VIDEO: Christmas Lecture 2010 – Weird Physics


On the 17th of Dec 2010 we held our second Christmas Lecture on the topic of “Weird Physics” – all those mind-bending things that physicists talk about when describing how our universe works, like parallel universes, black holes, cats that were dead and alive at the same time and time travel. Dr Paul Stevenson lead the lecture that covered some of physics most confusing topics, including relativity and quantum mechanics, in an accessible manner enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

After the lecture there was a festive reception with refreshments, mince pies and some exhibitions of some of the ideas covered in the lecture – as well as a quiz, with the winner walking away with a pretty nifty science kit to take home. Like last year, there was also a bookstall provided by the local children’s bookshop Rhyme and Reason, also featuring some science books for adults, too. To watch the highlights from the Christmas lecture check out this video:

We had a great time organizing it and the feedback from those who attended mirror this as well. We thank the Institute of Physics Yorkshire and North East branch, the university of Sheffield outreach department and alumni foundation for their support, and are very grateful to those individuals who made the lecture possible. We look forward to seeing you this Christmas!

Weird Physics – a quiz

First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

It’s been a great year for Science Brainwaves, we’ve come a long way, and this year we’ll only be bigger and better, so watch this space on news of events coming your way in 2011.

Just before Christmas we held our annual Christmas Lecture, this year on ‘weird physics’ – the mind-bending ideas that physicists use to explain our reality, that include baffling things such as particles being in two places at once, black holes and a cat that was both dead and alive at the same time.

I’ll write more about the Christmas Lecture in my next post, but for now we thought it would be a good idea to publish the quiz that our head of volunteers, Ben Dornan, wrote as the Quiz Master. We had some prizes for kids to do, which were:

1st: Chemistry set plus a voucher for rhyme&reason and a copy of the Horrible Science Seriously Squishy Science Book,

2nd voucher for rhyme&reason and a copy of the Horrible Science Seriously Squishy Science Book,

and the runners up all got a copy of the book.

Below are the questions and answers, a bit of quizzery to pass some time. Of course if you didn’t attend the lecture the answers mightn’t be obvious, but we’ll cover information from the lecture later on, in the mean time Google is your friend!

Question 1: Before Einstein published the theories that eventually made him famous, he had another job. What was it?
Office Clerk
International Man of Mystery

Question 2: Which of these is one of the important insights of Einstein?
There is No Such Thing as Time
The Earth Orbits the Sun
Speed is Distance Divided by Time
The Speed of Light in a Vacuum is Constant

Question 3: In Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2, what does E stand for?

Question 4: Moving fast changes the way we experience time. If one twin left Earth to go on a fast trip in space, while the other stayed, who would be older when they got back?
They Would Both Be the Same
The One Who Left
(The One Who Stayed)
They Would Both Be Younger

Question 5: The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is looking for the Higgs Boson. What is this particle meant to explain?

Question 6: What was demonstrated by the double slit experiment?
(Wave-Particle Duality)
The Speed of Light
Quantum Tunnelling
The Existence of Black Holes

Question 7: In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, what is the strange and interesting property of the cat involved?
It Has Two Tails
(It Is Both Dead and Alive at the Same Time)
It Doesn’t Age
It Can Travel Faster Than Light

Question 8: Which of the following is NOT a real interpretation of quantum physics?
(The Berlin Interpretation)
The Copenhagen Interpretation
The Bohmian Interpretation
The Many-Worlds Interpretation


If you’ve got any suggestions of events you’d like to see next year, get in touch, or let us know on our forums!

May 2011 be a good one for all!

Weird Physics – an Introduction

Guest post By Robin Bisson


With Halloween and Bonfire Night out of the way, mince pies comfortably established on the supermarket shelves and town light displays ready to be switched on by a passing celebrity, Christmas is on the horizon. And so too is Science Brainwaves’ Christmas Lecture, a free event being held on the 17th on December at the University of Sheffield, which promises to be a real cracker *groan*. The lecture, titled ‘Weird Physics’, is being given by Dr Paul Stevenson of the University of Surrey.

That physics is weird might seem to be a given, after all physics fans have a reputation for getting all excited over obscure things that happen millions of light years away, having some outlandish tastes in music, and developing a tendency in later life to wear jackets with leather elbow patches. However, we’re not talking about any normal kind of weirdness here; we’re talking about the seriously bizarre world of quantum mechanics, a world in which even the most basic facts about the world get turned upside down. Now, if all that the word ‘quantum’ makes you think of is daytime repeats of Quantum Leap, you’re probably not alone. So to get swotted up before the lecture, and to give you a taste of some of the strangeness to come, here’s an introduction to the weird world of quantum mechanics…

Perhaps the most well known illustration of why the quantum world is at odds with the rest of the world is that of Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat. Schrödinger proposed an experiment where a cat is placed in an opaque box, in which there would also be a phial containing poisonous gas, one radioactive atom and a mechanism to smash the phial if the atom decayed. If the atom were to decay then the cat would die, but if the atom does not decay then the cat survives. The weirdness comes in because quantum mechanics tells us that until we look at the atom, it is in the state of being decayed and non-decayed at the same time, and the consequence for our unhappy cat is that it is both alive and dead at the same time. “Ridiculous!” you might well shout, which is exactly what Schrödinger was pointing out, all be it in a slightly morbid way – the quantum world does not appear to fit in with the world of big things that we know, in which cats most definitely don’t wander about in limbo between life and death.

To make it clearer what exactly we’re dealing with here, a little explanation is needed. The quantum world is that of atoms and subatomic particles: the familiar electrons, protons and neutrons that we all learned about at school, as well as other more exotic particles. One of the things that quantum mechanics says about these little bits of matter, is that once you have observed them being in a particular place at a particular time, you cannot say for sure exactly where they will be at any point in the future. Instead you can only give a probability of them being in a particular place until you have another look and make sure. So far so normal. After all, we can’t expect to know everything.

What quantum mechanics sneaks in and confuses us with, however, is the assertion that these particles aren’t actually anywhere until we look to check – while our backs are turned they are in one place, and another place, and even another, and another and another place all at the same time, but when we look at them BANG, they are somewhere definite again. It’s a bit like playing “What’s The Time Mr. Wolf?” with subatomic particles, except that instead of you not knowing where your fellow players are, they don’t know where they are until you turn around to look (and also, subatomic particles don’t run away screaming when you growl at them).

If this all seems a bit stupid and it’s obvious that physicists just haven’t understood some basic stuff, like that things can’t be in two places at once, there are some awkward experimental results that show the quantum world simply can’t be like the world we all know and love. For instance, quantum particles get ‘entangled’ with each other, so that if you do something to one of the particles the other particle notices. It doesn’t matter if the other particle is on the other side of the room, the other side of the world or the other side of the universe, it will ‘respond’ when its partner has something done to it. Weirder still, these particles may not even only be particles – quantum mechanics regards them as having some properties of waves, and some properties of particles, something that Richard Feynman called “the only mystery in physics”.

Don’t worry if your brain is beginning to throb alarmingly, the physicists are confused too. Since quantum mechanics was first formulated there has been a raging debate about how it should be interpreted. One interpretation that has steadily gained support is that quantum mechanics only makes sense if we live in just one of many co-existing parallel universes. Every time we look in the box to see the mortal state of Schrödinger’s cat we set off down one leg of the trousers of time, let’s assume the one where the cat is alive, while in the universe of the other leg, the cat has met a sticky end.

While it may be mind-bending to try and understand what quantum mechanics implies about the universe and to imagine what the quantum world looks like up close, the more we understand about it, the more we can manipulate it to do some pretty nutty things. We all know that as long as watertight bowls are kept steady, any liquid inside them is going to stay there, right? Not if it’s a superfluid – liquids predicted by quantum mechanics that creep slowly out of any container holding them (click the link for a video). Even more amazingly, there is some early evidence that supersolids can exist – solids that literally move through each other like ghosts, without being affected. In any case, I think we can all agree that a world with quantum mechanics is a much weirder world indeed than a world without. To find out more, come to the Christmas Lecture, but don’t say you weren’t warned if you lose grip on reality…



If you want to investigate Quantum Mechanics further, then check out plus magazine’s website for podcasts, news and reports.

Get involved!

Well it seems you can’t always get things right where technology is involved! Yesterday evening we held out intro meeting for new recruits to come and find out all about what it is we do and what opportunities there are for everyone. Unfortunately, we had issues getting our mass email sent out so a lot of people got the email after the meeting. SO here you will find all the information you need and how to get involved.

We are going to be holding our AGM on the 2nd of November, at 5.15pm, in F2 lecture theatre of Firth Court. If you are interested in going for any of the positions that will be listed in this blog, then you’ll need to go to that, or email

So first of all, a little history. In November 2009 a group of Ph.D students came together to organise a public lecture. The idea was to reach out to the public and provide the opportunity for learning that was accessible to everyone. The topic was vaccines presented by Professor Adam Finn, over 300 people attended from all backgrounds and with ages ranging from eight to eighty. From this success the group decided to continue and so Science Brainwaves was formed.Science Brainwaves has two areas of operation: the public domain and the academic. We aim to increase communication amongst scientists and to the wider community through innovative and engaging events, the creating of which pro-vide skills development opportunities to the students of the University of Sheffield. We were snapped up early on by the South Yorkshire branch of the British Science Association, to broaden their programme of public engagement events.

Public egagement is incredibly important – it can help us communicate important new research relevent to the public and can inspire the next generation: the kids. In our remit is everything to do with science, engineering, technology and maths – even social sciences and the history and philosophy of science.

Our involvement has prepared us for life beyond our education and provided numerous career advancing opportunities, we really hope others can benefit from it as much as we have.
Half of our committee is moving on to new jobs (for example, Jenna will be starting her new job as media executive for the society of biology in the next few weeks), jobs that have been secured thanks to their involvement in Science Brainwaves. We would like new members to bring new expertise and enthusiasm, meaning we’ll continue to grow and meet our aims in the future. We are sure Science Brainwaves can become a dominant force in science communication in years to come and that the students of the University of Sheffield will benefit greatly from it’s success.

Just have a look through this blog, the rest of the website and our Facebook group – you’ll see the many other successful events we’ve put on, such as a debate about how science is covered in the media, iTRAK science-art exhibition with a robot that shows it’s “brainwaves” as it’s deciding what to look at, We’ve been science busking at the national Big Bang fair, we’ve taught kids who to extract DNA from strawberries in a cinema and a school, our summer lecture with Brook Magnanti on chance and luck, and most recently, we took along some simple experiments you can do with food to the Green Man festival. We even helped set up the first ever completely student-ran RTP/DDP module (PG cafe forum) for post-graduate students at the university to hone their presentation skills for non-specialists in a comfortable and relaxed environment (a pub!).

In the future we want to carry on doing this and more. We’ve forged strong partnerships with Museum Sheffield and the Thackray Museum in Leeds, so that we can offer varied and exciting experience and opportunities to our members. We have a number of existing and new roles that we need to fill, so whether you’re interested in writing for the website, or getting your teeth in to organising events, read on!


Currently running the website is myself, Michaela, and Paul, or expert web monkey who makes all our crazy ideas a reality. We’re hoping we can put together a “web team” that will come up with great ideas, develop them and implement them, as well as keep on top of the general maintenance of the website.

-2x web assistants – you don’t need to know html. You just need to be vaguely computer literate, enthusiastic and have some fantastic ideas! With me you’ll be helping organise podcasts, coming up with ideas and occasionally setting up blogs and other reports on the site. Theoretically you don’t even need to be based in Sheffield for this.

-A web developer – if the following makes sense to you then we want to hear from you:Experience in ASP.NET C# Web applications, with SQL database knowledge is required. CSS and Javascript are desirable but not essential. Knowledge of setting up Content Management would be useful. Technologies currently used: C#, ASP.NET, HTML, Javascript, JQuery, YUI, SQL, Source control in SVN.


And of course, we still want bloggers and reports, especially blogs based in physics, chemistry and engineering, so get in touch. If you’re a budding journalist and interested in joining our news team, please email


Organising events is usually done by small, dedicated teams, where each person takes on a specific role. Our next event that needs team members is the Christmas Lecture on Dec 17th on weird physics. You don’t have to have had any previous experience, nor be a physicist. All that is needed is enthusiasm and a thirst to learn. And, it’s something that looks absolutely fantastic on your CV.

Project Manager – oversee project, responsible for overall budget, ensure deadlines are met, responsible for applying for grants. Produce schedules, etc. Contact for Paul Stevenson, responsible for booking everything for him. Act as support for team members. Write event evaluation in consultation with the rest of the team  – Michaela

Media/marketing Liaison – produce press release, seeks opportunities to feature info about lecture in newspapers, magazines, radio, etc. Also ensures that info is included in event listings. Organise any interviews (e.g. setting up green room). Responsible for distribution of flyers in publics places (libraries, shops, etc, work with everyone on team to cover as much of Sheffield as possible). Investigate cost of local magazine ad space – contact forge press, etc. Responsible for implementing any internet marketing – posting on to local/relevant forums/facebook/twitter, etc. – Jen.

Schools/children’s university liaison – responsible for sending out information to schools (secondary schools) and Sheffield science teachers forum for attendance. Develop further material to be sent to schools with multimedia producer. Produce activity materials (if relevant, quizzes/competitions, must consider age-group attending – work with funding assistant to organise prizes). Contact Children’s University for attendance and to develop any further opportunities.

Multimedia producer – someone to produce, most importantly, posters to market the event, a podcast from the lecture and/or dvd to be sent out to schools/other interested parties. Previous experience not required, but would help. Work with media/marketing/schools liaisons to ensure deadline for mail outs and cohesive image.

Funding assistant/reception organisation – Working with project manager to make links with local businesses to organise materials for the reception (e.g., food and drink) and extra sponsorship. Set-up the reception. Work with university link to develop/organise a stall/poster/whatever to show-case Sheffield research for information/outreach purposes of physics department.

University/alumni Liaison – a link between university staff (gaining support from external/community relations office) and the alumni office to contact local alumni and provide a VIP experience for guests. Work with Project Manager and funding assistant to apply for alumni foundation funding and organise the VIP reception experience. Work with funding assistant to set up reception. – Martin

Reception assistants – 2 persons help on the night to organise and set up the reception, serve drinks/food if not provided by whatever catering we end up using.

Ushers – a group of 5 people to help attendees – two persons to be in charge of admissions (checking the guest list against people arriving), one person to show people to the upper tier of the lecture theatre, and two people on the lower tier – on person to be specifically in charge of the VIPs. After lecture responsible for herding attendees in to the reception in Mappin Hall. Don’t necessarily need to be separate people to the above roles, especially for reception assistants.

Jobs with names against them have already been taken, but if any of them tickle your fancy, drop us an email! We’ve got some meetings lined up for this one already, specifically about funding, so if you are interested, get in contact ASAP.

Museum’s/Science club Coordinator/team

Also up-and-coming is our involvement with Museums Sheffield. The weston park museum will be host to the beautiful games exhibition that will be bringing the science or sport to the public. We’ve been given the opportunity to run workshops alongside the exhibition, so if you have any ideas please get in touch. We also have links with the Thackray medical history museum in Leeds and our initial ideas are to produce a “medical marvels: head to to” series of lectures. We also want to start up a science club for schools that will hopefully be based in a museum.

Loads of poeple have already showed interest in this, so please do get involved – the more the merrier!


GEOSET is a tool for researchers to present their work in a virtual fashion to school and college kids all over the world. We’ve got a slot on the first wednesday of ever month for members, or otherwise, to go and record a presentation targetted to school/college kids. We need someone to help coordinate that with the PG Cafe forum folks so that we can get as many resources fo school kids on the web as possible. Again, if you’re interested, please get in touch.

Committee positions

So if any of that seems of interest to you, then please do get in touch – at the AGM we will be appointing the following positions:

Head of Events
Museum Coordinator
Science Club Coordinator
Website Assistants
Website Developers
University Liaison
Volunteer Coordinator
GEOSET liaison

Thank you for making it this far. If you have any questions at all about anything at all, then please do email us on We’re really looking forward to working with you. See you all soon!


on behalf of the Science Brainwave team.

Day 7 in the Brainwaves Camp…


…Well, since we launched the website, anyway. As a group we may be fairly new to the game, but we’ve actually been together since last November, so I just thought I’d tell you all about our pilot event, the event that gave us a taste of the engagement game – The Christmas Lecture.

It’s amazing what a few weeks of concerted organisation, a great team, incredibly helpful people and a lot of footwork and coffee can achieve. In 6 weeks we went from having our idea to making it a reality.

The lecture was held on a very cold December evening in the St George’s Church Lecture theatre, a gorgeous building in the heart of the central Mappin campus that was refurbished as a lecture theatre, with all the mod cons to ensure a great show. A variety of people battled through the cold and snow to listen to Professor Adam Finn talk on the subject of Vaccines. From school children who are hoping to go into medicine and dentistry to families wanting to know more on the subject. We even had some children signed up to the Children’s University programme along who gained credits for their attendance. The lecture, sponsored by the medical products and services company B Braun, covered everything from the development of vaccines, to how they work and the myths that have been abound in the media. It even included an explanation of the scientific principle of how a hypothesis is tested then confirmed, or otherwise. The audience were able to participate in this by being part of the study themselves with some pretty nifty participation pads.

After the talk the audience moved from the lecture theatre to another grand venue – Mappin Hall, for a post-lecture reception. This included festive drinks and snacks. Mince pies were graciously provided by the lab supplies company Starlab, and a book corner with science books for kids from local book shop Rhyme and Reason provided book vouchers for winners of the children’s quiz. This was a great opportunity for attendees to sup on some mulled wine, chomp down on some Quality Streets and discuss with one another and Adam Finn what they’d learnt from the lecture. The food and fine wine company on Ecclesall Street here in Sheffield also provided a bottle of Prosecco that went to the winners of the bake-off we held to help contribute nibbles to the reception.

The event got a mention in the local paper, and scientist and radio present Noel Sharkey hosted an interview with Adam Finn on local BBC radio. We even recorded and created a DVD available for anyone who wants to watch it. So the message wasn’t just for those lucky to attend the event. So all in all, it was a success. And not only did it come off (almost) without a hitch, but we offered all of this for free! There was a lot of behind the scenes work that went in to organising all of this and getting together the money needed to put it on for nothing. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the University and its staff, so a massive thank you to all of you.

So if you weren’t able to attend this lecture, don’t worry, the Christmas Lecture will be back this year, but bigger and better! We learned a lot of lessons on this one, which we’re taking forward as we organise more events and expand. This year we have quite a lot of events in the pipeline, but now we have a bigger team to support us and make the events all the more memorable. So please do look at our events section. Next up is the Science in the media workshop in April, so get signed up to that, spaces are strictly limited – and yup, it’s free of charge!

Bye from the Brainwaves team, until next time!