Posts Tagged ‘Protons for Breakfast’

Protons for Breakfast: Sad news

December 18, 2013
PfB logo

Have you eaten protons for breakfast?

Having just completed the 18th presentation of Protons for Breakfast to the largest and most enthusiastic audience ever, I have reluctantly decided that the time has come to stop.

In fact the course won’t stop just now, but instead there will be two more presentations in the spring and autumn of 2014, and it will stop one year from now.

I confess to feeling sad – heartbroken in fact – but I hope I will feel better in the New Year.

Anyway. I just thought I would let people know.


March 25, 2011
Spectra Glasses

Looking through the diffraction grating glasses.

Understanding light, and its connections to electricity and heat is the central theme of Protons for Breakfast. And a primary tool for understanding light is the spectrometer. So at Protons‘ we give out diffraction grating glasses (above) which split light into its component frequencies, each of which we perceive as having a different colour. These are big hit.



We become more quantitative too by using hand-held plastic spectrometers (link or link) that display the spectra against a wavelength scale. And brilliantly conceived and simple though these are, they are tricky to use. And although they give a quantitative measure of the wavelength of light, they give no information about the relative intensities of the different wavelengths.

John Mountford capturing spectra at Protons for Breakfast

John Mountford capturing spectra at Protons for Breakfast. Click to enlarge.

It turns out be difficult (=expensive) to get accurate information on the relative intensities of light at different wavelengths. But my colleague John Mountford noticed that an instrument for doing this was temporarily available, and so we took it along to Protons and tried it out. The results were very impressive and below I have put three screenshots of the light from three types of lamps: conventional incandescent, compact fluorescent, and the new fangled LED lamps. Each spectrum is strikingly different and to the physics detective, tells the tale of how the light is made.  I will be looking at each of these three lighting technologies in future weeks, but for now just enjoy this beautiful data. If you would like to plot your own graphs, you can download an Excel spreadsheet containing spectroscopic data.

Spectrum of Incandescent light bulb

The spectrum of an incandescent light bulb. Notice that the bulb gives out mainly red and infra red light. The bulb appears yellow to us because we are insensitive to red light and the small amount of blue, and detect primarily the green and yellow. Click for enlarged image.

The spectrum of a compact fluorescent light bulb.

The spectrum of a compact fluorescent light bulb. Notice the very intense sharp 'emission lines' from the mercury within the bulb, and the relatively weak, smooth background from the phosphor. Click for enlarged image.

The spectrum of an LED light bulb. Notice the bright blue emission from the LED itself and the fluorescence of the phosphor in the green, yellow and red. Click for enlarged image.

The spectrum of an LED light bulb. Notice the bright blue emission from the LED itself and the fluorescence of the phosphor in the green, yellow and red. Click for enlarged image.

Protons for Breakfast 14

March 4, 2011
Van de Graaff Generator: Click for full size

Van de Graaff Generator: Click for full size

It is the scientific equivalent of a literary cliché. I am sorry, but it is true. To electrically charge a young woman with long fine hair and see the hair fly out in all directions. How un-original! Nonetheless, despite the ‘cliché’, it is great to see it happen live, and it is great to experience it yourself. It’s one of the things I love about Protons for Breakfast.

A Wimshurst machine commanded by a Protonista

A Wimshurst machine commanded by a Protonista

I had felt particularly anxious about this presentation of Protons for Breakfast. I felt as if I had not had quite enough time to think and prepare.  But happily as we assembled before the class, the positivity and general wonderfulness of the helpers buoyed me and reminded me of the simple pleasure of being in command of a Wimshurst machine! And then I was OK!

So the 14th presentation is now underway and I must get on with responding to the feedback and answering the questions.


Protons for Breakfast 14!

February 22, 2011
The fourteenth presentation of Protons for Breakfast approaches

The fourteenth presentation of Protons for Breakfast approaches

I have been thinking a lot lately about Protons for Breakfast. It’s on my mind because – well – its always on my mind! But also we are approaching the fourteenth presentation of its modern era, and we seem set to have record numbers – more than 110 people signed up as of last week. Many people have asked me if I get nervous about the course, or if I find it difficult to enthuse about topics about which I have spoken many times before. For the record, the answers to these questions are “Yes” and “No” respectively. And for the same reasons!

I do worry very much about each presentation because I feel so strongly that the simple insights that the course provides can really enhance people’s lives. And it pains to me think that something I do (or forget to do) might get in the way of communicating optimally. One of the nice ‘chores’ before each course involves collating all the comments and questions that people have written on their application forms – it really does help me to get my mind to where people are ‘coming from’. And its great fun to try answer questions along the lines of “What are space and time?” in a paragraph or two.

Work is very challenging at the moment, and in principle it would all be a bit easier without having to put on this ‘show’. But in fact putting on Protons for Breakfast is a real pleasure: meeting people, working with my NPL colleagues, and spreading the word about the value that can be added to people’s lives by the realisation that they eat Protons for Breakfast! .

Climate Change Discussion at Protons for Breakfast

November 25, 2010
Wind Farms in Texas

Wind Farms in Texas

I am just back from discussing ‘Climate Change’ at Protons for Breakfast. And after having eaten – I was ravenous! – I am reflecting on a very moving evening.

  • So many people – children and adults – concerned and interested and coming along to these sessions
  • So many helpers giving up their time.
  • My friend Lindsay standing outside in the freezing cold to make sure that people found their way to the right car park!
  • Andrew Russell giving up his time to be an expert when all NPL’s experts were abroad!

And as we came to the end, one of the attendees stood up and encouraged everyone not to give up hope – and she related her experience of how things were changing in Africa and that solar photovoltaics were making a real difference. I remembered the first few times we had run Protons for Breakfast and how depressed I had felt about our situation. Now, I don’t feel depressed about our situation – even though I still don’t know what will happen. But now I feel that as the reality of our situation becomes apparent, humanity has the capability to act together. And although there will be squabbles and political manoeuvring, we will do something. It won’t be ideal, but it will be – in some sense – enough.

Arriving home I watched the BBC News where there was a feature about giant  wind farms in Texas. The feature stressed how politically it was unacceptable to mention anything ‘green’ or global warming related, but the wind farms were there nonetheless – the largest wind farms in the world – colossal constructions harvesting a sustainable resource which should still be reaping rewards long after the ‘nodding donkeys‘ beneath them have nodded for the last time.

The World really is changing- in small ways and in large ways, and momentarily I feel happy. Being amongst fellow citizens and work colleagues like these –  I feel quite sure humanity will adapt to our new reality.

Protons for Breakfast 13

November 8, 2010
PfB logo

Man eating some protons

Things at work have been so busy lately I have hardly found time to finish any of the blog items I started, but now we have finally begun the 13th presentation of Protons for Breakfast I am feeling a bit calmer. Actually presenting the sessions is a tremendous pleasure and I do genuinely rediscover my fascination with the subject every time I re-visit it. But beforehand I get worried. Someone asked me if I had ‘butterflies’, but I misheard them and thought they were asking if I had buffaloes – and that comes closer. But once we get started I feel relaxed.

Weird but beautiful representation of lead nuclei colliding

Weird but beautiful representation of lead nuclei colliding

I have just finished answering the Feedback and Questions from Week 1 of Presentation 13 of Protons for Breakfast and there were many enquiries about the nature of the strong force which acts between protons and neutrons within the nuclei of atoms. So it was interesting to see this article on the BBC today regarding new experiments at CERN. There the nice Dr. Evans explained why they were smashing the nuclei of lead atoms into each other. He said that ‘by studying the [resulting] plasma, physicists hoped to learn more about the so-called strong force ‘. So the questions the class were asking after week 1 of the course – are actually right up to date!

Protons for Breakfast 12

April 2, 2010
Protons Week 2: Looking at Light

Protons Week 2: Looking at Light

It is the evening of Good Friday 2010 and the 12th presentation of Protons for Breakfast finished on Wednesday. I am exhausted. Not so much from the course, but from the course on top of the hardest project on which I have ever worked.

The course was possibly the most successful yet, with the most attendees and the best retention rate. At the end of the course we collect feedback which is read by me and then included in a report to NPL management. I always find the feedback intriguing and this session’s is the typical. I can’t really post it all – there is too much, but I will post everything people wrote on two sections: One thing you have learned and Feedback for NPL Management. I post it here for you make of what you will. Reading this makes me want to do it better next time. And together with the team of fantastic colleagues, I will. But now I intend to enjoy a break – by which I mean devoting myself whole heartedly to my regular job!

One thing you learned…

  • What heat is?
  • Have broaden my understanding of physics from my a-level course. Also that mobile phones aren’t as harmful as I initially thought!
  • The Sun is bigger than the Earth!
  • Which way round the changes are in static electricity.
  • Not much.
  • Hard to think of just one thing – there are so many! Memorable moments; depiction of light-wave through sticks and jelly beans, heat hand-print on the wall (+ others). So the movement of light along a line of consecutive elements. And how one body affects another and for how long this lasts.
  • That mobile phone transmitters are nothing to be too worried about.
  • How atoms and particles act/react. How not to wear egg!
  • If you put an egg in a microwave and put a glass on it, leave it for a while then take it out, the egg explodes.
  • There are loads of atoms in our body.
  • That static will impact any material including wood and food stuffs.
  • That absolutely everything is electric!
  • All about infra-red and the global warming.
  • Eggs explode! Microwaves and telephones are not a problem.
  • Science is full of surprising facts.
  • Mobile phones.
  • Whatever the topic someone has written a song about it!
  • A lot.
  • Mobile phones experiments have all ended up inconclusive.
  • Where to begin – motion – that particles are in constant motion and it changes. How temperature changes the way particles move.
  • More about light spectrum.
  • That there’s atoms in everything apart from fields.
  • Duck eggs unreliable under stress.
  • Don’t put eggs in the microwave.
  • Mobile phones are not bad as I had thought.
  • There is electricity in everything.
  • Water bends!
  • About waves and mostly mobile phones. LOADS!
  • Loads about atoms.
  • How to make experiment.
  • Nuclear power.
  • How atoms and protons work.
  • I understand and can now argue about global warming. I was able to work out why a wok gets hotter than an frying pan.
  • Science is not scary! It’s all around us, from the air we breathe to the protons we drink.
  • That liquid nitrogen when poured briefly over skin will not burn or scald.
  • How make ice cream using liquid nitrogen.
  • I learnt how a mobile phone works and about infrared rays and how they ‘fry’ your brain.
  • Absorpion/emission of light emission frequencies/’jiggling’ + spectroscopy.
  • Different heats atoms move faster.
  • How to make ice cream out of liquid nitrogen.
  • That everything is electrical!
  • Atoms jiggle at different rates depending on whether it’s a solid/liquid/gas.
  • That water can hover.
  • A better understanding of how global warming is occurring.
  • I didn’t realise that every “single thing” had atoms. I was fascinated to learn about light electricity and heat.
  • We are all electric!
  • How weak the radiation from mobile phones really is.
  • How electrons and temperature work.
  • The theory behind atoms as being building blocks of our universe.
  • A lot about atom and how they’re moving when/when not being affected.
  • All that electricity everywhere!
  • Science is fun (world’s away from the dull and boring lessons I remember from school).
  • Lots about the application of science – I never thought I would understand oscillation and hertz.
  • The amount of fun with a microwave over (including Mr Egg).
  • The whole world jiggles.
  • Jelly baby waves!
  • Why energy saving light bulbs are saving!
  • That everything is made of atoms.
  • Light is a wave. Colour perception – loved Andrew’s slot in week 2.
  • That light is everywhere, and about phones! and how to spell ciao! Thanks for that ☺
  • Wave patterns – everything has electricity – that you can keep a metallic strip in the air with bursts of electricity. I wish I could remember some of the things I learned!
  • How mobile phones work. I have A level physics (1984) and so much had an air of familiarity but a fair proportion of it was new.
  • Temperature is a measure of the speed things are moving at.
  • Gherkins can conduct electricity! Different uses for electromagnetic radiation.
  • Lego men are cool …… being realistic ….. exploding eggs are cool.
  • How little I know.
  • Nuclear power ultimately stellar not solar.
  • The really neat way of describing the  relationship between electricity/heat/??? waves and atoms.
  • Too many to name!
  • That we are not running out of carbon fuels. I had thought that when the oil became scarce we would be forced to find more sustainable fuels – but oh no! Too much coal nothing to stop us overheating the planet, except ourselves.
  • How to get to the pub in 90 seconds. Many things. And especially developing understanding of how global warming occurs – and the small ????? proportion of carbon. And how mobile phones work.
  • Sausages conduct electricity.
  • Sausages conduct electricity.
  • I especially like week 1 (I sadly missed week 2 and 3) but for the first time I felt I had a skeleton framework to hang my science on.
  • Electromagnetic field, atoms and their purpose!
  • Atoms jiggle!
  • How large the sun is in relation to earth.

Is there any message you would like to give to the NPL management team…

  • No
  • Thank you for organising such interesting lectures – more should be able as it really enriched my learning in physics! I really enjoyed it!
  • I am very glad to have attended the sessions.
  • I understand this course was given by volunteers – I hope you give them a Christmas bonus!
  • Just thank you.
  • No. Thank you!!!!
  • How big is NPL?
  • Thank you for the opportunity!
  • Thank you!
  • Well done! And thank you.
  • A huge thanks for giving up your time and making this an interesting and entertaining course for a wide age group.
  • Thank you very much your all team members.
  • More courses like this! It’s a great way to engage with the local community.
  • You are the best!!!
  • You were all great, very smart, and a true inspiration. Everything was explained simply whilst not patronising, few people can do that. Thank you very much.
  • Do you have more ways of accessing what the NPL does. It would be fascinating to know/see more.
  • Michael and helpers v. enthusiastic.
  • Your doing an excellent job and keep it up.
  • Brilliant initiative. Wish more places did similar, credit to NPL.
  • Thanks, it was good.
  • Well done! And thank you!
  • See comment under ‘anything else’. Shouldn’t there be a museum on this site possibly linked to Bushy Park, Americans in WWII. If you want to talk about this I’m on
  • Need to let more schools know about the course. Keep doing this. Excellent course.
  • Fantastic course. You should blow your own trumpet more often about what happens here.
  • Great work!
  • No.
  • You guys are great!!
  • Brilliant. Please keep the talks! You are one of the only groups that makes adult lectures suitable for kids.
  • Publicise these much more widely. Take PfB on the road?
  • Thanks for a well run course.
  • You’ve done well.
  • This has been a fantastic experience. I wish you could do more outreach work to local state secondary schools.
  • Thank you – it has been great fun. Michael is an amazing presenter – so enthusiastic.
  • Keep up the good work!
  • The course is fantastic and I never learned anything at school. They should take in on tour.
  • Brilliant course, fantastically run by truly enthusiastic people.
  • Thank you very much for the time and effort you put in to this course. It is wonderful. Thank you very much Michael.
  • I think these sessions are a great way of bringing science to life for kids and making creating some excitement about the topic. I work at BP (here as a parent) but I am involved with the BP schools link scheme. I have told my link school about this course and the BP ext affairs people.
  • No, not really! But I like your powerpoints. Very well done!
  • Keep it up.
  • This has been the most amazing course. Keep employing these wonderful people.
  • I am now truly able to share Michael’s immense passion for physics! Physics Woo!!
  • No.
  • I admire your engagement and enthusiasm.
  • Thank you for all your hard work this is a very valuable.
  • What a super way to advertise what NPL is all about,  why you exist and why science is ???
  • Thank you very much for all efforts have been done!
  • The course should be filmed and shown in schools. If every one knew about it the demand would be huge. Same about people attending in person. Michael is a star and his enthusiasm infectious. His powerpoints were brilliant. Michael is the Jeremy Clarkson of the Physics World.

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