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Scotland’s future

Castle Stalker

Scotland: staying in the UK following the referendum. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jack Torcello)

By Matin Durrani

In the end, it was perhaps not too unexpected when Scotland voted against independence in yesterday’s referendum. Almost all of the polls in the run-up to the vote had signalled a win for the “no” camp – and so it turned out, with 55% of voters wanting Scotland to remain tied to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of the UK. But it was a relatively close-run affair and many will be relieved that the two sides have avoided having tospend the next few years arguing, like a divorcing couple, over how to divide their spoils.

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A day in the life of CERN’s director-general

Rolf-Dieter Heuer

All in a day’s work. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Geneva

There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a CERN director-general (DG), certainly not this one in any case. In my experience, each incumbent has carved out a slightly different role for themself, shaped by the laboratory’s priorities and activities at the time of their mandate. For me, every day goes beyond science, management and administration, and I am particularly fortunate to have been DG through a remarkable period that has seen not only the successful launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and confirmation of the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism, but also an opening of CERN to the world – an area that I have pursued with particular vigour.

As I regularly joke, we have changed the “E” of CERN from “Europe” to “Everywhere”, and that has meant a lot of travel for the CERN DG, as we hold discussions with prospective new members of the CERN family. And when the CERN Council opened up membership to countries from beyond the European region in 2010, it seemed to me that we should also be extending our contacts in other directions as well.

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Proton-beam therapy explained

By James Dacey

The story of young brain-tumour patient Ashya King has gripped the British public over the past few weeks, with every twist and turn covered extensively in the media. In a nutshell, the five year old was removed from a hospital in Southampton at the end of August by his parents, without the authorization of doctors. They wanted their son to receive proton-beam therapy, which was not offered to them through the National Health Service (NHS). The family went to Spain in search of the treatment, triggering an international police hunt that subsequently saw the parents arrested before later being released.

The drama was accompanied by a heavy dose of armchair commentary, with Ashya’s parents, the hospital in Southampton and the police all receiving both criticism and praise. Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, got caught up in the affair, as he offered his personal support to the parents. To cut a long story short, Ashya’s parents finally got their wish and they have ended up at a proton-therapy centre in the Czech Republic where their son’s treatment begins today.

But what is proton therapy? It is a relatively new medical innovation that shows great promise in the treatment of cancer, though it is only currently available in certain countries. Beams of protons can be directed with precision at tumours in the body – allowing the energy to destroy cancer cells, while causing less damage to the surrounding tissue than is possible with conventional radiation therapies. The treatment, however, is only really useful in specific cases of cancer, such as where is vitally important that surrounding structures are not damaged. And because it is relatively new, there is less information available about how effective it is compared with more established treatments.

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Pushing the frontiers of precision

High Precision Laboratory

The €25m Precision Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany. (Courtesy: MPI-FKF)

By Michael Banks in Stuttgart, Germany

“There is nothing like this in Germany,” states Klaus Kern, a director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany, as we walk around the institute’s Precision Laboratory, which opened in 2012 at a cost of €25m.

Kern took me on a guided tour of the the centre, which he has been involved with since its conception in 2008, during a break from attending a symposium celebrating the life of Manuel Cardona, a former institute director who passed away earlier this year.

The building is unique, not only in Germany but worldwide, as it offers researchers a space in which to do experiments that are seismically, acoustically and electrically isolated from the environment.

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The secret life of hairdryers, the crackpot conundrum and mesmerizing animations

By Hamish Johnston

Secret lives will be revealed at the Science Museum in London (Courtesy: Batholith)

Its secret life will be revealed at the Science Museum in London. (Courtesy: Batholith)

If you happen to be in London next Saturday (20 September), the Science Museum is running a workshop called “The field life of electronic objects”. Participants will measure the electromagnetic fields surrounding everyday objects such as hairdryers and hard drives “to produce astonishing light images of these objects’ secret life”. Space is limited, the cost is £10 and you can register online.

One thing that we really struggle with here at is comments from crackpots. My colleagues and I put a lot of effort into writing and editing articles that we believe will be of general interest to the physics community. There is nothing more soul-destroying than spending hours trying to understand and then explain a tricky piece of research only to see the comments on your article hijacked by someone promoting their own bizarre theory.

The American Physical Society (APS) takes a brave and novel way of dealing with crackpots – it gives them their own sessions at APS conferences. In “The Crackpot Conundrum”, blogger Henry Brown describes the mood at such sessions as depressing, something that I understand based on a session that I sat through. Brown then reviews some of the various ways that physics bloggers deal with crackpots and in a moment of deep introspection suspects that he might be seen by some as a crackpot!

Finally, if you are winding down on a Friday afternoon, you can put yourself in a trance by watching these mesmerizing animations by the Irish physicist David Whyte.

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Once upon a time…the art of telling a good quantum tale


By Tushna Commissariat

It’s been nearly two weeks since I spent three intense and interesting days in Sweden bundled into a classroom with other journalists and scientists to polish up our knowledge of all things quantum. Since attending the NORDITA science-writing workshop, I have spent a lot of time thinking about one of the main themes of the meeting: “What is the best way to communicate quantum physics to the public?”

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Sweet-talking physics

By Louise Mayor

We’re always up for trying new formats and approaches to journalism here at Physics World. You’ve probably seen our documentary-type films, podcasts and 100 Second Science video series, but the latest addition to our repertoire is a short monthly video in which one of our editorial team highlights something in the upcoming or current issue as a kind of taster.

So this month, I decided to take the plunge and get in front of the camera myself to present the third edition of what we have started jokingly referring to in the office as our “fireside chats”. (Here are the July and August versions.)

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How to make the perfect hollandaise sauce

Hollandaise sauce

A scientific approach to making sauces. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/mikafotostok )

By Matin Durrani

I got an e-mail the other day from a London PR agency telling me about the latest edition of a new journal that’s tapping into the burgeoning interest in using scientific methods to improve and understand the foods we eat. Published by Elsevier, the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science seeks to bring chefs and scientists together “by conceiving culinary projects that nurture the relationship between cooking, science and research”.

Intrigued, I had a quick skim of the contents and my eyes were immediately drawn to an article by researchers in Norway, Denmark and Germany, who had examined the factors that affect the quality of a hollandaise sauce – and worked out the best way to make one.

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Is desperation for new physics clouding our vision for new colliders?

By Hamish Johnston

This month marks the 60th anniversary of CERN and to kick-off our coverage here at, I’m highlighting an essay on the future of collider physics that has just been written by Nobel laureate Burton Richter called “High energy colliding beams; what is their future?“.

Burton Richter

Burton Richter warns against desperation. (Courtesy: Stanford University)

Richter shared his 1976 Nobel prize with Samuel Ting for their independent discoveries of the J/ψ meson. He knows his particle colliders, having helped to design and build the world’s first collider in the late 1950s at Stanford University and later directing the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for 15 years.

Richter believes that the international community is not facing up to tough decisions that must be made about what to do when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is retired sometime in the early 2030s. He thinks that “the perspective of one of the old guys might be useful”.

Planning the next huge collider involves the co-operation of three main groups of physicists: those who design and build the accelerators; those who design and build the experiments; and the theoretical physicists who work out what the experiments are looking for. Richter thinks that this is not going well at the moment.

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Food for Martian thought, proton role-playing in a video game and more

By Tushna Commissariat

With space agencies across the world planning manned missions to Mars in the coming decades, pondering what one would eat while on Mars seems like a sensible thing to do. SpaceX engineer Andrew Rader helps us out with this difficult question in the video above, sharing gems like “chickens can’t swallow in space.” In the video, titled “Cooking on Mars” Rader cooks and eats a seemingly unappetizing option – bugs and insects – and makes it clear that is the fare future astronauts will be partaking in.

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