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Blog

Littered with errors

By Michael Banks

Photograph of Swheat Scoop cat litter (CC-BY-SA Ryan Forsythe)Cat litter and radioactive waste – not a combination you would normally expect to come across (although some cat owners may disagree).

But a report by the US Department of Energy has squarely blamed kitty litter for the explosion of a single drum of nuclear waste – dubbed “68660” – that burst open at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico in February 2014.

A year-long investigation by a nine-member panel – led by David Wilson of the Savannah River National Laboratory – has concluded that the incident was caused by the use of the wrong brand of feline litter.

As cat litter is highly absorbent, for years it has been used to help keep nuclear waste contained. Indeed, each barrel of waste at the WIPP is filled with about 26 kg of the stuff.

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Five amazing physics demonstrations

By Matin Durrani

Even if you’re a hardcore theoretical physicist, I’m sure you’ll agree that experiments are the lifeblood of physics. After all, theory and experiment go hand in hand – and there’s nothing to beat getting your hands dirty to get a proper understanding of the subject.

But how can pupils and students get excited about experiments? Making practical work a key part of exam syllabuses is surely important – yet the danger then is experimental work becomes a chore not a charm.

If you need inspiration, check out the April issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out in print and digital formats. It contains a great feature by Neil Downie – head of sensors at Air Products, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK and a Royal Academy of Engineering visiting professor at the University of Surrey.

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Florida’s declining Space Coast, naming mountains on Pluto and silly rock bands

 

Artist's impression of Pluto

Name game: does that crater look like a Steve, or maybe a Carol? (Courtesy: IAU/L Calçada)

By Hamish Johnston

When I was a young lad back in the late 1960s, my family would join the annual March migration of Canadians to Florida. Along with alligator farms and the endless beaches, the Kennedy Space Center was a popular tourist destination and I can still remember visiting it and getting a solar spinner globe as a souvenir. Sadly, since the end of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011, Florida’s “Space Coast” has fallen on hard times. While there are still rocket launches – there are two planned for April – thousands of NASA employees have been let go and the surrounding communities look worse for wear. The New York-based photographer Rob Stephenson has put together a collection of images taken in and around the centre that he calls “Myths of the Near Future”. To me the photographs evoke the allure of the space age as well as the inevitable decline of any human endeavour.

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Particle-physics electronica

By Michael Banks

Fancy a bit of particle-physics electronica?

Subatomic Particles albumThen make sure you download the latest album from Isle of Wight electronic duo Cosmic Mind Warp.

In a “unique crossover” between the worlds of cosmology, quantum physics and electronic music, Alister Staniland and David Holmberg have just released a new concept album dubbed Subatomic Particles.

The 15-track album, which features songs such as “Large Hadron Collider”, “Quantum Tunnelling” and “Down Quark”, is described by the duo as a “hallucinogenic head-trip through the microscopic world of subatomic particles and the strangeness of quantum physics”.

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Electrical fault delays LHC start-up

Back down the tunnel: technicians will soon be repairing an electrical fault somewhere along the LHC (Courtesy: CERN/Maximilien Brice)

Back down the tunnel: technicians will soon be repairing an electrical fault somewhere along the LHC. (Courtesy: CERN/Maximilien Brice)

By Hamish Johnston

Today I was planning to write a cheerful blog celebrating the first circulating proton beams in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but sadly the particle gods are not smiling down on CERN this week. Accelerator physicists in Geneva have identified an electrical fault in one of the collider’s magnet circuits and plans to restart the giant machine this week have been put on hold – possibly for several weeks.

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Bristol marvels at awe-inspiring solar eclipse

 

By Tushna Commissariat and James Dacey

The south-west of England is not exactly known for its sunny skies at this time of year, so many of us in Bristol – home to Physics World HQ – had steeled ourselves to miss out on today’s solar eclipse, which coincidently is on the first day of spring. So, we were rather overjoyed when the Sun shone through the sparse cloud cover for nearly an hour of the celestial treat. While today’s eclipse was technically visible to anyone in North Africa and Europe, totality was only visible to those lucky few who happened to be on the Faroe Islands (where it was actually cloudy for most of the time) and in Svalbard in northern Norway. Here in Bristol, the eclipse peaked at about 9.30 a.m., when 87% of the Sun’s light was blocked by the Moon.

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Partial eclipse, meteorites and northern lights enthral a nation

Spot on: this photograph of the Sun taken during the eclipse clearly shows a sunspot (Courtesy: David Bloomfield)

Spot on: this photograph of the Sun taken during today’s eclipse clearly shows a sunspot. (Courtesy: David Bloomfield)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier today millions of people in north-western Europe had the opportunity to see a partial eclipse of the Sun – or a total eclipse for the lucky few in northern Norway and the Faroe Islands.  Although it was a bit hazy here in Bristol, we were treated to spectacular views of the Moon covering 87% of the Sun. We have put up a Flickr album of images taken by colleagues here at IOP Publishing including the amazing photo above. It was taken by David Bloomfield and clearly shows a sunspot in the upper-left portion of the Sun.

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Guide to the solar eclipse

Solar eclipse captured by Hinode craft

Solar eclipse of 2012, which darkened parts of the US and south-east Asia. (Courtesy: JAXA/Hinode)

By James Dacey

On Friday, our old friend the Moon will swing by to remind us that she’s not just there to reflect the Sun’s light; she can sometimes block it out too. A total solar eclipse will be visible to those lucky few people living in the Faroe Islands or the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Many others across Europe, North Africa and Russia will be treated to the (almost as good) spectacle of a partial solar eclipse.

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What’s the latest matter with antimatter?

Hangst at the ALPHA experiment at CERN

Mind over antimatter: Jeffrey Hangst at the ALPHA experiment at CERN.

By Tushna Commissariat at CERN

While visiting CERN, the world’s biggest particle-physics laboratory, it’s easy to get swept up by the excitement of the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors, especially in the run up to it being switched back on in the coming weeks. But CERN is also host to a variety of other equally exciting experiments that probe some of the biggest unanswered questions in science, such as the experiments that probe the unwieldy world of antimatter. Indeed, CERN’s antimatter programme has received considerable attention in the past, especially thanks to the now-famous book (and later, film) Angels and Demons, where some antimatter was supposedly stolen from the laboratory and used to build a bomb! Suffice to say, antimatter is of interest to physicists and the public alike and so I caught up with physicist Jeffrey Hangst, who is spokesperson of the Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) experiment, which I also had the chance to visit.

a view of the ALPHA 2 apparatus

Antimatter factory: a view of the ALPHA 2 set-up.

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Was Bruno Pontecorvo a spy?

Frank Close (centre) speaking at Prospect magazine HQ on 12 March 2015

Reflecting on – Frank Close (centre) discusses the life of the Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1950.

By Matin Durrani

Like all good publications, Prospect has a strapline about itself – “the leading magazine of ideas”. Physics World is also about ideas, although sadly our magazine, great though it is, doesn’t have adverts for Cartier watches, Embraer executive jets or the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa in the Maldives as Prospect does. Clearly, some people with ideas have more money to spend than others.

I was kindly invited last week by the deputy editor of Prospect, Jay Elwes, to an event he hosted at the magazine’s headquarters in central London. The event featured the University of Oxford physicist Frank Close, who has just published a new book on the life and times of Bruno Pontecorvo. Close was on hand to discuss the key themes of the book, which is entitled Half Life: the Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo. Elwes described the attendees as a “small, high-powered group”, including as it did Pauline Neville Jones, the former chair of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee and Jonathan Evans, the former director-general of the British security service MI5.

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