Monthly Archives: March 2013

Fundamental Physics Prize

The silver Fundamental Physics Prize, designed by Olafur EliassonPhoto: PK Read

The silver Fundamental Physics Prize, designed by Olafur Eliasson
Photo: PK Read

I had the good fortune last night to attend the inaugural ceremony for the Fundamental Physics Prize, which awards outstanding achievements in fundamental research, hosted by the wonderful Morgan Freeman. There were nine recipients of the FPP for individual achievement, as well as two recipients of special achievement awards. One of the recipients of the special achievement awards was Professor Stephen Hawking, the second award being shared by a group of seven scientists who helped run the experiments at CERN which validation of the existence of the Higgs boson. The New Horizons Prize also rewarded three young scientists for outstanding work. With award money of $3 million going to each individual and each group ($100,000 for each New Horizon prize recipient), the FPP is the most richly compensated academic prize in the world.

FPP founder, Russian Internet mogul Yuri Milner, said in a New York Times article last year that, ““I wanted this amount to be meaningful. I think top scientists need to be compensated at a different scale in society. Somebody with experience will tell you that true scientists are not motivated by money — they are motivated by the quest itself. That is true. But I think an additional recognition will not hurt.”

As Alexander Polyakov, one of the recipients, said on stage, every year he holds a class for students who are considering whether or not to pursue physics as their main course of study. “If you have to ask yourself this question, then physics is not for you. A poet doesn’t ask whether he should study poetry. It’s a compulsion. Likewise a musician who can’t help playing the guitar. Studying physics must be a passion, a compulsion, because the fact of the matter is that it is too difficult to do if you see it as a job.” He said he always closes the class by saying, “If you want a job that will make money, that will make you rich, then don’t choose physics. Choose it because you can’t help yourself.”

Holding his award, he laughed and said, “How are they supposed to take me seriously anymore?” This was before he was awarded the evening’s overall

Physicists aren't accustomed to awards. From left to right: CERN special prize recipients Lyn Evans, Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Singh Virdee, Peter Jenni. Not shown: Guido Tonelli, Joe Incandela, and Fabiola GionottiPhoto: PK Read

Physicists aren’t accustomed to splashy awards ceremonies. From left to right: CERN special prize recipients Lyn Evans, Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Singh Virdee, Peter Jenni. Not shown: Guido Tonelli, Joe Incandela, and Fabiola Gianotti
Photo: PK Read

Fundamental Physics Prize, in which one of the recipients was chosen by all the others for special acknowledgement. And an additional $3 million award. To be fair to Dr. Polyakov, he seemed quite overwhelmed by all the attention and accolades. One of his fellow recipients said they had been collectively trying to come up with a name to call FPP recipients. So far, their mutual favorite was The Fundamentals.

Perhaps with this kind of award, excelling in the field of academic science will become almost as appealing as succeeding in the field of celebrity. Maybe even those who don’t feel the initial compulsion will discover that science studies, in general, can be very rewarding in a multiplicity of ways. Not one of the award laureates failed to mention the enormous amount of teamwork, international collaboration, cooperation and sharing upon which all their work is based. It’s a field dominated by those for whom science isn’t just work – it’s the stuff of life.

CNBC press release: 2013 Fundamental Physics Prize Awarded to Alexander Polyakov

New York Times article (2012): Celebrating Impractical Physicists

The Fundamental Prize ceremony:

Renewable Spring

Polyethylene strand

Polyethylene strand

In the spirit of eternal renewal, on this first day of spring I thought I’d talk about plastics. Infinitely adaptable, modern plastics are integral to modern life more than almost any other material. Plastics are the very stuff of modernity. Take away the excessive packaging, the unnecessary plastic bags, the plastic drink bottles and even the plastic baby diapers (none of which will ever really leave us, long after we have stopped producing and using them), we would still have a life based on some kind of plastic.

What is one of the best ways to know we are watching a film about old-timey times, or to make light of a backward culture? Everything is made or being done with wood, metal, horn, stone. No plastics.

A 17th-century definition of plastic describes something that is “capable of shaping or molding,” from Latin plastics, and from Greek plastikos “able to be molded, pertaining to molding, fit for molding.” Our human inventiveness has demanded nothing less than materials which can be shaped to our demands. It has only been during the last fifty years that the term ‘plastic’ has come to mean ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ in a perjorative sense.

We used to produce plastics that were based on natural materials we could mold. Horn, and later hard rubber. But, like all natural things, these have the tendency to break, to deteriorate, to lose their form.

So we adapted, and made better plastics. And now here we are, with a vast array of plastics based mainly on polyethylene, a material that is made from one of our other favorite elements of modernity, petroleum. Not only do we have plastics that do whatever we want them to, we also have them forever because even when are finished with them, they are not finished with us. We have mountains of plastic trash on land, vast , island gyres of plastics in the oceans, plastic molecules in our water and in our food.

It is impossible to think away plastics, no matter their immense downstream costs. At an annual production rate of 80 million metric tons (2008), plastics are big business, and they make big business possible wherever they are used.

Still: We can cut down our production and consumption, even if that process tends to come up against our stony stubbornness as humans rather than our plastic adaptability. We can find new materials to mold to our needs, ones that are lasting but also fall into their respective components after a reasonable amount of time has passed.

So, on this vernal equinox of 2013, I salute our ongoing ability to renew, to mold and adapt our expectations, to grow and find our way ahead even after a long, dark winter.

Oceans of GarbageVia:

Oceans of Garbage



Plastics Are Forever website

TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered – Plastic Eating Bacteria

Mother Jones Magazine article – Biodegradable Plastics

Addicted to Plastic (documentary preview)

Something Rich and Strange

Antarctic southern Minke whale fallPhoto: Natural Environment Research Council

Antarctic southern Minke whale fall
Photo: Natural Environment Research Council

Scientists exploring an undersea crater near the South Sandwich Islands have come across a whale skeleton, that of a southern Minke whale, a mile beneath the ocean’s surface near Antarctica. Finding a ‘whale fall’ is a rare enough occurrence, since whales sink to the ocean floor when they die (beached whales account for only an estimated 3% of whale deaths). For humans, finding a whale fall requires a large amount of undersea equipment and even more serendipity.

Whale carcasses provide a bounteous feast for other sea creatures wherever they land. From the quick and lithe scavengers, like sharks and hagfish, to the meticulous crabs,  to slower mollusks and crustaceans, to the thorough bacteria and bivalves, a whale can provide nutrition for up to a century. There are up to 30 species that are exclusive to whale falls. The newly-found Antarctic whale fall alone has revealed at least nine new species of tiny deep-sea creatures.

Where have humans found one of the largest whale falls? In Chile’s Atacama Desert, during the course of a 2011 highway expansion project. More than a kilometer from the ocean, road workers came across a mass graveyard with more than 75 fossilized whales and other creatures, including a tusked dolphin and an aquatic sloth. The site has been dated at between 2-7 million years old. Included among the many intact whale skeletons that were located directly next to one another was a single family group resting together, a sort of aquatic Pompeii scene.

It might be that sea scavengers are so plentiful that a body is quickly discovered, or that the detecting organs of whale fall species are extremely sensitive. Still, I found myself wondering why, if whale fall scavengers seem to be able to locate a feast, we have to simply stumble across them, either by sea or by land. There’s a fascination with what happens to the world’s largest animals when they die. Their fate after death remains almost as mysterious as their movements during life.

Atacama desert site Photo: Danielle Pereira/Flickr

Atacama desert  Photo: Danielle Pereira/Flickr


Original study published in Deep Sea Research Part IITopical Studies in Oceanography on The discovery of a natural whale fall in the Antarctic deep sea, by

  • D.J. Amon,
  • A.G. Glover,
  • H.Wiklund,
  • L. Marsh,
  • K. Linse,
  • A.D. Rogers,
  • J.T. Copley

Mother Nature Network article: Mysterious mass whale graveyard unearthed in the Chilean desert

Lion Lights & Big Enemies


“Me and the lions, we are enemies. Big enemies. We can never forgive one other anything.” Richard Turere

Sketch for Lion Light installation by Richard Turere. I note that the sketch does not include the enemy lion, only the cow to be protected.

Sketch for a Lion Light installation by Richard Turere.
I note that the sketch does not include the enemy lion, only the cow to be protected.

Richard Turere is a young Maasai boy who lives on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park, and up until recently, he was responsible for looking after the family cattle. He invented a simple and inexpensive solution to protecting the family’s wealth from lion attacks. Lion Lights, blinking LED lights connected to a small solar-powered battery, are posted on the perimeters of livestock enclosures at night. The blinking lights fool the lions into thinking that there are humans with flashlights patrolling the farm, and the lions retreat. Simple, elegant, effective (at least unless lions collectively figure out the blinking lights aren’t actually moving). The invention, which young Richard put together himself at the age of eleven, has earned him wide recognition and a scholarship to an excellent private school.

When top predators, in this case lions, come into contact with the top predator  human, in the long run it almost always goes badly for the four-legged predator. Richard Turere isn’t trying to make friends with the lions, and my guess is he didn’t set out to invent Lion Lights with an eye towards conservation of an endangered top predator species. Fewer than 40 lions are estimated to currently live within the National Park. Richard’s installation is intended first and foremost to protect only the animal at the center of his sketch above, the cow.

Between the rapid growth of Nairobi, habitat encroachment for agriculture, livestock grazing and settlements, and some poor park planning from the very beginning, the harsh conflicts between top predators and humans in the National Park seem predestined even more so than other places and predators (for example, bears in Switzerland). Lions are one of the top tourist attractions in an economy in which tourism is the top industry, but that doesn’t make much difference to those who live near the lions but who don’t profit from the tourist trade.

Peace accords are easy between friends, or between a protector and a victim.

A nonviolent means of resolution is particularly welcome when it is found between unforgiving enemies.


Habari Network article – Richard Turere

Swiss Pomology


Today I’m driving up to the Aubonne Valley National Arboretum in Switzerland. It’s a large park situated in a valley between mountains and the vineyards of Lake Geneva’s northwestern shore. The last time we were there, many years ago, the manager of the arboretum kindly gave us a tour. Once he found out I was from California, he took us by the sequoias he himself had planted twenty-five years earlier. I’ll go have a look and see what an extra decade of growth has done for them. There are also the ‘groves of the past’, orchards that focus on heirloom fruits from Swiss history. With regards to this, the arboretum organization publishes the wonderfully named Atlas of Pomology. I’ll be guest-blogging on this more thoroughly at a later date over at my friend Catherine Nelson-Pollard’s blog, Living in Nyon.

And while it’s still too cold and grey to sit under any apple trees just quite yet, here’s a little breath of the summer apple trees to come.

Whisky Advent Calendar – An inventory

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I wanted to list the contents of our 2012 Whisky Advent Calendar by day. We purchased the calendar from Master of Malt, which explains the MoM listings. Whisky calendars are available from other suppliers and I imagine their drams contain other whiskies. My next attempt will be to place them on the Whisky Tasting Wheel.

1 Aberlour 18-Year-Old (Speyside)

2 Master of Malt 10-Year-Old Speyside Whisky Liqueur

3 The Glenlivet Archive 21-Year-Old (Speyside)

4 Glenfarclas 30-Year-Old (Speyside)

5 Dalmore 12-Year-Old (Alness Highlands)

6 Glengoyne 12-Year-Old 1998 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Glasgow Lowlands)

7 Aultmore 5-Year-Old Single Cask (Master of Malt) (Speyside)

8 Yamazaki 18-Year-Old (Shimamoto, Osaka, Japan)

9 Glendronach 15-Year-Old Revival (Speyside)

10 Craigellachie 12-Year-Old 1999 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Speyside)

11 Longmorn 16-Year-Old (Strathspey)

12 Glenglassaugh “The First Cask” (Highland/Speyside)

13 Aberlour a’Bunadh Batch 42 (Speyside)

14 Strathmill 12-Year-Old – Flora and Fauna (Speyside)

15 Auchentoshan 12-Year-Old (Glasgow Lowlands)

16 Allt a Bhainne 14-Year-Old 1996 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Speyside)

17 Pikesville Straight Rye (Bardstown, Kentucky)

18 Bunnahabhain 12-Year-Old (Islay)

19 BenRaich Batch 1 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company) (Speyside)

20 Ballantines 17-Year-Old Scapa Edition

21 Compass Box – Hedonism

22 Ledaig 10-Year-Old (Island)

23 The Macallan 21-Year-Old Fine Oak (Speyside)

24 Master of Malt 50-Year-Old Speyside (3rd Edition)

It’s called being spoilt for choice.

A Floral Buzz

Image: NakedZealot

Image: NakedZealot

It seems the way to make yourself memorable to a bee is to give it a little something that will jazz its buzz and keep it coming back for more . There was the recent study on flowers that offer a mild electrical jolt, and now there’s evidence that some flowers are able offer a mild dose of caffeine to maintain pollinator loyalty. Too much caffeine can be toxic – as any college student knows – but just the right amount can stimulate without poisoning the drinker. As it turns out, bee brains may share certain preferences with human brains when it comes to favorite stimulants.

Smart barista flowers serve up just the right amount to ensure they, rather than their decaf competition, will get better pollination. Bees can taste the difference, and the flower with the best caffeine is the flower they will remember.

Science articleCaffeine in Floral Nectar Enhances a Pollinator’s Memory of Reward (2013), by G. Wright, D. Baker, M. Palmer, D. Stabler, J. Mustard, E. Power, A. Borland, P. Stevenson

Scientific American blog post: The Scicurious Brain – Plants give bees a caffeine buzz 

New York Times article: Nectar that gives bees a buzz lures them back for more, J. Gorman

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

St. Peter's BasilicaSource: Mazur/

St. Peter’s Basilica
Source: Mazur/

A new pope was elected yesterday,  Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. He has taken the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226), patron saint of animals, the environment, of Italy, of merchants and stowaways. A papal predecessor, Pope John Paul II, declared St. Francis to be the Patron of Ecology on November 29, 1979. Later, during the World Environment Day 1982, John Paul II stated that St. Francis’ love for all creation was a reminder for contemporary Catholics “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”

Francis of Assisi is also known as having written an ode to nature and God, the Canticle of the Sun (1224), one of the first pieces of literature in the Italian language. Here, an excerpt in English translation:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

St. Francis’s vision of a seraph, fresco by Giotto; in the Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, Italy Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

St. Francis’s vision of a seraph, fresco by Giotto; in the Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, Italy
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Vatican deputy spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, explaining how St. Francis inspired the name of Pope Francis, said “Francis of Assisi is a great, great figure in the church but known especially for connecting with fellow Christians and many people outside the Christian family,” Rosica said. Not much said about St. Francis’ admiration of nature, but perhaps that will come.
Below are two illustrations. The top illustration shows the global distribution of the Catholic population as of 2010, the lower illustration shows environmental impact according to a 2010 study. Some, though by no means all, of the most heavily impacted areas also have a high Catholic population (i.e. over 50%), particularly in South America.
It will be interesting to see how Pope Francis leads his flock when it comes to the environment.
Distribution of Catholic population globally

Distribution of Catholic population globally 2010 Source: Wikipedia

Relative rank of countries by proportional and absolute environmental impact: Proportional environmental impact (179 countries; top panel) and absolute environmental impact rank (171 countries; bottom panel) (darker grey = higher impact) out of 228 countries considered are shown. Environmental impact ranks (proportional and absolute) combine ranks for natural forest lost, habitat conversion, marine captures, fertilizer use, water pollution, carbon emissions and proportion of threatened species (see text for details). The worst 20 countries for each ranking are shown. Source: PLOS-One

Relative rank of countries by proportional and absolute environmental impact: Proportional environmental impact (179 countries; top panel) and absolute environmental impact rank (171 countries; bottom panel) (darker grey = higher impact) out of 228 countries considered are shown. Environmental impact ranks (proportional and absolute) combine ranks for natural forest lost, habitat conversion, marine captures, fertilizer use, water pollution, carbon emissions and proportion of threatened species (see text for details). The worst 20 countries for each ranking are shown. Source: PLOS-One

PLOS-One study: Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries, by C. Bradshaw, X. Giam, N. Sodhi (Univ. of 2010)

Farewell Forest Symphony

Sunset over the Congo rainforestPhoto: David Beaune via

Sunset over the Congo rainforest
Photo: David Beaune via

The fundamental chords that hold a symphony together aren’t always apparent to the untrained ear. The symphony of an ecosystem is often more complex than we comprehend.

A recent study draws a vital connection between elephant poaching, tree reproduction and forest ecosystems. Certain trees – in this case, large bush mango trees – have evolved alongside large animals, in this case, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). The trees have developed seeds which are best dispersed via elephants eating the seeds, walking long distances, and then depositing digested seeds far from the parent tree. The seeds of these trees are too large to be properly digested and dispersed by smaller mammals.

Unfortunately for both the wild trees and the elephants, up to 75% of the elephant population has been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where this study was carried out, and an estimated 60% of all forest elephants in the world have been killed in the service of the illegal ivory trade – all in the last ten years.

From an interview in an article on

“[The] Congo forest without elephants would certainly lose part of its soul, but elephant extinction with their seed dispersal services would also affect the entire plant community,” lead author David Beaune with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told Forest elephants are “important gardeners of the forest,” says Beaune, so important in fact that when elephants go extinct in a part of the forest, important trees are unable to reproduce. “If we can’t replace elephants, then the reproduction of these plant species is hugely compromised.”

The bush mango tree used in the study, Irvingia gabonensis, happens to be one that is also important to the economy of many African regions, and has been successfully cultivated. Its reproductive patterns are well-known. It plays a key role in preventing soil erosion as well as being useful as a cash crop.
What of the many other fruits and seeds eaten by forest elephants which are less-studied, with lesser known roles in the ecosystem? Without the massive ‘gardeners of the forest’, what aspects of the ecosystem will crumble?
It puts me in mind of the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, in which all the instruments disappear. There is a final song of the remaining violins, but it is thin and lonely without the other melodies.


Original study in Forest Ecology and Management: Density-dependent effect affecting elephant seed-dispersed tree recruitment (Irvingia gabonensis) in Congo Forest by D., L. Bollache, B. Fruth, G. Hohmann1 and F. Bretagnolle article

Scientific American blog post

VOA news article – Ivory Poaching Decimates Forest Elephant Population

A bigger snowflake

Art & Photo: Simon Beck

Art & Photo: Simon Beck

It’s raining here, the snow at our altitude is all but gone, the first flowers have already pushed up through the recently thawed earth. But just a little more than an hour’s drive from my doorstep, up in Val d’Isère of the French Alps, it’s still winter. So I thought I’d post a picture of what one guy is doing up there besides skiing.

Simon Beck is snowshoeing instead. But in very specific patterns.

One week until vernal equinox.

Simon Beck’s Facebook pages here and here.

Simon Beck at work

Simon Beck at work