'Sixty Symbols' — unravelling the secret language of science

22 Apr 2009 16:36:00.000

PA 113/09

It is the most famous scientific equation in history, framed by Einstein more than a century ago.


But what does e=mc² actually stand for? And how does it explain the relationship between energy, mass and the speed of light?


An innovative new video project is translating the mysteries of equations like this and many other symbols of science — from Lambda(λ) and the Hubble Constant (H) to the speed of light (c), imaginary numbers (j) and propulsion efficiency (η) — into plain English, harnessing the passion of scientists at The University of Nottingham.

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‘Sixty Symbols’ ( http://www.sixtysymbols.com) is The University of Nottingham’s newest project aimed at shedding light on the world of science, explaining the meaning of dozens of symbols and the fundamental part they play in modern life.

Physics and astronomy are full of symbols that can seem daunting to the outsider — a secret language that holds non-scientists at arm’s length. ‘Sixty Symbols’ will help to break down those barriers with sixty short videos, each just a few minutes long and posted on a dedicated website, featuring academics chatting about an aspect of the subject they love.

Professor Richard Bowtell, Head of the School of Physics & Astronomy, said: “Symbols are an essential part of the language of physics — each one forms a window onto an aspect of our subject.

“Working with Brady Haran on the Sixty Symbols project is a great opportunity to explain some fascinating physics and to illustrate some of the exciting work that’s going on in the School of Physics and Astronomy.”

The videos are created by filmmaker and former BBC videojournalist Brady Haran. From physics at the scale of the tiniest nano-particle to the structure of entire galaxies, they look at every aspect of a fascinating subject in ways that most viewers will not have seen before.

Find out from Professor Laurence Eaves why 137 is a magical number, and why it could be useful to alien-hunters:


Hear from Professor Michael Merrifield about ‘the ultimate constant’ in physics — the speed of light:


Discover why imaginary numbers are so important to physicists, from Professor Philip Moriarty:


Or see an aerial demonstration, by Dr Steve Pickering, of what a jet engine has in common with a water-filled coke bottle:


The project follows The University of Nottingham’s award-winning ‘Periodic Table of Videos’ project ( www.periodicvideos.com), featuring an entertaining short film about the properties of every single element in the Periodic Table, from aluminium to xenon, as explained by academics in The University of Nottingham’s School of Chemistry.

The Periodic Table project has rapidly become a worldwide phenomenon on the web, amassing almost six million hits since its launch and an army of more than 12,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel from all over the world. Its sister site —

www.test-tube.org.uk — showcases the work of scientists and engineers in Nottingham.

Filmmaker Brady Haran has worked with University of Nottingham scientists to create all three projects. He said: “I guess all those squiggles used by scientists can seem like another language... In fact, many of them are taken from other languages. But each one has a story behind it, and each of those stories is truly fascinating.

“And who better to tell those stories than a group of world-class physicists and astronomers. These men and women spend every day exploring the outer boundaries of the universe and the inner workings of the atom. It's brilliant that we can briefly drag them from those amazing places to tell us a few tales of what they find there.”

New films will be posted on the ‘Sixty Symbols’ website every week throughout the coming months. Viewers who would like a particular symbol explained can contact Brady at sixtysymbols@hotmail.co.uk

— Ends —

Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.
Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Richard Bowtell , School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 4737, Richard.bowtell@nottingham.ac.uk; or Brady Haran, filmmaker, on brady.haran@gmail.com

Tim Utton

Tim Utton - Deputy Director of Communications

Email: tim.utton@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8092 Location: University Park

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