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Reminiscing about Fermilab, CAPTCHA tests your physics, science of guitar strings

By Hamish Johnston

What do huge snowstorms, pioneering childcare and bison have in common? The answer is that they all feature in video recollections of Fermilab, the particle physics facility that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. A playlist of the videos is available and you can watch Cindy Joe’s musings over Snowpocalypse 2011 above.

According to physics blogger ZapperZ, the online retailer Amazon is developing a new CAPTCHA technology that relies on human’s innate understanding of the laws of physics. The idea, apparently, is that a user would be presented with before and after scenarios and asked which seem plausible. This could be a ball rolling down a ramp, or a projectile flying through the air. It seems that web robots can’t solve simple mechanics problems – at least for now.

Ending on a bright note, music technologist and erstwhile physicist Jonathan Kemp of the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland claims to have invented a revolutionary type of guitar string. He riffs on his new creation in the video above.

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Seeking causes of Mexico City’s earthquake

Landsat image of Mexico City region

Mexico City: built on a basin of sedimentary rock from eroded mountains. (Courtesy: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

At the time of writing, the official death toll stands at more than 200 people following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck near Mexico City on Tuesday. According to the secretary of education, 200 schools have been affected, including the Enrique Rébsamen elementary school in Mexico City’s southern Coapa district where 37 people died, as reported by the BBC. Meanwhile buildings have collapsed at a campus of the Monterrey Institute of Technology killing five people and injuring 40, also in the south of the city.

In a cruel twist of fate, the quake struck on the day of the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that led to the death of up to 10 000 people. Even though yesterday’s event is likely to claim fewer victims than the 1985 disaster, it is still a shocking reminder of how vulnerable Mexico City is to earthquake damage.

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Grabbing a slice of the pie in the sky

(Courtesy: NASA)

(Courtesy: NASA)

By Margaret Harris at the European Planetary Science Congress in Riga, Latvia

If you wanted to mine an asteroid, what would you need? Right now, it’s a hypothetical question: only a handful of spacecraft have ever visited an asteroid, and fewer still have studied one in detail. As commercial ventures go, it’s not exactly a sure thing. But put that aside for a moment. If you wanted to create an asteroid-mining industry from scratch, how would you do it?

Well, for starters, you’d need to know which asteroids to target. “Not every mountain is a gold mine, and that’s true for asteroids too,” astrophysicist Martin Elvis told audience members at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) yesterday. For every platinum-rich asteroid sending dollar signs into investors’ eyes, Elvis explained there are perhaps 100 commercially useless chunks of carbon whizzing around out there, and the odds for water-rich asteroids aren’t much better. Moreover, some of those valuable asteroids will be impractical to mine, either because of their speed and location or because they’re too small to give a good return on investment. “Smaller asteroids aren’t even worth a billion dollars,” Elvis scoffed. “Who’d get out of bed for that?”

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Prize-winning astronomy image, the ultimate cost of Cassini, amazing facts about lasers

 

Prize winning: Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex captured by Artem Mironov (Courtesy: Artem Mironov)

Prize winning: the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex captured by Artem Mironov (Courtesy: Artem Mironov)

By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks

Hats off to the Russian photographer Artem Mironov, who has beaten thousands of amateur and professional photographers from around the world to win the 2017 Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year. The award is in its ninth year and is run by the Royal Observatory Greenwich together with Insight Investment and BBC Sky at Night magazine. Mironox’s image, which was taken over three nights from a farm in Namibia, is of the swirling dust and gas clouds in the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex. The object is situated approximately 400 light years away from Earth and is home to a cluster of more than 300 protostars. As well as winning the £10,000 top prize, Mironov’s image will be on display along with other selected pictures at an exhibition at the Royal Observatory that will run until 28 June 2018. The competition received over 3800 entries from over 90 countries. Continue reading

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Why is quantum physics so hard to write about?

Live at Leeds: George Musser riffs on writing about quantum mechanics (Courtesy: H Johnston)

Live at Leeds: George Musser riffs on writing about quantum mechanics (Courtesy: H Johnston)

By Hamish Johnston

Why is quantum physics so hard to write about?

That was the theme of George Musser’s keynote talk at a seminar for science communicators held this week at the University of Leeds. Musser – who has written extensively on topics such as quantum entanglement and string theory – gave several reasons and here are a few that stuck in my mind.
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In the footsteps of Cecil Powell

Pion pioneer: a bust of Cecil Powell

Pionic man: a bust of Cecil Powell. (Courtesy: University of Bristol Special Collections)

By  Matin Durrani

I spent yesterday at the University of Bristol, where a meeting was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the pion in 1947.

The particle was spotted by Cecil Powell, who joined the university’s physics department in 1928 and went on to win the 1950 Nobel Prize for Physics for his efforts.

At the time, the pion was thought to be the carrier of the strong nuclear force, which binds protons and neutrons in the nucleus, though we now know it is one of a family of strongly interacting mesons.

As we heard yesterday from introductory speaker Brian Pollard, Powell found evidence for the pion using a series of ingenious (and literally breathtaking) experiments that involved him taking specially manufactured photographic plates to high altitudes up the Pic-du-Midi mountain in the Pyrenees.

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Behind the scenes of peer review

By James Dacey

 

 

This week is Peer Review Week 2017, a global celebration of the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The theme of this year’s event is “transparency in review”, exploring how individuals and organizations could be more open at all stages of the scientific process.

Physics World is published by IOP Publishing and I’ve been part of a crack team assembled to take people behind the scenes of our peer-review processes. As the man with a camera, my job was to create a series of videos with my colleagues in the publishing department who deal with peer review on a daily basis.

First up, we have a video message from Marc Gillet, our associate director of publishing operations, introducing our plans for the week (see above). Marc is joined by a selection of staff revealing the role they play in the peer-review process – drawing inspiration from Bob Dylan’s famous flashcard skit for Subterranean Homesick Blues.

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Angela Saini discusses her book Inferior  

By James Dacey

 

Angela Saini in conversation with Andrew Glester
Science journalist Saini explains why she wrote Inferior and what she has discovered
This text will be replaced

“Writing the book has made me question my own feelings about the world.” That is the stark conclusion of science journalist Angela Saini, referring to her recent publication Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.

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A punt on Planck, physicist puts Frankenstein to music, would Brian Cox cope on Mars?

Fancy a flutter? The NIST napkin (Courtesy: NIST)

Fancy a flutter? The NIST napkin. (Courtesy: NIST)

By Hamish Johnston

A paper napkin with a load of numbers scrawled on top has been an unusual source of excitement for physicists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. One evening in December 2013, a group of them had gathered at a local watering hole to celebrate the success of NIST’s latest watt balance – NIST-3 – that had just determined Planck’s constant to a new accuracy. While enjoying “happy hour”, NIST researcher Dave Newell pulled out a napkin and the 10 researchers began to write down their predictions for the final value of Planck’s constant that NIST would submit to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris to help redefine the kilogram. The researchers then sealed the napkin in a plastic bottle and buried it inside a cavity within the foundation of NIST-3’s successor NIST-4, which was then being constructed.

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The sounds of Saturn, dancing particles, distracted funding agency

 

By Hamish Johnston

Astronomy can be a highly visual science and therefore developing ways of sharing data with visually impaired colleagues – and the public – is an important challenge. Sound offers one way forward, as astrophysicist Wanda Diaz Merced explains in “The sounds of science”. Now, fellow astrophysicists Matt Russo and Dan Tamayo at the University of Toronto have converted the motions of the rings and moons of Saturn into two musical compositions. You can listen to a composition based on the orbital frequencies of moons and rings by playing the video above. The second piece is called “Resonances of Janus translated into music”.

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