Paul Frampton drug case could take years to resolve.

March 21, 2012

Particle physicist Paul Frampton is in an Argentinian jail after allegedly being caught trying to leave the country with drugs concealed in his suitcase. He claims he was not aware of the drugs and has “plenty of evidence” but any optimism he may have for a quick release is likely to fade slowly. The case is eerily reminiscent of  New Zealander Sharon Armstrong who was caught in Argentina in April last year in very similar circumstances. Her trial began seven months later. She is still there and the case could take years and lots of legal fees to settle. Frampton could be in for a similar ordeal.

Everyone passing through international airports will know that they must pack their own bags and be responsible for the contents. Travellers are continually warned and asked about it. It is easy to be befriended especially in honeypot traps. The details of how Frampton may have been tricked are not yet known but similar stories are well-known. Cases have even been turned into films such as Bangkok Hilton. It will be hard for an intelligent professor to persuade his prosecutors that he was naive enough to innocently accept to use a suitcase with cocaine stuffed into the padding. We wish him luck.

For other reports see NEW and TRF.

Update 22-Mar-2012: The Telegraph has provided more details of the case confirming what I suspected in my first post, that he was a victim of a honey-trap. Unfortueatly this does not make things much better for him. The authorities in these countries expect people to take responsibility for the contents of the luggage they carry. Even if they believe his story of incredible gullibility he may still be considered guilty. Sharon Armstrong got four and a half years even though they accepted her similar story. The Argentinians do not have much sympathy for the English at a time when cruise liners are being turned away from Argentinian ports because they have visited the Falklands Islands. Argentina sees the Islands as poorly defended by the British Navy and may try to take advantage, leading to a worsening of relations between the countries.  Frampton has not made his situation better by initially refusing to talk and then attacking his employer back home for cutting off his salary. He will need some very good friends to help him if he wants to keep his sentence as short as possible.

Framptons prospects for bail will have taken a nosedive following the news that the High Court in London has blocked the extradition of Lucy Wright this week. The heavily pregnant drug mule who had admitted her attempt to smuggle 6kg of cocaine skipped bail in Argentina and fled the country to avoid her jail sentence. It seems unlikely that the Argentinian authorities will now risk giving the same chamce to Frampton.

In the circumstances I am afraid to say that Frampton should consider himself lucky if his eventual sentence is nearer the lower end of the 6 to 16 years given for this offence. They may well decide to make an example of him and make it much longer. Given his age and doubtful mental health it is not obvious that he could survive the conditions for that long. I only hope that he can find a legal team and enough good friends to help improve his chances.

10 reasons to buy into big science

November 5, 2011

When people hear the price tag for big science experiments like the Large Hadron Collider or the Hubble Space Telescope they wonder what the benefits are that justify the cost. I am not talking about projects with obvious potential benefits such as a fusion reactor. This is about pure science, why is it worth doing?  In fact there are lots of reasons so here is my list of the top 10, starting with the least important.

10 –  spin-off innovations: When scientists are asked to justify why the LHC was worth building they often roll out the list of technical innovations that have been invented at CERN; MRI scanners, touch sensitive displays and of course the world wide web. NASA has an even longer list from non-stick pans to velcro. This only makes number ten on my list because I think most of them would have been invented by industry anyway. The advantage of inventing them at CERN or NASA is that they are not owned by private companies. What would the web be like if it has been invented by a computer or telecoms company?

9 – National Prestige: New scientific discoveries can make big news stories and for many countries there is a lot of pride in being able to call in their own experts who have worked on the project to give their summary of what it means. Politicians love it.

8 – Entertainment: TV documentaries, science magazines, blogs etc, they are there because many people find big science entertaining.

7 – Employment: Big science projects employ lots of people, another secret favorite of politicians.

6 – International Cooperation: This is rarely brought up but it is very important. Science is a very international business that brings together people from different countries. They tend to put aside national differences because what matters to them is the science. The relationships last and carry over into industry and even politics.

5 – The development of hi-tech industries: Building an experiment like the Large Hadron Collider requires new technologies such as superconductors, cryogenics and large-scale computing facilities. These are subcontracted to private companies that develop new methods with applications elsewhere. It is very hard to quantify the benefit that this brings but in economic terms it could be worth a lot more than the money spent on experiments that push the limits of technology.

4- Education: Places like CERN are packed with young people and the directors like to brag about it to the point of being openly ageist as employers. This is good news (unless you are over 30 and interested in ajob at CERN) because it means that these people are learning new skills and going on to use them elsewhere in industry or other educational centres. Students and graduates at CERN or NASA have to learn how to do research  in physics, engineering and IT. In a world where science underpins the economies of developed countries it is an educational resource that no self-respecting nation can afford to miss out on if they want a prosperous future. Again this is rarely quantified but we hope that politicians who allocate the funds appreciate it.  In my opinion it is the top practical reason for funding big science.

3 – Inspiration: Big science inspires young minds

2 – Value for Money: When people quote the cost of something like the Large Hadron Collider in billions of dollars it certainly seems like a lot of money, but you have to remember that it is spread out over many years and many countries. The UK pays about £70 million per year for CERN. It is still a lot but it is a small part of the UK research budget and it brings all the above benefits. I have never seen a cost benefit analysis done on this basis but I bet it comes out as good value.

1 –  For the Knowledge: It has to be the number one reason for doing pure science, because we want to know and should know the answers to big questions. It is just part of what makes us human.

Name A Very Large Radio Telescope Array

October 15, 2011

Do you remember the radio telescopes in the Film Contact where Jodie Foster and her team of geeks received the first haunting signal from alien intelligence? That was actually the Very Large Array run by the NRAO in Mew mexico and it has just finished a big upgrade to its electronic systems. They think that VLA is not a sufficiently imaginative and so they want to rename it but they also want the public to come up with the new name. You can very quickly and easily make a suggestion or several suggestions here.

I have already suggested “Carl Sagan Radio Observatory” and I am sure I will not be the only one using that theme. The BBC has gone for “Unfeasibly Large Telescopes”. There must be some more sophisticated ideas out there, so submit them and let us know.


Wednesday Eclipse of Moon on Live Webcam

June 13, 2011

On 15th June 2011 you can watch a total eclipse of the moon. Total lunar eclipses are not very rare, they come on average once a year, but this one is exceptionally long. Firstly,  the moon will pass through the centre of the Earth’s shadow which last happened about 11 years ago, but also because the sun is more distant at this time of year and the Earth is a little closer to the moon. This makes the Sun look smaller and the Earth look bigger from the moon’s surface. In fact the eclipse will be total for 1 hour and 41 minutes. That is only five minutes short of the longest possible.

The Eclipse will be visible over most of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia and South America, leaving only North America and a few other corners of the world with no chance to see it. About 90% of the world’s population can view at least part of it directly, weather permitting. For the rest the internet saves the day with some live webcasts of the event. So far three organisations are planning webcasts so it is unlikely that they will all be clouded out.

Sky Watchers Association of North Bengal: here or here

Eclipse Chaser Athaenium New Delhi: here here

Google/Slooh: here

From first contact to last, the eclipse is visible from 17:23 to 23:02 GMT on Wednesday

Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You

June 8, 2011

Just so you have some advanced warning of predictable events that are likely to feature on this blog, I have added a Science Calendar at the bottom of the right hand column. Suggestions for additions are welcome, but may be ignored.

Best science blog post?

June 7, 2011

viXra Log is nominated for best science blog post at 3QuarksDaily. Voting end tomorrow.

Update: Currently in about 28th position, needing to be in top 20 to make final round.

Update: We didn’t quite make the cut but thanks for all the votes, I think we were about 28th position out of 70

Shaw Prizes for Enrico Costa, Gerald Fishman, Jules Hoffmann, Ruslan Medzhitov, Bruce Beutler, Demetrios Christodoulou and Richard Hamilton

June 7, 2011

Today seven scientists are up to $500,000 minus tax richer for having won this years Shaw Prizes.


First up are Enrico Costa and Gerald J Fishman for leading the NASA mission that resolved the origin of gamma ray bursts. It does not seem to many years ago since gamma-ray bursts were regarded as one of the great unsolved mysteries of science. They had first been detected in 1967 by the Vela satellites which had been placed in orbit by the US military to check that the USSR was not detonating nuclear weapons in contravention of the 1963 partial test ban treaty. Nuclear explosions would send gamma rays into space where the satellites would detect them. Instead they observed gamma ray bursts coming from space.

From 1973 when their existence was declassified until 1997, these events were so mysterious that astronomers could not even tell if they came from nearby in our galaxy or billions of years away across the universe. NASA launched the BeppoSAX satellite to try to resolve the question, In 1997 it observed a powerful gamma ray burst which left an afterglow long enough for Earth based telescopes to lock onto its location just 8 hours later. Now they could see that it came from a very distant galaxy.

The gamma rays are so bright at that distance that it is inconceivable that they are being radiated equally in all directions in such a short space of time. The amount of energy that would have to be concentrated into a small volume is juts not possible. It is thought that they come from energetic supernovae with a rapidly rotating remnant that focuses the gamma rays into a tight beam. we only see the burst for the small fraction of events where we happen to lie in the direction of the ray.

Life Science and Medicine

Next were Jules A Hoffmann, Ruslan M Medzhitov and Bruce Beutler for uncovering the biological mechanisms for innate immunity. When an animal or plant is infected it deploys a number of mechanisms to defend itself. One of the first is the innate immune system, thought to be one of the earliest mechanisms to evolve because it is so widespread across diverse forms of life. In plants it remains the dominant immune system, but advanced animals have developed more effective systems of adaptive immunity that can change to attack specific viruses or other contagents.

Understanding all forms of immunity is vital to medicine because it provides the knowledge needed to find drugs that help us fight diseases.


Finally, Demetrios Christodoulou and Richard S Hamilton won the mathematics prize for work on differential manifolds with implications for general relativity and the Poincaré conjecture.

When Grigori Perelman famously turned down the Fields medal and the million dollar Clay prize for resolving the Poincaré conjecture, he said that his reason was that other mathematicians such as Richard Hamilton has contributed just as much to the proof. He need not have been so concerned since Hamilton has now himself been recognized with a lucrative award.

It was Hamilton who discovered the theory of Ricci flow on differential manifolds that lead Perelman to his proof of the Thurston geometrization conjecture that was known to imply the truth of the Poincaré conjecture, a mathematical problem that had remained unsolved for a hundred years.

Demetrios Christodoulou is a mathematical physicist who worked for his doctorate at Princeton under the direction of John Wheeler. He is known for his extraordinarily difficult proof of the unsurprising fact that flat empty Minkowski space is stable under the action of nonlinear gravitational dynamics as described by general relativity.