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Blog

To the stars, through adversity

pwastro16-cover-500By Margaret Harris

Space is, famously, “the final frontier”. It is also – almost as famously – “hard”. We saw this most recently in October, when the Schiaparelli lander crashed onto the surface of Mars, but throughout humanity’s nearly 60-year history as a spacefaring species, our hopes of exploring and observing the cosmos have repeatedly come up against the stiff challenge of building vessels that can survive the journey. Arguably, no other industry on Earth (or indeed off it) has rejoiced in such high “highs”, or agonized through such low “lows”.

That mix of heady dreams and harsh realities is one reason why the latest Physics World focus issue on astronomy and space science carries the tag line “To the stars, through adversity” (I’ll come to the other reason at the end of this blog post). The articles in the issue – which you can read free of charge – pay tribute to the ingenuity of the scientists and engineers involved in the challenging and rewarding practical work of exploring and observing the cosmos. Here, you can learn about the latest advances in astronomical instrumentation, get up to speed with future space missions, and familiarize yourself with recent developments in the entrepreneurial “new space” industry.

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Physics World‘s shortlist for Book of the Year 2016

pw-top-book-of-the-year-rgbBy Margaret Harris and Tushna Commissariat

The year 2016 has not covered itself in glory. Divisive elections, various natural and human-made disasters and a depressingly long obituary roll of well-loved celebrities mean that for many residents of planet Earth, this solar orbit has been one to forget.

But if, for a moment, we concentrate solely on the year in physics, the picture looks brighter. In particular, it’s been another strong year for popular-physics writing, and over the past few weeks, we have been determining which of the 57 books reviewed in Physics World in 2016 deserve to be on our list of the year’s best.

The books that appear on the shortlist below are all well written, novel and scientifically interesting to physicists – the criteria we’ve followed since 2009, when The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo’s landmark biography of Paul Dirac, became our first “Book of the Year”.  A couple of biographies appear on our 2016 shortlist, too, but they face stiff competition from books on big science, stringy science, loopy science, spooky science, jazzy science and more. There’s even a book of science infographics in the running – a first for a competition that is, naturally, dominated by words rather than images.

We’ll announce the winner of our “Book of the Year” award in the Physics World podcast in mid-December, but in the meantime, take a look at the shortlist. We think it’s proof, if you needed any, that the year 2016 had some redeeming features after all.

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Schrödinger’s Brexit, ‘The Elements’ remix, physics referees and American football

 

By Hamish Johnston

On Tuesday I was rushing to finish writing a news story about quantum superposition and got a phone call out of the blue from Roger Sawyer, who is deputy editor on BBC Radio 4’s afternoon news and current affairs programme PM. He had the brilliant idea that the meme of “having your Brexit cake and eating it too” had some sort of connection to quantum superposition – and wanted some advice from Physics World.

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Diversity marks Institute of Physics awards dinner

Thumbs up - IOP president Roy Sambles at the IOP awards dinner in London on 29 November 2016

Thumbs up – Institute of Physics president Roy Sambles at the 2016 annual awards ceremony

By Matin Durrani

With the winter sun dipping over the horizon late on Tuesday afternoon, I caught the train from Bristol up to London to attend the annual awards dinner of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World.

The event was held at the Lancaster London hotel a few minutes’ walk from Paddington station. Now, I’m not sure if it was a coincidence, but I found myself seated at dinner next to Farideh Honary, a space physicist from Lancaster University.

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From penguins to photons – the December 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

pwdec16cover-200By Matin Durrani

Everyone loves physics. And everyone loves animals, right? In the December issue of Physics World magazine, which is now live in the Physics World app for mobile and desktop, University of Bristol physicist Peter Barham explains how he became an expert in penguins, studying the factors that that affect their survival and discovering how to use the spots on African penguins to identify them. You can also read the article here.

Elsewhere in the new issue, you can enjoy our selection of the best books for Christmas, discover how one physicist became a successful contemporary dancer, and find out how to spot single photons with your naked eye.

Don’t miss either the chance to win a copy of Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Collection 5 in our special prize puzzle.

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Chasing gravitational waves in song, physicists on Broadway, the ‘impossible space engine’ returns

 

By Hamish Johnston

These days anyone making a major breakthrough in physics is expected to follow-up with a cheesy music video. So give it up for The Mavericks and “Chasing the Waves”, which chronicles the quest to detect gravitational waves – which culminated in LIGO’s success earlier this year. I don’t much about this video, but it seems to have been filmed at the University of Glasgow, which is part of the LIGO collaboration.

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The beauty of gravitational waves

Painting by Penelope Cowley depicting gravitational waves is being unveiled at Cardiff University's school of physics and astronomy on 25 November 2016

Science meets art – this painting by Penelope Cowley will be unveiled at Cardiff University’s school of physics and astronomy on 25 November.

By Matin Durrani

A new painting by Welsh artist Penelope Cowley is the latest attempt to bring art and science together. Set to be unveiled on Friday 25 November at Cardiff University’s school of physics and astronomy, the 1.2 × 1.5 m picture was inspired by the recent detection of gravitational waves by the LIGO collaboration.

According to the university, the oil painting “combines a visualization of data taken from the equipment used to detect the first gravitational waves…with an imagination of some of the celestial bodies that are responsible for creating these waves, such as binary black holes and neutron stars”.

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Quantum technology 2.0

Niki Haines from Insight Technologies

Niki Haines from Insight Technologies predicts the future of quantum computing.

By Michael Banks

Are we on the verge of a “quantum 2.0” revolution?

That was a question raised yesterday at an event that I attended at HP Labs in north Bristol, which was organized by the University of Bristol.

The day-long meeting featured a series of talks from industry about how quantum technologies are affecting business.

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Inspiring young physicists, telescope buyer’s guide, time-travelling pyramid builders

Sunlight calculator: Asimina Arvanitaki (Courtesy: PI)

Sunlight calculator: Asimina Arvanitaki. (Courtesy: PI)

By Hamish Johnston

Have you ever wondered what inspires talented physicists to pursue careers in physics? To try to answer that question, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) in Canada has produced a set of tiles that explain how some famous physicists – and some up-and-coming stars – became hooked on physics at a young age. An early love of back-of-the-envelope calculations seems to have set the stage for the PI’s Asimina Arvanitaki as she explains in the above tile. Can you guess which Nobel laureate used to stare at a clock pendulum for hours to try to figure out how it worked? The answer to that teaser and much more can be found in “How great scientists get hooked on science”.

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American angst

Phot of Capital building in Wasington DC

Danger ahead – Donald Trump’s election as US president will not be business as usual for science policy. (Courtesy: iStock/uschools)

By Matin Durrani

Like many people, I’m fearful of the imminent Donald Trump presidency, given the many sexist, racist and otherwise unpleasant remarks he made during the US election campaign. However, his slogan – “Make America great again” – proved powerfully effective for many voters. Who, after all, could disagree with renewed domestic glory? Sadly, Trump’s plans for achieving that goal – what little we know of them – are based on such ill-informed and ignorant views that he could damage America’s long-standing leadership in many areas, including science.

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