Looking forward to photon–photon physics

As its name suggests, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN smashes hadrons into one another – protons, to be precise. The energy from these collisions gets converted into matter, producing new particles that allow us to explore matter at the smallest scales. The LHC does not fire protons into one another individually; instead, they are circulated in approximately 2000 bunches each containing around 100 billion protons. When two bunches are focused magnetically to cross each other in the centre of detectors such as CMS and ATLAS, only 30 or so protons actually collide. The rest continue to fly through the LHC unimpeded until the next time that two bunches cross.

Read full story on cerncourier.com

Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (2nd edition) [Book review]

With scientists increasingly asked to engage the public and society-at-large with their research, and include outreach plans as part of grant applications, it helps to have a guide to various involvement possibilities and the research behind them. The second edition of the Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (henceforth referred to as “the Handbook”) provides a thorough introduction to public engagement – or outreach, as it is sometimes called – through a varied collection of articles on the subject. In particular, it brings to attention the underlying issues associated with the old “deficit model of science communication”, which presupposes a knowledge deficit about science among the general public that must be filled by scientists providing facts, and facts alone. Although primarily targeting science-communication practitioners and academics researching the field, the Handbook can also help scientists to reflect on their outreach efforts and to appreciate the interplay between science and society.

Read full story on cerncourier.com

A handy guide to science-communication theory and practice [Book review]


M. Bucchi and B. Trench, eds. (2014). Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology. Second Edition. London, UK: Routledge


The ever-changing nature of academic science communication discourse can make it challenging for those not intimately associated with the field — scientists and science-communication practitioners or new-comers to the field such as graduate students — to keep up with the research. This collection of articles provides a comprehensive overview of the subject and serves as a thorough reference book for students and practitioners of science communication.


Public understanding of science and technology; Representations of science and technology; Scholarly communication

The first edition of the Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (henceforth referred to as “the Handbook”) was reviewed in a previous edition of JCOM [Delfanti, 2008]. The second edition proves to be as insightful, thought provoking and well structured as its predecessor, while broadening its international perspectives on the theory and practice of science communication. This review is divided into two sections: the first address the structure of the Handbook and its contents, and the second provides the reviewer’s reflections.

The Handbook itself

Six years — the duration between the first and second editions of the Handbook — can be an eternity in academia. The contents of the second edition have been appropriately updated to reflect the changes in the science-communication landscape that have taken place in the interim, in particular the strengthening of the “public engagement” paradigm. Readers would do well to begin their exploration of the Handbook with the introductory chapter written by the editors, which articulates this shift towards “public engagement” from previous models of science communication.

One of the first things a reader will notice when attempting to compare the Indices of the first and second editions of the Handbook is the expanded international scope of the content; to quote the editors, “… specific chapters on developing countries and on the Internet [from the first edition] have given way to a broader treatment of globalisation and the consideration in almost all chapters of applications and implications of online media…”. Now, most discourse on science communication tends to come with a “Western” flavour containing certain socio-cultural beliefs and pre-suppositions — indeed the authors of all the chapters are themselves from (or based in) European or North American nations — so this attempt at addressing other perspectives and attitudes is crucial to having a truly global conversation around science communication. Fortunately for us, the editors are all too aware of this — “[the global nature of science communication] highlights how difficult and even misleading it would be to expect a single, straightforward response to contemporary challenges of science communication […] or to fulfil the expectation of eventually finding the best and most appropriate, one-size-fits-all model of science/public interaction” — and perhaps future editions of this valuable and widely read book will include contributions from a more diverse set of authors.

Another welcome change, at least from a student’s perspective, has been the inclusion of questions at the end of each chapter. The Handbook itself provides the reader with many opportunities to reflect on its content, but the questions help guide a student’s line of reasoning and reflection.

The modular nature of the chapters, each written by different (groups of) experts, makes it easy for readers to dive right into the Handbook by exploring the topic of their choice. The chapters cover a rich variety of themes one would encounter in studying science communication: vectors of engagement (books, museums, film), policy (public relations, participation), actors (scientists, journalists, publics), “hot-button” issues (climate, health) as well as methodology (surveys, assessment). While the Handbook caters mainly to new-comers to the field, one of its main strengths lies in the depth of references included with each chapter: even if the reader is somewhat familiar with the topic being addressed, there are adequate pointers for further reading. However, readers should note that although the language encountered throughout the Handbook is clear and precise, it can be intimidating in places: a lack of contextual definitions of academic terminology may impede fluent, straightforward reading.


Given the complexity of the themes covered in the Handbook, it is by no means intended for casual or rapid reading. That said, the conversational style employed by some of the authors makes for very engaging reading. Over the course of my research, I have found myself returning to previously read chapters and sections in order to clarify my own line of thought. On more than one occasion I turned to the Handbook just to consult the references at the end of chapters pertaining to my area of study. It has proven to be a very valuable resource indeed!

One aspect that I found a little lacking was the diversity of science domains covered: although the editors state emphatically that it is “problematic to continue using traditional expressions like scientific community, implying internal homogeneity and a shared commitment to specific norms and values…” they nonetheless only afford the aforementioned “hot-button” issues their own chapters. To my mind, certain domains of science lend themselves more easily to “public engagement”, perhaps due to their direct or immediate impact on broader society; think climate change or GMOs. Other — possibly esoteric — domains of research, less so; think theoretical particle physics or network topology. These, in some sense less-accessible, areas of research present their own science-communication challenges, and discourse that both contextualises these challenges and proposes ideas for facing them would benefit a large number of academics and practitioners.

Nevertheless, the Handbook holds open a captivating door into the world of science communication and makes for an excellent point-of-entry for those wishing to explore this field of research. Every university library would do well to have a copy in stock for its researchers as well as its students.


Delfanti, A. (2008). ‘How-to establish PCST. Two handbooks on science communication’. JCOM 7 (4), R01. URL: http://jcom.sissa.it/archive/07/04/Jcom0704(2008)R01.

How to cite

Rao, A. (2015). ‘A handy guide to science-communication theory and practice’. JCOM 14 (04), R01. URL: http://jcom.sissa.it/archive/14/04/JCOM_1404_2015_R01.


CC BY-NC-ND 4.0: This article is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercial – NoDerivativeWorks 4.0 License.
ISSN 1824 – 2049. Published by SISSA Medialab. http://jcom.sissa.it

Originally published at: http://jcom.sissa.it/archive/14/04/JCOM_1404_2015_R01

Presenting apostilb

Yesterday, neuroamanda and I launched a new project as an exercise in communicating science: apostilb! More details explaining the project and our aims can be found on our about page. I wanted to touch upon a few things about the underlying framework for publishing content to apostilb.

If you’ve read my PhD Starter Kit, you may already be familiar with some of the content-publishing paradigms I mention here. The primary element of our workflow is GitHub; here’s the apostilb website’s GitHub repo. We have each forked the repo into our own GitHub accounts and make all changes to the website locally, including adding new content. Each week, one of us is the writer and the other the editor. When the writer has added a new article (there’s only one so far), a pull request is made and the editor is notified. The editor can then comment on the content within the pull request itself, and any changes the author wishes to implement are added as new git commits to the same pull request. After at least two rounds of back-and-forth, the piece is ready for publication and the pull request is merged. GitHub Flow is great not just for code but also for written content!

The really nice aspect of this workflow is that not only do we host the website on GitHub Pages but we are fully open and transparent about the publishing process: all the edits from the first draft itself are publicly visible. While that may not seem very useful, it is something to go back to and allows others to understand our editing process and the comments we made to each other.

The web page is built using Jekyll and the content is written using Markdown (essentially plaintext); see the raw Markdown for the first post. This simplifies the writing process itself since we can each write articles offline without relying on a web interface, using a slimmed-down syntax on a distraction-free editor.

I’m really excited about apostilb, and not only because of the rather geeky publishing methods we’re using. It’ll be good to get back into the habit of regular writing. Which reminds me, I’ve got to work on my post for next week!

If you’d like to receive the latest stories we publish, follow @apostilb or subscribe to the feed.

I’d also like to give special thanks to my brother, Aditya, for designing the apostilb logo.

Reflections on the PhD life as I approach the end of Year One

I was bored, so I wrote a tome. No, seriously, since Saturday, I have spent the majority of my waking hours writing this ~7000-word piece on preparing for life in academia. It started out as an e-mail to a friend, which became a blog post that was originally supposed to reside here, which then became a piece long enough to deserve its own web page.

Writing this piece has been a fantastic experience on many levels:

  • I’ve mentioned my ADHD in the piece so there’s no point in shying from it. I’ve recently been on medication for the condition, and this was the first thing I have worked on in years that I was able to get through with a single-minded determination. I was often writing uninterrupted for several hours at a time, and this has brought me a lot of joy.
  • I was able to reflect on the (academic) year that was and categorise various experiences into things that worked, things that didn’t and things that could work if I approached them differently. The reflection alone has been worth preparing this piece.
  • I learnt something new! I’ve been wanting to give Jekyll a try for a while, but never got down to it. Yesterday afternoon, I was more than halfway through writing the text when I decided that instead of hosting the content on my blog I would host it on a GitHub Page, since I wanted to save a full history of the file on GitHub anyway. And since I wanted to be able to edit the Markdown file in the future, I needed to turn to Jekyll. I spent a few hours tinkering with new technology and had the site up and running last night with a “Coming soon!” message. Today, I installed all the necessary software to “serve the website” locally, finished writing the text, edited it, reviewed it, committed the changes, and pushed it to GitHub. Et voilà !

I welcome your feedback! If you have any comments, please leave them here. If you prefer, you can create issues or pull requests on GitHub instead.

Journalists vs Scientists: summarised by an animated GIF



Some context: To advertise the collaborative-editing capabilities of Google Drive, Google ran a campaign two years ago using the Hall & Oates song Maneater, featuring the eponymous musicians simultaneously using a Google Docs file to come up with lyrics to the hit. They also gave us the “Gone Google Story Builder” tool, allowing anyone to make a short clip of their own in similar fashion.

Shortly after the discovery of a new type of particle that we now believe is a Higgs boson, I made the above clip to illustrate the difficulties of communicating science, highlighting the differences between scientists’ need for 100% accuracy and journalists’ need to tell a compelling and understandable story. I shared a link with my friends on Facebook to lukewarm response and forgot all about it.

Today, while going through my Facebook profile looking for something else, I came across the link to the original clip and decided (as you do, these days) to make an animated GIF of it and share it on Google+, a social network that has supported such files for quite some time. I was a little surprised by the reaction. As of writing this entry, the post on Google+ has 53 +1s and 77 re-shares, and has been seen over 27,000 times. That is by far the most successful thing I have ever posted on Google+.

A few people, though, missed my point.

Peter Smalley, for example, said, “This is exactly how media sources get science wrong – except usually scientists don’t get to be involved at all.”

That’s not what I was going for at all. The point isn’t that journalists get science wrong (I’m not saying they don’t), it’s that those on the other side of the fence are rarely receptive to their needs. Scientists regularly give the journalists what they assume will be sufficient: objective facts. This is usually accompanied by an insistence that the wording of the journalistic piece reflect the terminology and caveats that are present in the scientific publication. I’ve also found scientists reacting with shock when journalists ask them questions that seem simple or basic, not accounting for the fact that journalists have to cover a wide range of topics and don’t typically have the luxury of writing about just the field of the scientist in question.

I thought I should clarify that my sympathies, in this case, lie with the journalists!

I welcome your feedback.

Ordering electron and nuclear spins in quantum wires

Nuclear and electron spins in a quantum wire may spontaneously form an ordered state at very low temperatures, according to work recently carried out by an international team of physicists. The team was studying the conductance of gallium-arsenide quantum wires and discovered that, at temperatures of 0.1 K and lower, the conductance of the wires dropped below the universal quantized value. This reduced quantization is explained using a theoretical model that proposes that the nuclear and electron spins order themselves in a helical formation at these temperatures.

Read full story on physicsworld.com

Shedding light on the masses of exotic nuclides

The masses of 33 rare, exotic neutron-heavy nuclides have been measured with high precision by scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory’s CAlifornium Rare Isotope Breeder Upgrade (CARIBU) facility in the US. The findings are crucial to understanding how elements that are heavier than iron might have formed. Following the mass measurements, the researchers also compared simulations of astrophysical nuclear reactions using both the measured masses and theoretical models.

Read full story on physicsworld.com

Beta Consequences

[The following is a scifi poem, inspired by an anthology of scifi poetry I read at Poets House in New York. It deals with the consequences of time dilation associated with close-to-the-speed-of-light travel (mediated by a factor commonly represented by “beta”), undertaken by people wishing to colonise an exoplanet.]

We said goodbye
when you were carried to the stars

I shed my tears
In silence
I shed my tears
In silence
Holding the child you didn’t know you left behind

I learnt to laugh
Imitating, at first, the laughter in your eyes
on an infant’s face

So what, I ask you, am I to do
Now that a fault in the starship
An unforeseen glitch
Brings you back to me
And to a son
Older than his father

– 2013-04-11T18:15
Poets House, New York