Talk about Newsnight

Science Student - Stephen Smith

Blogging - a new era

  • Newsnight
  • 18 Apr 08, 05:49 PM

blog203.jpgAs many of you who've used the BBC's blogs will know, it has for some months been a deeply frustrating experience, not just for you but for us too.

The point of blogging about our programmes is to have a swift and informal conversation with our viewers. That's impossible if it takes hours to get your comment or our response through.

I'm relieved to say that as of yesterday we have a new system which should be much more robust and which I hope will usher in a new era of blogging for Newsnight.

One change is that in order to comment you'll need to register by filling in a simple form.
Once signed up, you'll be able to comment on any BBC blog using the same login.

Many of you have already commented on how it's working and one or two have suggested it's designed to introduce more censorship.

That's certainly not our intention. The aim is to encourage much more open discussion about the programme and much more interaction with the programme-makers. I'm sure it isn't perfect and that you'll let us know how it could be improved.

Thanks very much to all those contributors - the Bob Goodalls, Barrie Singletons, Mistress76UKs and many others - who have persevered through all the blog problems. Apologies for all the Error 502s, and welcome to the new era.

Blog fix imminent

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Apr 08, 04:32 PM

Blog closed temporarilyFrom 1800 this evening (UK time), we'll be doing some essential maintenance to the blog. As a result of this, you won't be able to leave any comments on our blog posts from that time until Thursday morning and the comments function on all old posts will close. We apologise for any inconvenience.

The work will fix the very frustrating problems we've encountered for some time now with the whole comments system.

From Thursday a new system will be in place - this will mean you will need to complete a simple registration form in order to post a comment on the blog. Once signed up, you will be able to comment on all BBC blogs using the same login. There will be more details in the morning. In the meantime - if you wish to comment on the programme you can email us via

Blog problems - a solution is nigh

  • Newsnight
  • 10 Apr 08, 11:40 AM

blog502error.jpgAnyone who regularly reads the Newsnight blog will know that we have suffered from a series of technical problems for some time now. Comments disappear, the dreaded 502 'not available' message appears, and multiple copies of comments get submitted in error. (More on the problems here.)

Well, to much relief (not least here at Newsnight), a solution is about to be unveiled.

In the very near future the comments system that causes all the problems is being replaced by a BBC-wide system.

Under the new system, anyone wishing to leave a comment will need to sign in - a relatively swift and painless affair that comes with the added bonus of enabling you to leave your thoughts on blogs and message boards across all BBC websites.

Finally, we hope to revamp and relaunch the whole Newsnight blog shortly, with more bloggers, more variety, and the odd bit of video thrown in. But one step at a time...

We'll update you on the changes next week.

Belgian astronauts - an apology

  • Newsnight
  • 15 Feb 08, 02:35 PM

Last night during Steve Smith's piece on proposals to send more Britons into space - watch it here - it was suggested that there hadn't been any Belgian astronauts.

Dirk FrimoutHowever, as viewer Danny noted, Belgium has had not one, but two men in space. The first was Dirk Frimout way back in 1992, who flew as a payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

An unsourced note on his wikipaedia entry claims he sparked "Frimout-mania" on his return to Belgium and spoke with Prince Philippe whilst aboard Atlantis. We can't confirm the extent of Frimout-mania but we'd love to hear of any examples. We did find this apparent homage on YouTube - La danse du Dirk Frimout.

The second Belgian in space was Frank De Winne, who flew as a member of a Russian Soyuz programme in 2002, and is due to fly again on another Soyuz mission to the International Space Station in 2009.

So apologies to Belgium and its astronauts and all its space enthusiasts.

How to test the braking distance of airliners...

  • Stephen Smith
  • 8 Mar 07, 02:44 PM

aircraft203.jpgClick here for details of Science Week
If I didn't know before that physics is a capricious mistress, as likely to dash me to earth as to lift me out of my prosaic daily round, then I certainly found out the day I boarded a flight to Colombia. I was on my way to undertake the latest stage of my scientific education.

My grandfather built and ran railways through the beautiful but implacable South American countryside, where he and other engineers coaxed steam locomotives all the way from the Atlantic coast through bug-loud jungle into the faint-making high sierras of Bogota, the Colombian capital. The country where my grandfather spent so many years of his life now enjoys a well-deserved reputation for kidnapping and violence.

But as I took my seat aboad the jet, I little suspected that physics had hazards of her own to mete out, that my fellow passengers and I were about to find ourselves at the centre of a summary experiment concerning the braking distance of a fully-laden airliner...

Continue reading "How to test the braking distance of airliners..."

Spangles, sequins and skates

  • Newsnight
  • 19 Jan 07, 05:08 PM

Is it the figure of eight? Or perhaps the triple axel? I can never quite decide which is my favourite discipline in the repertoire of ice dance. But I do know that I'm never more alive, more free, than when I'm shimmering across a rink in a spangled catsuit. Some good judges of the terpsichorean arts have been kind enough to describe it as a human glissando.

To date, the medals and sashes that I've been lucky enough to garner must in candour be put down to nothing more than instinct, to flair - to sheer natural talent, if you want to press the point. It's only now, in the light of my Physics AS level studies, that I realise I could have saved myself many a gash and a lost sequin as a prentice skater if I had but paid attention to Isaac Newton!

Continue reading "Spangles, sequins and skates"

Science Student sits his mock

  • Stephen Smith
  • 20 Dec 06, 05:11 PM

stevesmithtree203.jpgHe's making a list, checking it twice. Gonna find out who's naughty and nice. That's right - Fumbi, my Physics teacher, has been marking the mock A-level paper that his students sat the other day.

I went into the exam hall with a new calculator and a stylish wipe-clean wallet of protractors, and most of all with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. You'd never guess it to look at me, but it's been many years since I was last injuncted to write on one side of the paper only, and to answer all the questions.

In case you haven't been following my progress - and we won't hold it against you - I've been studying physics in an effort to find out why so few of our young people are doing the same, notwithstanding our matchless heritage in engineering and technology. We've been looking at dams in Scotland and wrestling with giant magnets and meeting the charming and brilliant Kathy Sykes, of TV science fame.

But all along I knew that there would be a reckoning in December, that the festive season would find me scribbling equations alongside my Christmas cards. Tune in tonight to find out how I got on.

But please I beg of you - don't judge me too harshly, gentle viewer! I haven't actually completed all the course work yet - Young's Modulus, for example, remains a tantalising enigma to me.

If I may, I'd like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the way my colleagues have helped me shoulder the burden, especially Newsnight's exotic and multi-garlanded cameraman Antoine de Joliffe. When a few were quite prepared to mutter behind my back about how few marks I'd score, he bravely went out on a limb and said that I'd get none at all.

Find out tonight if he'll have to eat crow, or at least his favourite Tottenham Hotspur bobblecap.

Can you do my mock exam?

  • Stephen Smith
  • 20 Dec 06, 04:26 PM

stevesmith203.jpgHere are a couple of questions from the paper, set one term into my physics A-level. Good luck!

1. (a) (i) Define the moment of a force.

(ii) State the principle of moments.

(b) The diagram below shows a pillar (lying horizontally) made of two uniform sections X and Y each of cross-sectional area 3.5 x 10-2. m2. The sections are made from two different materials. The weights of X and Y are shown acting through the centre of gravity of each section.


Show that the average density of the pillar is about 1800 kg m-3. .

(c) The pillar in (b) will balance horizontally supported vertically below the point P.

(i) Show, using the principle of moments, that the point P is 1.2m from the end B.

(ii) State the significance of point P.

2. (a) (i) Explain the concept of work and relate it to power.

(ii) Define the joule.

(b) A cable car is used to carry people up a mountain. The mass of the car is 2000 kg and it carries 800 people, of average mass 60 kg. The vertical height travelled is 900 m and the time taken is 5 minutes.

(i) Calculate the gain in gravitational potential energy of the 80 people in the car.

Gravitational potential energy gain = ……….J

(ii) Calculate the minimum power required by a motor to lift the cable car and its passengers to the top of the mountain.

Power =…..… unit………..

The exam questions were taken from an OCR past paper from 2001. If readers want to attempt more exam papers for fun, there are some specimen papers available at the OCR website.

Science student films

  • Stephen Smith
  • 19 Dec 06, 06:31 PM

steve203.jpgApparently there's been a clamour for my science films and complaints they're none to easy to track down. So for the hard of Googling here is the Newsnight Science Student back catalogue so far.

Science Student film one

Science Student film two

A Level coursework

Disappointingly meagre so far, isn't it?

Science Student's car coursework

  • Stephen Smith
  • 15 Dec 06, 12:33 PM

stevecar203.jpgIt isn't often that I get to explore my great passion for health and safety demonstrations. Well, it wouldn't be if I didn't work for the BBC.

But now, thanks in no small measure to the coursework element of the physics A-level I'm nervously grappling with, all that's changed. Here I present, as exclusive bonus web content (that's how good it is), my report on The Physics of car safety that was just this very day delivered in stunned silence to my classmates.

You can watch my A Level-winning (or not) coursework film here

Can you do my homework 2?

  • Stephen Smith
  • 11 Dec 06, 05:25 PM

physics203c.jpgFollowing the huge interest in and bitter disputes over the last lot of homework I posted on this public forum, I present the sequel: Can you do my homework 2?

1. The Earth has a radius of 6,400 km. What is the speed of Edinburgh at a Latitude 56º?

(a) 465 ms-1
(b) 386 ms-1
(c) 260 ms-1

Use the equation for kinetic energy Ek=1/2mv2 and change in gravitational potential energy Ep=mgh for the following questions.

2. A car of mass 850 kg which is moving at a speed of 10 ms-1 is acted upon by a braking force of 1500 N for a distance of 20 m. Calculate the final speed of the car.

(a) 3.81 ms-1
(b) 5.42 ms-1
(c) 7.98 ms-1

3. A 3 kW motor is used to lift a mass of 700 kg a height of 6.5 m. The operation takes 20 seconds. Calculate the efficiency of the motor lift.

(a) 74.3%
(b) 68.2%
(c) 49.9%

Can you do my homework?

  • Stephen Smith
  • 24 Oct 06, 03:48 PM

blackboard203.jpgNewsnight editor Peter Barron had a notion recently to explore the dearth of science students in this country by ordering one of Newsnight's top correspondents to sit a physics exam.

But they were all busy, he explained, so I would have to do it. So I've joined the physics A-level group at Newsnight's local college - and it's not proving a simple matter.

Maybe you'll have more luck with vectors and scalars than I did. Join me now in the ultimate website 'extra' - yes, the Newsnight Homework Zone! Test your physics prowess against the posers that my teacher, Mr Mhlanga, set for me. NB Mark yourself down if you lose your answers on the bus or your dog eats 'em.

On with the homework...

Continue reading "Can you do my homework?"

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