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Science – 1; Magic – 0

By Ann Fenech, on 13 June 2010

Science vs Magic Yesterday a boy told me “you cannot make a perpetual motion machine” while discussing water rockets and Newton’s laws. But today I think I’ve seen one! Running around the stage at breakneck speed Alom Shaha has just presented Science vs Magic.

For Alom, magic school took 10 weeks and £250; Science, including time at UCL, cost him 20 years and over £15,000. Which was worth it?

With a card trick we delved into ‘How does that work?’

  • Magic? Simple explanations!
  • Science? It’s about “fundamental things”

Another difference?

  • Magic = cheap props…”Magicians are obsessed with handkerchiefs”
  • Science = real phenomena…”Understand the nature of reality at its fundamental level”

From vanishing handkerchiefs, to mind-blowing mind-reading, we saw it all. But of course there is a scientific reason behind everything…and a scientific phenomenon which is even more exciting than the magic trick!

Alom Shaha said, “Science is hard”, but there is the “satisfaction of getting to grips with it”. I think that is one of the most important messages. It is more the satisfaction of getting my teeth into a problem and solving it that I appreciate about science, rather than necessarily the learning of ’stuff’. And I think that is what we need to get across to the general public: the ‘good feeling’ you get from finally seeing the light in any problem.

I want to end by echoing Alom Shaha’s excellent sentiment at the end of the event:

I don’t care that I’m just a physics teacher, because that is what I want to be”

Chemistry’s love of volatility

By Ann Fenech, on 12 June 2010

Andrea Sella
Interspersing his speech with words including “spectacularly brilliant”, “stunningly beautiful”, “just mesmerising”, Andrea Sella, from UCL Chemistry has just reminded me exactly why I love chemistry. He is clearly enthusiastic about his subject, and that enthusiasm was definitely infectious.

Today I attended a full-house event for Andrea Sella’s event Chemistry: A volatile history with Jim Al-Khalili. The event was based on the recent television series of the same name.

As Sella stated, chemistry always seems to be thought about in connection with pollution, cancer and other negative terms. However, there is so much more to it.

The ancient Greeks believed that the world was made up of 4 elements: water, earth, air and fire. However, as chemists (or alchemists) tried to discover more, they started identifying individual elements, culminating in the development of the periodic table. Quoting Sella, “It’s true that chemistry is about the elements. But it is also about much more than that”.

During the event we saw slow-motion videos from the series, but even more impressively Andrea Sella had numerous demos prepared for us – from burning potassium, to burning diamonds…yes there was a lot of burning!

A truly inspiring event, both for how much information it provided, but even more so for the way it brought that information to your attention in a subtle but exciting manner.

As a chemist I cannot resist ending with this quote, again from Sella:

If it stinks and burns: it’s chemistry;

If it doesn’t work: it’s physics.

Dr Lucie Green on the mysteries of the Sun

By Lara Carim, on 10 June 2010

Dr Lucie Green works at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL’s Department of Space and Climate Physics.

She divides her time between research into how the Sun behaves and communicating her work to the public (for which she won an award last year).

Today at Cheltenham she is discussing how scientists monitor the Sun, and its mysterious calm over the past two years which is baffling astronomers.

In this video, Dr Green describes her experience of a total solar eclipse from the Pacific Ocean – and what scientists can learn from such a rare phenomenon.