Elemental discoveries – ununpentium

Experiments carried out between 14th July and 10th August 2003 involving scientists at Dubna (Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at the U400 cyclotron with the Dubna gas-filled recoil separator, DGFRS) in Russia in a collaboration also involving scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA provided the first evidence for the superheavy elements 115 dubbed ununpentium provisionally. Details were published in February 2004. At the time, a mere four nuclei of this element were identified in those experiments.

Now, the element can be added officially to the Periodic Table just in time for the kids going back to school as researchers at Lund University, Sweden, have confirmed the existence of element 115. Pundits, among them ClassicFM are hoping t’official name will be Nelly (the Element).

An international team of researchers, led by physicists from Lund University, have confirmed the existence of what is considered a new element with atomic number 115. The experiment was conducted at the GSI research facility in Germany. The results confirm earlier measurements performed by research groups in Russia. “This was a very successful experiment and is one of the most important in the field in recent years,” says Lund’s Dirk Rudolph. The team had bombarded a thin film of the element americium with calcium ions and measured the pattern of X-ray energy released, which matched predicted energies for the alpha decay of ununpentium.

Earth calling Cassini

People around the world shared more than 1,400 images of themselves as part of the Wave at Saturn event organized by NASA’s Cassini mission on July 19 — the day the Cassini spacecraft turned back toward Earth to take our picture. The mission has assembled a collage from those images. The collage is online here.

Of course, this is yet another excuse for me to mention my song Pale Blue Dot and to check whether or not Thom Yorke and Radiohead are planning to record a version, yeah right. There’s also now a video montage for my song.

Sciencebase FeedMyReads Q&A

The excellent author-reader twitter community hosted by FeedMyReads (aka Fraser Stoopman), put out a call for questions from twitter users for me, sciencebase, this week. Fraser has been sharing my answers to the intriguing and amusing questions in a spate of tweets, but I thought I’d post them all in one place for Sciencebase visitors, so here they. Thanks for your questions, especially the fun ones from Sime.

Henry Gee – What gets you up in the morning?

Usually, a dig in the ribs from my wife expecting a cup of tea and the dulcet tones of Humphrys et al with the news headlines on the radio. And, of course, the urge to share the scientific discoveries I come across in as informative and entertaining way as I can. Oh, and our labrador always needs her breakfast and an exit to her morning constitutional.

Charli (BookBlogger)Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Hah, not at all. I always wanted to be a marine biologist and then a physicist, and then a guitar god (still working on that one) but of the sciences I was better academically in chemistry, so I ended up studying in that field and realising quite early on that I couldn’t find a labcoat to fit. Becoming a science journalist seemed to be the happy compromise – I get to “do” science without being an actual scientist – and it’s worked out quite well for me this last (almost) quarter century.

What do you eat while you write?

Well, I had two (not three Shredded Wheat) with low-fat milk just before I booted up my laptop to start writing the response to your interesting question. I tend to take time out to eat rather than eating while I write, but I will have a banana with my mid-morning coffee and perhaps a slice of cake with the afternoon cup of tea. Crumbs and spillage are a constant risk…

Jack CroxallWhat was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research for Deceived Wisdom?

Well, it wasn’t a particular scientific revelation, it was more how people really do cling to their pet belief. The deceived wisdom persists even when you show them the money, as it were. It’s hard to dispute the science-based evidence but strongly held beliefs will override rationality again and again it seems. That is a surprise.

What would you say is a particularly underused but effective means of communicating science?

I don’t think we can say any area is underused these days, if anything there is sometimes too much information for the public to digest, too many purported “breakthroughs” that are usually just iterations. Moreover, in medical science in particular, what is heard on a Monday will conflict with is learned on a Tuesday; the supposed pros and cons of coffee, red wine, vitamin supplements etc etc being a case in point. But, that said, it would be nice if the aforementioned Humphrys et al would cover a bit more science and do so in an informed as opposed to their apparently bored and/or uncomprehending manner.

Dave CunnahHow much bicarbonate of soda and vinegar would I need to launch a rocket into space?

I’d have to do a proper back-of-the-envelope Fermi calculation, but I suspect you wouldn’t ever be able to build up and release sufficient pressure at a level and expulsion rate to achieve escape velocity, just over 11000 metres per second. Sadly.

SimeWhere did my hat go? I miss it so much.

Did you check under the sofa? But, more importantly, you need to learn to let go, it’s just a hat, buy another…

Who put the ram in the ramalamadingdong?

Wasn’t that George ‘Wydell’ Jones?

Why don’t boys cry and is there a cure?

Do we need a cure for something that isn’t a health problem? I despair at the medicalisation of the human condition in the absence of detrimental symptoms. But, I bet if they got Robert Smith chopping highly lacrimogenic onions on Masterchef you’d see just a single tear rolling down his cheek in recognition of how low he’d gone.

60SecondScienceWho will win 2013 science Vidcomp at
http://www.60secondscience.net ? Or won’t u know until Entries close on 20Nov?

Who am I to judge…just yet?

Guru MagazineWhat’s the biggest challenge faced by scientists today?

I suppose I could say the rising tide of irrationality, but there probably is no rising tide, people have always been largely irrational. Climate, pollution, energy supply, material resources, population concerns, famine, water, war? Maybe. We’ve always had those too and always will. I suppose the eternal question of “where did it all come from?” remains no small challenge, pushing back to the tiniest, split nanosecond after the Big Bang, does not explain the “before” even if we try to fudge that by saying there was no time before that…and given that we have no clue as to what the universe actually is – viz dark matter and dark energy – perhaps we’re still lightyears away from answering that fundamental question.

A new nova in the sky

There’s a new “nova” in the sky. Not a supernova, just a nova. But, what is a nova?

A classical nova happens in a special kind of tightly-orbiting binary star system: one where a relatively normal star pours a stream of hydrogen onto the surface of a companion white dwarf. When the layer of fresh hydrogen on the white dwarf’s surface grows thick and dense enough, the bottom of the layer explodes in a runaway hydrogen-fusion reaction – a hydrogen bomb in the shape of a thin shell roughly the size of Earth. The underlying white dwarf remains intact, and as new hydrogen builds up, the process may repeat in a few years to tens of thousands of years.


via Bright Nova in Delphinus – Observing Blog – SkyandTelescope.com. More technical data on this here, showing how it has peaked and is fading in magnitude again.

Fifty ways to pack your circles

Squaring the circle is but one futile endeavour akin to squeezing a round peg into a square hole. But there are many improbable problems that humanity seeks to solve and with the advent of supercomputers and so-called “big data” it seems that perhaps no problem is now off-limits. Unfortunately, it ain’t necessarily so.

Engineer Chikit Au of the University of Waikato, in Hamilton, New Zealand, has investigated how well we know how to pack circles into a square space and found that although many of us might imagine the answer is obvious, there are many more routes to an apparently optimal solution than one might expect and that there is perhaps no optimal approach to the problem at all. Au suggests that the complexity of the solutions to this purportedly simple puzzle point to an intrinsic truth that complex problems rarely have simple solutions.


Packing objects has been a perennial problem throughout human history, at least ever since we first grabbed a handful of sticks for the fire or a stash of fruit. It represents an archetypal engineering problem for construction, storage and logistics and in an abstract sense is the archetype of many problems seeking a solution that we face today. Nature, of course, seems to cope with packing very well on its own – think honeycombs and cellular and molecular matrices. Circle cutting to minimise material waste in industry and pie-making alike are examples of packing problems, as too are packing rolls of paper in the publishing industry or pipes in a plumbing warehouse. The list is endless.

Au has carried out a mathematical analysis of the ways – the process from adding the first to the last circle – in which circles can be packed into a square space. There are apparently 27 (not 50) ways that provide an optimal approach to circle packing and 11 pathways that could lead to other optimal approaches to sequential packing of circles. Although it is seemingly a classical problem, Au suggests that circle packing is a much more complex problem than previously thought. The equations that describe the optimal routes and the pathways to other optimal routes to fully packed circles are complicated. Moreover, it seems that optimisation is not affected directly by near neighbours among the circles but how patterns within the layout emerge elsewhere in the arrangement, something that even a supercomputer and huge, let alone big, data cannot yet cope with.

“In the history of science, many attempts, heroic or otherwise, have made on prediction. The science behind the idea is to model the dynamics of the underlying (optimisation) process that give rise to difference equations or differential equations,” says. The “simple” demonstration of the complexity of circle packing suggests a degree of hubris among the scientifically heroic and lessons to be learned for how we approach big problems with big data.

Research Blogging IconAu, C. (2013) ‘Patterns and pathways of packing circles into a square’, Int J. Computer Applications in Technology, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 58—73