Lecture Reports

Below you will find reports from our lectures.  Either click the title to view the report online or download a copy by clicking on the file name next to 'Download report'. Use the search box on this page to find a particular report.

Why Measurement Matters and the Redefinition of Base SI units. The Wheeler Lecture
Dr Michael de Podesta
You decide to bake a cake and the recipe says “Use so-many grams of flour and so many grams of butter…”. How do you know that the grams you measure on your scales are the same as those used by the author of the recipe? How does a physicist in California know that the length he measures in his laboratory in meters is the same as that in a Japanese or Russian lab? Although largely invisible in every day life there is a large and complicated infrastructure that ultimately compares the readings on every ruler and set of scales to a standard value. The Meter standard used to be the distance between two marks on a bar of platinum-iridium held in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, but when we could begin to measure distances far more accurately than we could fix the distance between two physical marks that had to change and is now the distance light can travel in a time interval itself fixed by a certain number of oscillations in a Caesium atom. There it is: fixed for all time by fundamental properties which we believe are true constants of Nature. Any sufficiently well equipped physical laboratory can establish that same standard length anywhere in the World, and from that calibrate the thousands of other measuring instruments, ultimately coming down to the ruler on your desk.
In May 2019 we achieved a long-desired milestone, the final removal from measurement of the last arbitrary standard. The “Grand K” (the standard kilogram) held in a safe in the BIPM is no longer THE ultimate standard. It was, frankly becoming embarrassing that given the modern ability to measure weight with extreme accuracy, the Grand K may actually be changing. The Kilogram could not change, of course: it was defined to be the weight of that artefact - it would just be that every other weight measuring device in the World would need recalibrating. Furthermore, the process of performing the reference comparisons involve a somewhat arcane procedure for cleaning the weight with the skin of a Chamois goat (some subspecies of which are now protected). What do you do if chamois leather becomes unavailable - and for that matter how do we know that today’s leather is similar to that used when the standard was established?
We now have a well defined method of reproducing the standard at any sufficiently well equipped laboratory, either in terms of the mass of a perfect sphere of silicon-28 atoms, or else using a sophisticated “Kibble Balance” that relates weight measurements to electrical standards, themselves previously redefined in terms of absolute physical constants. So, the entire Standard Internationale is now complete and fixed in terms of fundamental physics. You might not notice when you pick up a ruler, or start baking your cake, but this is a matter of importance in areas of science were precisions measurement is becoming every more vital. It is measurement that distinguishes science from everything else, and we need to know that our best measurements here correspond as well as we can determine to similar measurements there. And you would notice if we could not do it: whole areas of modern technology, such as GPS Navigation depend ultimately on precision measurement at a level difficult for most to comprehend. 
You might think that making such a potentially dry and arcane subject interesting would be a considerable challenge, but Dr de Podesta not only held his audience he had us chuckling at many points, and when the lecture threatened to overrun - they asked for more! A number of our members suggested that this one one of the best lectures they could remember.
Date: Wednesday, 12 Feb 2020
Dr Michael dePodesta
National Physics Laboratory

Professor Allison challenged the Science Society audience with a fascinating lecture on the sources and history of the relationship between humans and energy through to the options for truly sustainable energy in the future. From an outline of the basic physics of energy his talk illustrated energy capacity in terms of three basic models.

A brief outline of the classical understanding of kinetic and potential energy (wind, hydro and tide) was followed by an explanation of quantum electronic energy sources such as food, fuel combustion, fire and batteries with energy capacities thousands of times greater than from the classical variants. Finally, he dealt with quantum nuclear energy sourced by fission or fusion and with outputs greater, by a factor of a million, than is available from quantum electronic or chemical sources.

Not only are wind and solar power sources relatively inefficient in terms of conversion but there is, in most locations, an inevitable element of unreliability and intermittency which requires the existence of back-up generating sources to secure a 24/7 supply.

Having explained the energy efficiency of quantum nuclear with amusing graphics, the lecture progressed with a challenging argument in favour of energy production using proven methods of nuclear fusion that are highly efficient in terms of physical input/output ratios. However, there exists a public perception that nuclear power is a dangerous and expensive way for societies to generate electricity.

Professor Allison presented evidence indicating that the extreme fear in the public domain regarding the dangers of radioactive contamination from nuclear power generation vastly exaggerates the reality. In essence human safety is secured through physics and biology. In the case of the former the electric field surrounding nuclei is an effective barrier to the release of fresh nuclear energy, As for the latter, life on Earth has adapted, over millions of years, to levels of natural radiation that were much higher in the distant past than now.

The talk emphasised the issues of biological adaptation with illustrations of the return of healthy wildlife after the Chernobyl disaster and the survival of the majority of people exposed to severe radiation after a spillage of a therapy source at Goiania in Brazil that was one thousand times the level of public exposure after the Fukushima disaster.

The essence of the lecture was that for green and sustainable energy production one of the key sources must be through nuclear generation and for this to come to fruition there must be much better levels of education so that people understand the scientific reality behind the process.

 

Date: Wednesday, 8 Jan 2020
Professor Wade Allison
Oxford University

The Current Position

Multiple Sclerosis is the most common of the neurological disabilities, striking about 160 in every 100,000, and it has a high impact on those affected with a long progress from diagnosis in early adulthood often leading to loss of ability to work and earn an income and ultimately serious disability several decades later. We can recognise it, and to some extent relieve the symptoms and perhaps slow the progress, but we otherwise do not know what causes it, we do not know the mechanism that leads to inflammation and damage in the nervous system and for any individual we cannot predict the progress of the disease, of how relapses will affect the patient, because the episodes of inflammation can crop up anywhere in the nervous system.

There are many puzzles. Twin studies show that there are genetic factors contributing to the likelihood of MS, but that is not the whole story because only a few twins of sufferers progress to MS themselves. Furthermore, there are multiple genetic markers associated with MS: no single gene is predictive. It is an autoimmune disease and MS sufferers are more likely than average to have other autoimmune diseases and vice versa. Presumably there are environmental triggers, but we do not know what they are - though smoking appears to impair the immune system and raise the risk of contracting MS. Recent research also suggests that gut microbiomes may have some influence - but it is too early to be sure how this will develop. For some reason it is also more common in females than males and also among those living in high latitudes - perhaps there is a connection with vitamin D levels?

The Future

In spite of our lack of understanding of causes and mechanisms, there has been steady progress on treating symptoms, mainly through improvements in anti-inflammatory drugs, which can reduce the rate at which permanent damage occurs in the nervous system. Unfortunately, the more effective drugs also have the most serious side effects (such as immunological suppression raising the risk of other infections - and even cancer). Doctors and patients therefore still have difficult choices to make: does one go for the more aggressive treatment as early as possible, hoping to stave off the progressive phase of the disease for as long as possible (accepting the risks) or start with gentler and safer treatments, reserving the more effective but riskier drugs for a time when the disease gets worse?

Dr Harding provided us with a fascinating and information packed lecture, and the audience showed their involvement with the topic through many interesting questions.

Date: Wednesday, 13 Nov 2019
Dr Katharine Harding
Royal Gwent Hospital

Flu, it seems, will always be with us, and even in non-epidemic years is likely to lead to 15,000 UK deaths - with many more in epidemic or pandemic years.
So far, at least, hopes of a “universal” flu vaccine, proof against all strains over long periods of time, are just that. The parts of the virus which the current vaccines attack are highly variable year-to-year, so new vaccines are needed every year. And sometimes we get it wrong: the manufacturers have to start producing vaccines six months before they are needed and rely on predictions about which strains are likely to be in wide circulation. Unfortunately, the 2014/15 vaccine was based on the wrong choices and gave reduced protection. Furthermore, influenza circulates between humans and other animal species, such as birds and pigs, so reducing the rate of transmission in people makes only a minor impact on the evolution of the virus.
Not all is gloom, however. Although vaccines that target other parts of the virus are so far ineffective at preventing infection, it seems that they may well be able to reduce the severity of illnesses. That is important: it can reduce death rates, and more rapid recovery reduces lost working time (not to say the considerable discomfort of full-blown flu). We can also reduce infection rates by widening the vaccination programme, particularly amongst young school age children, who may not suffer severely from the virus, but act as effective agents for infecting their parents and grandparents.
Dr Lambkin Williams explained that more progress relies on “human challenge” experiments: deliberately giving people flu. Animal models (ferrets are the best apparently) are too far away to give a good representation of the full complexity of the human immune system in realistic circumstances.
The take home message is: get vaccinated - and make sure it is the four-strain vaccine.

Date: Wednesday, 11 Sep 2019
Dr Rob Lambkin-Williams PhD BSc M.Pharm
Executive Scientific Adviser to hVIVO
Download Report: The_Secret_Life_of_Flu.pdf
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