Friday, 23 November 2012

Higgs attracts Mass!

The fabled Higgs boson certainly attracted a mass of people to the Brel theatre at the British School of Brussels (BSB) on 21 November to hear about the work of Prof. Vincent Lemaitre and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Well over 70 members of the public and students heard about the theory behind the Higgs boson and the work at CERN that led up to the ‘discovery’ on 4 July this year of a new fundamental particle that is (very probably) the ‘Higgs’.

Prof Vincent Lemaitre is Director of the Centre for Cosmology, Particle Physics and Phenomenology at the Universite Catholique de Louvain (UCL) and is an enthusiastic ambassador for his science and his passion clearly engaged with the audience.

Prof Lemaitre took us through what was effectively a highly condensed but accessible course on particle physics and cosmology – or as he put it the study of the “infinitely big and the infinitely small.” We learned about the ‘Big Bang’ and that – thanks to Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation - we cannot have mass without energy – however you can have energy without mass. He also pointed out that the most important effect of the Higgs boson was to impart mass to the electron – without it there would be no chemistry and no life as we know it.

Vincent took us through interactions, particles and fields to the work of Robert Brout, Francois Englert and Peter Higgs (two Belgians from ULB and one Brit at Edinburgh University), their establishment of the so-called “symmetry breaking” mechanism in Quantum Field Theory that describes all fundamental interactions of nature and implied the existence of an auxiliary particle came to be known as the Higgs boson and the search for that particle.

He is a collaborator on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in CERN and described its operation, the mechanisms of the CMS detector components and the difficulties in detecting evidence for the Higgs particle.

After the presentation Prof Lemaitre continued an animated question and answer session with a crowd of excited students and others. He was keen to impart that the discovery on 4th July was only the beginning and a good twenty years of further research would be needed to characterise the new particle and realise new physics. But this would be the work of the “next generation of scientists – you!”

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Woluwe win Keith Price Cup

RSC Belgium held its Belgian eliminator heat for the annual RSC Top of the Bench (TOTB) competition on Saturday 17 November at the British School of Brussels (BSB). It was a hard-fought struggle between teams from BSB, the European School II at Woluwe and European School I at Uccle. In a very close finish a team from Woluwe school eventually claimed the Keith Price Cup.

This was the second time that the RSC Belgium's TOTB eliminator has been held as an actual 'head-to-head' competition with a practical element. The seven teams of budding chemists (three from Woluwe, two from BSB and two from Uccle) had to complete a short written test on their individual chemical knowledge and data interpretation skills and then show teamwork and problem-solving abilities in a practical chemical exercise.

This format closely reflects the format of the competition that the winners will face in the final to be held in the UK (probably in London) in spring 2013. As usual Rita Woodward had devised the competition and set the questions.

Close competition
All seven teams consisted of four students aged between 14 and 16 and were accompanied by teachers. The practical aspect of the competition involved a timed reaction involving alka-seltzer tablets and sodium hydroxide. The teams had to determine the correct experimental configuration to neutralise the alkaline solution in 45 seconds - the endpoint of the reaction being monitored by a universal pH indicator.

When teams had worked out their own solution, their efforts were timed by judges Prof. Bob Crichton, Dr. Ian Carson, Dr Becki Scott and Tim Reynolds. Each team had two official 'timed' attempts.

The overall winners were determined by their team placing in both written and practical parts of the 'eliminator'.

The result was very tight with three teams (two from BSB and one from Uccle) tying for runner up position, but the winners were the ‘covalent’ team from the Woluwe European School. The winning teams are pictured above having been presented with the Keith Price Cup by branch chairman Prof Bob Crichton. The team will now represent Belgium in the (inter)national final in the UK in 2013. All the students who took part in the competition will also receive a certificate.

Clearly everyone who took part in the competition had an enjoyable time with both students and teachers very enthusiastic about this more competitive format. RSC Belgium looks forward to an even bigger and better Belgian TOTB eliminator next year.

Our thanks to all the teachers and students who took part in a really fun afternoon of chemistry!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Genes & Prizes

A capacity crowd of over 50 squeezed into the Swoosh Lounge at the British School of Brussels (BSB) to hear Prof Rene Rezsohazy from the Universite Catholique de Louvain consider the question: "Whatever happened to the Gene?". The event on 23 October 2012 was also the occasion for presentation of prizes to the winners of our 2012 Chemistry Challenge competition.

Our second evening event of the Autumn covered the topic of classical genetics with Prof Rene Rezsohazy of the Universite Catholique de Louvain (UCL) (see pictured below on right with section Chairman Bob Crichton).

Prof. Rezsohazy took us on a whistle-stop tour of the development of genetic science and molecular biology via a dozen or more Nobel Prize winners. He started with the founding 'dogma' of Beadle and Tatum of "one gene - one enzyme" and revealed the increasing complexity of structures and interactions that inform our understanding of how genes control development and function.

The discussion and questions continued well after the formal presentation with the aid of drinks and nibbles.

The evening also saw the presentation of certificates and cash prizes to pupils from a variety of local schools who had excelled in our Chemistry Challenge Competition.

Pictured above (left) is overall winner - and recipient of the Keith Price Prize - Ally McDermott from BSB. Details of all prize winners for 2012 and, if you fancy trying your hand, a link to the Challenge papers can be found here.