Physoc in 2013

After our end-of-session dinner, many of you will be happy to know that Physoc will be continuing its awesome programme of events for physics students in 2013. We will once again be organising a stall at O-week, with demonstrations, shirts for sale (with a new design), on-the-spot signup for the society and more. You will also be able to collect a free copy of the first issue of our newsletter at the O-week stall.

We are also working on a full schedule of new and exciting events to be held all through next semester, and we will continue to provide for the extra-curricular needs of physics students at UNSW.


Patrick Moore dies

Eccentric amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Moore has died aged 89. He hosted the first astronomy-based series on television, The Sky at Night on the BBC. This also qualifies as the longest-running television series with the same presenter. It has aired since 1957. Sir Patrick will also be remembered for his work mapping the moon, which was used by both the Russian and American space programmes.

This week in physics: Higgs boson, room temperature superconductors, new PHYSOC exec

We’ve seen a few important discoveries in the field of physics in the last few days: firstly, the tentative discovery of the Higgs boson has been confirmed. There have also been claims of room-temperature superconducting behaviour in graphite granules that have been soaked in water and dried. And, perhaps most importantly, we have discovered the identities of PHYSOC’s new executive committee at last night’s AGM.

Let’s start with the Higgs boson. This discovery was actually made last July, but it was only this week that research papers confirming it were published in a peer reviewed journal. The published articles are freely available for anyone who may wish to view them. (

This is a confirmation of the predictions of the Standard Model of particle physics, but also evidence of the worth of the investment in the Large Hadron Collider. Its cost of €7.5bn is obviously a very large amount of money, and without such a groundbreaking discovery the governments and organisations who provided much of the money might have felt that the funding was not justified.

There have also been claims of fragile superconducting properties at 300 K (room temperature) in graphite granules that have been soaked in water and then dried. The scope and usefulness of  these properties are as yet unconfirmed, and researchers involved admit there are many hurdles to overcome before this could become a practical technology. This is not the first time we have heard claims of a room-temperature superconductor, but graphite holds particular promise because it is simple to produce and easily available. A room-temperature superconductor would have wide-ranging impacts in electronics and power distribution.

Finally, last night’s AGM means we have a new executive team as follows:

President: Angela Ng
Secretary: James Diacoumis
Treasurer: Iris Uy
Arc representative: Charley Peng
Events coordinators/Publicity officers: Bryce Lackenby, Will Kramhoft, David Webb
IT officer: Austin Kong
Newsletter editor: Richard Taylor (me)
First year representative: Phil Vankerkoerle
Postgraduate representative: Nicole Reynolds

Congratulations to the new exec and we expect to see many exciting new things coming out of PHYSOC in the coming year, including more and different events and the publication for the first time ever of a newsletter. In addition, we have expanded the executive team through a referendum to include three new positions to suit the society’s growing membership: we now have representatives for both first year students and postgraduates, and an editor for the newsletter.

Neil Armstrong passes away


Image credit: XKCD #895, ’65 years’

SMH article:

The first human to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, has died aged 82. This is a sad moment for the scientific community and the world, but also an important point at which to reflect upon our achievement in space.

Armstrong’s death is a reminder of how long it has been since a manned mission has extended to the moon. The last human on the moon left the lunar surface on 14 December 1972, 40 years ago this year.

It is unusual in a field of scientific discovery and exploration to retreat from the frontier of what has been achieved. This has, however, happened to manned space exploration programmes for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Apollo moon missions and all early space programmes were highly politicised. Apollo was suggested by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, and was tied to a ‘space race’ between the US and the Soviet Union to demonstrate technical superiority through development of space exploration programmes. This race started after the Russians put the first satellite into space, shortly followed by the first human, in 1957 and 1961 respectively. The politicisation of space was a double-edged sword. It meant that the space missions received the necessary massive funding, as they were a symbolic measure of the two countries’ success in their struggle for superiority. However, it meant that once political tension eased, the money was cut as the programmes were no longer as important to the country’s international reputation.

Another reason for the decline of manned space exploration is the general economic situation pinching budgets for research. Going to space is very expensive, and provides little direct benefit to a country’s population. Unfortunately, this means that it is often the first target of budget cuts. At the time of the cancellation of the moon missions, the US government was under financial pressure from the Vietnam War, and a minor recession from 1969-1970. President Richard Nixon had considered cancelling the final two Apollo missions that eventually did proceed, in addition to Apollo 18, 19 and 20.

Manned spaceflight is also confronted with a unique issue that makes unmanned flights a more attractive option: safety. Safety played a major role in the retirement of the reusable Space Shuttle orbiters last year. Following the destruction of Challenger in 1986, followed by Columbia in 2003, we were reminded that sending people into space carries risks and can result in horrific accidents. These disasters resulted in the discovery of various design flaws in the Space Shuttle which, combined with its age, let to the project’s cancellation and the retirement of the vehicles.

We are seeing a slow return to the height of the space programme: in addition to the recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, the fourth successful unmanned Mars landing, we are seeing private companies developing manned space vehicles.

Plans are still in very early development, but we could potentially exceed Armstrong’s achievement and launch a manned mission to Mars, and once again set foot on a new world, in the 2030s, nearly 70 years after the first moon landing, and around 20 years after the death of the first man on the moon.

PHYSOC has a blog!

Over the past few years, PHYSOC has run a variety of social events for physics students at UNSW. We also invite research and teaching staff to some of our events in order to foster a closer relationship between the school and its students.

However, unlike many societies, we have never before had any kind of regular communication with our students beyond our official website and a Facebook page. In order to remedy this, and as part of our never-ending quest to become a better society for physics students, we are starting a blog. It will serve as something of an online newsletter, and here we will be sharing physics news (and also funny pictures, which are all the rage these days) from UNSW and around the world. We will also use it as another means to notify you of society events. We already do this via our official website and Facebook page, along with email and dead-tree posters and flyers, but another route of communication can’t hurt.

So, from this blog you can expect (hopefully) frequent and informative posts relevant to the interests of PHYSOC and its members.