diaries for a visit to Geneva in 2022, to explore Science Gateway and CERN!

Interactions: Ankita Anirban

Ankita joins Nature Reviews Physics after a brief period as locum associate editor at Nature Reviews Materials. After a BSc degree from King’s College London, Ankita went on to pursue an MPhil at the University of Cambridge, on low-temperature transport of one-dimensional electron systems. She then continued with PhD studies on the theme of electron transport of topological insulator heterostructures at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

What made you want to be a physicist?

As a child, I loved fantasy novels and used to wish that I lived in a world with magic, elves and dragons. Physics classes at school seemed dull in comparison, until I discovered quantum mechanics through popular science books as a teenager. Suddenly it seemed that our world could be as crazy as Alice in Wonderland with strange phenomena like entanglement and superposition of particles. This seemed cooler than dragons as we could actually “see” these things happen in a lab – and so I became a physicist!

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

A travel writer/journalist. I’d love to explore lots of interesting and remote places around the world and write about the stories and people I met.

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

I want science to become more accessible. So many non-scientists are intimidated by the idea of science and maths. I would love for science to become “dinner table conversation” in the way politics or books or films are for the general public.

What would be your (physics) superpower?

To have magic eyes – that can work as a microscope (maybe even an electron microscope!) and zoom into all the details of things around me, and also as a telescope to see distant galaxies.

What’s your favourite (quasi-)particle?

Probably the humble electron. It’s not a glamorous particle, but I’ve spent years making electronic devices which I think of as “electron playgrounds” so I have grown attached to them.

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

Definitely a time-machine. Ignoring all the related paradoxes I’d have to deal with, I want to be able to transport myself to the past and actually find out what history was like.

Neutrino physics: past, present and future

On 19th December we hosted a neutrino symposium in our Springer Nature campus in London. We invited four scientists to share their views and excitement about the past, present and future of neutrino physics. The meeting was organised together with King’s College London and with the support of JSPS.

Mark Vagins, professor at UC Irvine and the first full-time foreign professor at Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe in Japan told the history of supernova neutrinos and explained the gadolinium detection he invented, claiming he owns more gadolinium than any other human.

Atsuko Ichikawa, associate professor at Kyoto University and the spokesperson of the T2K experiment in Japan started her talk by asking “why am I here?” It turned out that she was referring to the reason why there is more matter than antimatter in the Universe rather than question her presence at the meeting. This became clear as she explained the mechanism of neutrino oscillations and CP violation.

Linda Cremonesi introduced the NoVA, DUNE and ANITA experiments illustrating her slides with the iconic particlezoo neutrinos. She explained how one launches and recovers a balloon-borne experiment such as ANITA in the most remote locations in Antarctica and described the IceCube experiment at the South Pole.

During the lunch break Ben Still, visiting research fellow at Queen Mary University London, particle physicist, author and educator gave a live demonstration of his unique way of explaining particle physics using LEGO bricks. The participants had the opportunity to build their own particles.

David Wark, professor at University of Oxford and former director of the particle physics group at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, T2K international spokesperson, UK co-spokesperson of SNO experiment, gave a round-up talk explaining what we knew, and thought we knew back in 1981 compared what we know, we think we know, and we really do not know today. There are many exciting questions about neutrinos.

A keen group of sixth form students attended the symposium. “I’d vaguely heard of neutrinos, but I didn’t know much about what they were” one of them told us. When asked whether they could follow the talks they answered “Yeah, at least most of it. I especially love the LEGO demonstration, it’s so interactive and accessible”. Most of the students are planning to study physics at university – although one student said he was there just for fun!

The event ended with and open discussion moderated by Yoshi Uchida, professor at Imperial College.

The first question was where are we going in the longer term future (>10 years) and what is the public support for the neutrino program? In Japan the funding looks good as Hyper-Kamiokande has just been given green light and the speakers called the neutrino “the national particle of Japan”. The speakers recalled personal experiences with members of the general public being extremely knowledgeable, supportive and sometimes in awe of neutrino physics.  David Wark pointed out that in most areas of science, you wouldn’t dream of having a strategy for 10 years or more.

Asked about the challenges of working in large collaborations the speakers mentioned cultural differences, major travel and communication over different time zones. Astuko Ichikawa compared large collaboration to the teams behind Formula 1 cars, or a rocket going to the Moon. For winning the Grand Prix or reaching the Moon you need large teams of experts and you need them to cooperate. Everyone has their own part to play and each project is a creative one, each person has to do a creative work so it is very rewarding.

Another question was whether we are running out of testable theories? None of the speakers thought that was the case, although they agreed that most theories are unlikely to be correct. Linda Cremonesi pointed out that saying we don’t have any good theories is a very LHC-centric view of things. There are a lot of open questions in neutrino physics and many exciting possibilities.

When asked what do they do outside of work, the speakers came up with unexpected hobbies such as a rock band, standup comedy and impersonating Santa Claus.

When asked whether they would bet on neutrinos being Majorana or Dirac particle, four out of five speakers voted for Majorana and only Mark Vagins proved to be a Dirac supporter.

When asked what is THE thing they want to find out in the next decade most of the speakers agreed on: measuring neutrinos from the Big Bang, confirming the CP violation and understanding how big is it and answering whether neutrinos are Majorana particles or not. David Wark added that he wants to see something genuinely unexpected, because we haven’t had anything completely unpredicted – that turned out to be correct – for a long time.

What’s in our browser tabs? October 2019

As editors of physics journals, we love reading the latest research papers, but we also love a bit of lunch-break science-related browsing. Here are some pieces that caught our eyes in October:

Nature and physics. In Physics Today, Melinda Baldwin recounts the highs and lows of physics research published in Nature over the past 150 years.

 

At APS News, Preprints make inroads outside of physics. “Recently, however, the tide has begun to shift. Since 2013, dozens of preprint servers in fields such as biology, chemistry, and sociology have popped up and garnered tens of thousands of submissions.”

 

Football’s concussion crisis is awash with pseduoscience, reports Christie Aschwanden in Wired. “Products that offer a “seatbelt” or “bubble wrap” for the brain claim to reduce head trauma. If only the laws of physics worked that way.”

 

Check out the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics 36th annual Gallery of Fluid Motion and an accompanying editorial explaining how winners were picked and giving some stats on which fluid dynamics phenomena get awarded the most.

 

Review with care. Writing in Science, Adriana L. Romero-Olivares gives good advice for when, and how, to comment as a referee on the level of written English of a scientific paper.


Athene Donald asks, What do we know about the research ecosystem? “There is a need for more understanding of the decisions that are taken where and by whom in the research ecosystem and what the implications of these decisions are as they ripple through higher education and far beyond. A new research institute – the Research on Research Institute, or RoRI for short – was launched this week at the Wellcome building (a key partner) in London , with a wealth of snappily short talks to illustrate the range of issues RoRI might elect to study.”

What’s in our browser tabs? September 2019

As editors of physics journals, we love reading the latest research papers, but we also love a bit of lunch-break science-related browsing. Here are some pieces that caught our eyes in September:

Emmy Noether is a new chapter in the graphic novel Women in Science from Cliò Agrapidis and Elena Mistrello, available in Italian, English and German. You can also read our guest post from Cliò about the previous chapter, on Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Misconceptions in Astronomical History. Ben Orlin at Math with Bad Drawings illustrates some of his favourite moments in Marcia Bartusiak’s book Dispatches from Planet 3.

Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper — Nature. Van Savage and Pamela Yeh share a condensed version of Cormac McCarthy’s writing tips for scientists.

The throw calculator on XKCD. How far could a squirrel throw a ping pong ball? How far could George Washington throw a wedding cake? How far could Thor, god of thunder, throw a car?

The throw calculator may well merit an Ig Nobel Prize, but the actual 2019 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded this month — the Physics prize was awarded for a study of how wombats make cube-shaped poo. A report from the prize ceremony in Physics: Arts and Culture: Science as a Laughing Matter.

Check out the winning images in the Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2019 competition.

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.