Day 2 of Erice International School of Science Journalism - Of Synchrotrons, SESAME, and Stars
Day 2 introduced some of us to a full night's sleep, and thus restoration of our full powers of intelligence, wit, humour and beauty. However this day also brought our remaining wayward fellow students to Erice, in much the same state of delayed-flight sleeplessness and jetlag as we earlier arrivals had been.
The first talk was of 'a very special candle' – synchrotrons, as explained by Francesco Sette of ESRF. Synchrotrons are facilities that fire incredibly intense beams of light through objects. Synchrotron radiation is capable of illuminating research down to the atomic level, to explore the shape of molecules and to clarify the structure of viral ribosomes. This ability can also be used to piece together larger pictures, such as by revealing hidden van Gogh paintings, and reading the writing inside ancient scrolls from archaeological digs. Francesco led us through a potted history of synchrotron facilities, from the first tabletop-sized synchrotron of 1947, to the massive facilities that exist today throughout the world. Modern synchrotrons can generate radiation which is 100 million times brighter than the first described x-rays of 1885. Most facilities are distributed throughout Japan, the USA, and Europe. Later on, we would be introduced to a notable synchrotron being built in the Middle East.
But next, Nicola Nosengo bade us to consider why light technology prevails, or fails. The invention of the blue LED in the early 1990s is considered so significant that it scooped a Nobel Prize in 2014. The invention of red LEDs, those red spots punctuating the everyday machines of our households and the glittering eye of HAL, did not win anything. For the combination of red LEDs, green LEDs and blue LEDs means that now white LEDs can be created. White LEDs are heralded as an efficient, energy and money-saving means to illuminate our environments and lifestyles. This steady improvement continues to uphold Haitz's Law, which predicts a steady increase in the light LED technology can produce against falling costs. This is the simple economic ideal, that better science leads to better technology at cheaper prices for all, and that more efficient, cheaper lighting will be a massive mainstay against global warming. But when our environment presents us with new benefits, we tend to change our behaviour to take advantage. This is Jevon's Paradox, quite simply, the message being that increasing fuel efficiency can increase consumption. So should we believe the hype about how beneficial LED lights will be? “Innovation in a single technology is one thing. Innovation in a technological system is another,” Nicolo warned.
Similarly, just look at the impact that cars had on society, and our behaviour in this strikingly brilliant film...
Luca Serafini delivered the second and final lecture on Extreme Light Infrastructure, focusing on the development of the ELI-NP laser in Romania. His first talk on ELI had been a crash-course in incredibly brilliant lasers operating at numbers and timescales of bewilderingly high and short scales. My brain was still trying to get to grips with these notions when it began learning about the ELI-NP laser. This laser will fulfil the nuclear photonics 'research pillar' of ELI, which means its research focus will be to explore and manipulate atomic nuclei. That's the easy part. The difficult part to comprehend is that this will be a uniquely powerful laser at the very forefront of research, producing the shortest and most powerful laser flashes, such that the acceleration of photons achieved over 10km of accelerator can instead be generated from 1cm pulses of plasma. The mechanism by which this is achieved emulates the gamma-ray bursts of distant galaxies, the brightest radiation events in the universe. Luca introduced a present and near future where relativistic optics become ultra-relativistic optics and eventually QED optics. The words he used dipped in and out of my uneven grasp of self-taught physics like the hazy plot of a badly dubbed film. My consciousness was rooting through slightly abandoned reserves of my brain, hurriedly seeking more mental yardsticks for scale and wonder. I stared at a helpful analogy for electrons surfing waves to understand this high-level physics. It was reassuring in its simplicity, a pictoral pacifier. Again, how helpful analogies can be used to translate physics for non-mathematicians, I thought, reassured. Sketching out futuristic ideas for high-energy lasers, such as to scan sealed containers and detect nuclear fuel, Luca reflected that the ELI-NP laser is also a prototype, at the front-line of technological progress. How its technology will come to be adopted and refined by industry remains to be seen.
We went out to seek lunch in Erice, and became entangled in the curious nether reaches of Sicilian time. It is an elastic and abstract concept that swept us up, fed us (some of us / eventually / not at all) and deposited us for a necessarily late-starting seminar hosted by Open Knowledge.
Open Knowledge is a non-profit organisation who promote open data. That's the generic nutshell description, but the seminar conveyed richer and better messages to us. Open Knowledge ask us to be aware of our own power as data journalists - curators of the sea of available open data. Data journalism can open up specific perspectives in a topic, as well as uncover new stories. The eponymous handbook can be found here. Jonathan Gray and Liliana Bounegru showed us examples of a range of data curations, with impacts ranging from the entertaining - The Most Googled Thanksgiving Recipes by US State presents a surprising selection of American cuisine - to the ever-prescient – Climaps reveals geographical preparation to climate change – to the brutally sobering – The Migrants Files meticulously documents the loss of 29,000 human lives. Open Knowledge have also created the Panton Principles specifically for open data in science, to help scientists to make data from their studies available for public use. Afterwards, we planned our own data projects. The topics on our mind proved to be drones, anti-vaxxers, and science engagement.
Francesco Sette's talk showed us the distribution of synchrotrons throughout the world, which are mainly distributed throughout Japan, the USA, and Europe. But Giorgio Paolucci introduced us to SESAME, the first synchrotron in the Middle East. SESAME is a research facility that will both augment and unify the work of scientists from multiple Middle Eastern countries. Through political tensions and regional conflict, the “common language” of science is the focus of the developing SESAME facility.
After another dinner, the evening was finished with a night-time stroll to the castle where Larry Krumenaker, astronomer and science journalist at University of Heidelberg's Institute of Theoretical Physics, introduced us anew to the stars. Little had I realised that the tools for measuring degrees of latitude, had forever been located at the ends of my wrists. Larry introduced us to various memorable stars and bodies of the night sky, pointing out useful features including Venus, silvery siren, the bright star Regulus, the constellation of the Lion which also happens to look like a mouse, and the North star.
And that was Sunday.
Here, have some more Marsala wine.
Not quite a blog, but things that I have written. Please note - these writings are unedited, for the purposes of flexing my fingers, and no doubt contain grammatical errors and carelessness of expression I wouldn't allow in professional writing.