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Blog

Slamming physics at Fermilab, dancing to Yuri Gagarin and lifting off from ‘Cape Kebaberal’

 

By Hamish Johnston

Giving a fired-up talk at a physics conference is a good way for aspiring researchers to make themselves known to the community, but unless you have a natural gift, lots of practice is required. That’s why many universities and labs host “slams” to encourage staff and students to talk about their research to a broader audience. Above is a video of the sold-out Fermilab Physics Slam 2014, which was held last week at the lab on the outskirts of Chicago.

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Celebrating innovation

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe celebrates the winners of the 2014 Institute of Physics innovation awards at the Palace of Westminster 27 November 2014

Clever thinking: Baroness Neville-Rolfe celebrates the winners of the 2014 Institute of Physics innovation awards. (Courtesy: Richard Lewis)

By Matin Durrani

“Commercializing physics” is the theme of the November issue of Physics World and it was therefore timely that last night saw a special ceremony at the House of Commons to celebrate the winners of this year’s Innovation Awards from the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes the magazine.

The awards, which are now in their third year, are given by the Institute to firms in the UK and Ireland “that have built success on the innovative application of physics”.

Four firms were honoured this year: Gas Sensing Solutions, which makes carbon-dioxide sensors; Gooch & Housego, for an opto-acoustic device that can modulate laser beams for industrial processing; nuclear-power firm Magnox for a clever way of refuelling a reactor at the Wylfa power station; and MBDA for a novel “missile-system upgrade”.

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Top physics books for 2014

Top-10-Book-2014-200x200By Margaret Harris

Is it time for end-of-the-year lists already? At Physics World HQ, the answer is a definite “yes”, and we’re kicking off the season with our annual list of the year’s best physics books.

As in previous years, the entries on our “Book of the Year” shortlist are all well written, novel and scientifically interesting for a physics audience. They represent the best of the 57 books that Physics World reviewed in 2014, being highly commended by external experts (the diverse group of professional physicists and freelance science writers who review books for the magazine) and by members of our own editorial staff, who helped winnow the field down to a shortlist of 10.

This is the sixth year we’ve picked a “Book of the Year”, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stronger shortlist. Frankly, 2014 has been a fantastic year for science books, and for physics books in particular. You’ll see that quality reflected in the list below, where first-person accounts of the latest discoveries rub shoulders with historical analyses of the foundations of the field. There’s room in our shortlist for books about acoustic physics, exoplanets, geophysics, materials science, radiation safety and scientific ethics – plus a whimsical tour of the physics of fantasy and science fiction.

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Become a CERN physicist in your bedroom

By James Dacey

Image of particle collision within the ATLAS detector

Particle collision within the ATLAS detector. (Courtesy: CERN/Higgs Hunters)

Who discovered the Higgs boson? Was it Peter Higgs and a combination of other great minds? The experimentalists at CERN who analysed reams of data? The magnificent machinery of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) itself? By the time that the next great breakthrough in particle physics comes along, the debate about who makes the discovery could become even more complex. That’s because a new citizen-science project is encouraging anyone with an Internet connection to search for new curiosities in the Higgs data.

Higgs Hunters” launched this week and invites the public to sift through collision images from the LHC’s ATLAS detector. The task at hand is to look for the paths of charged particles that seem to appear out of thin air in what are known as off-centre vertices. As explained on the Higgs Hunters website, “some scientists think the Higgs could break apart into exotic particles entirely new to science”. On the Higgs Hunters website, citizen scientists help to count the number of particle tracks and can notify the science team if they spot anything out of the ordinary.

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What makes the perfect song?

Jazz pianist  Joe Stilgoe

Jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe performed at the panel discussion on the science of music

By James Dacey

There was a telling moment early on at the event I attended last night when science writer Philip Ball was asked to name his “perfect song”. With a slightly bemused look, Ball picked a tune that I’m pretty sure few in the audience had heard of – “The Most Wanted Song”, which was co-written by a neuroscientist to incorporate the musical elements that people find most pleasing to the ear. Give the tune a listen and you’ll realise that it is a horrible saccharine track that you’ll quickly want to turn off. Of course, the point of the song – and Ball’s choice – was to ridicule the idea that you can create beautiful music with a formula.

Ball was part of a panel discussion at the Royal Opera House in London on “What makes the perfect song?”. He was joined by physicist-turned-opera singer Christine Rice and musicologist Maria Witek, and the event was chaired by the physicist, broadcaster and former pop star Brian Cox. While the panellists were unanimous in their belief that music is a complex emotional thing that cannot be fully explained by physics, they did have some fascinating insights into the science of song.

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Physics of haiku, blizzards and Thor’s hammer

By Hamish Johnston

Students at Camden School for Girls in London have published a lovely book of haiku about science. Called Sciku: The Wonder of Science – in Haiku!, the volume contains 400 poems and is on sale with proceeds going to upgrading the science labs at the school. The students are not the only ones at the school with literary ambitions. Their science teacher Simon Flynn has also written a book called The Science Magpie, which we reviewed two years ago.

Below is a little taste of what is inside the book of haiku and you can also watch several of the students reading their poems in the video above.

Gravity:
An attractive force
Between all objects with mass
Just like you and me

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A visit to an island called Nuuk

Blurred, shadowy photo image of a human figure in a boat

Anaïs Tondeur in collaboration with Jean-Marc Chomaz, Paul Syrillin, 2014, shadowgram, 11 × 24 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery.

By Margaret Harris

The story of Nuuk began in the early 18th century when a French naval officer landed on a barren, ice-covered island and noted its coordinates in his logbook. The island, he reported, was volcanic in nature, but little else was known about it; indeed, later visitors to its supposed location found no sign of land. Rediscovered in the 20th century, Nuuk was soon visited by a series of scientific expeditions, one of which noted that the island’s surface area was shrinking. An observation station was set up on a prominent headland, but in 2012, it abruptly ceased transmitting; satellite images later revealed that Nuuk had vanished entirely beneath the ocean surface. Coincidentally, the final signal from Nuuk arrived just as the 34th International Geological Congress was meeting in Australia to discuss the emergence of a new, human-influenced geological age: the Anthropocene.

Nuuk and the various forces that contributed to its demise are the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently on show (until 29 November) at the GV Art gallery in London. Lost in Fathoms is a collaboration between an artist, Anaïs Tondeur, and a physicist, Jean-Marc Chomaz, who specializes in fluid dynamics. To develop her ideas about Nuuk, Tondeur spent a year in residence at Chomaz’s Laboratoire d’Hydrodynamique at the Ecole Polytechnique in France, while other parts of the exhibition grew out of a summer school in Cambridge, UK, that focused on fluid dynamics, sustainability and the environment.

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Promoting better science journalism

By Margaret Harris

Some people fear public speaking more than illness or death. I’m not one of them, but I’ll admit to some qualms on Monday morning, when I travelled to the University of Westminster to speak about science to a group of journalism students.

As I rode the Metropolitan Line train up to Westminster’s Harrow campus, I wondered what sort of speaker the students were expecting. I was giving the talk as part of a Royal Statistical Society (RSS) programme to train journalists in basic statistical principles and how science works; however, unlike most of the people involved in the programme, I am neither a professional scientist nor a statistician. Moreover, the official RSS curriculum places a strong emphasis on statistics and scientific practices in medical science, which isn’t exactly my strong suit either. So while I knew the programme was aimed at helping non-specialists understand basic concepts like risk, the scientific method and the role uncertainty plays in science – all topics that I’m fairly comfortable with – I couldn’t help feeling like a bit of an imposter.

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Space bonanza to land in Manchester

Starlight graphic

The Age of Starlight will catch both the eyes and the minds of the audience. (Courtesy: ESO/P D Barthel)

By James Dacey

Whatever punters make of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) next year, they certainly won’t be able to accuse it of thinking small. Among the first commissions announced today is a “world-first show about the origin of the universe and everything within and without it”.

The Age of Starlight will be presented by the physicist and TV personality Brian Cox, who will tell the story of the unlikely events that have led to our existence. Details of the show are still scarce but we do know that the space bonanza will feature computer-generated imagery created by the Oscar-winner Tim Webber and the special-effects team behind the film Gravity. The event will be brought to life with technologies developed by Magic Leap, a Florida-based IT company that specializes in “magical” computing solutions.

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Last chapter in Rosetta’s Philae lander story…for now

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta's NAVCAM from 10 km away. (Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta’s NAVCAM from 10km away.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

By Tushna Commissariat

Last week was exciting and exhausting for anyone involved in space exploration and astronomy, after scientists working on the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) made history when their “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But soon after celebrating Philae’s successful landing, a dramatic story unfolded. With a bumpy triple landing, harpoons that did not fire and tether the probe, as well as a final resting spot that lay in the shadows, which meant its solar panels received very little sunlight, Philae’s tumultuous story captivated the interest of thousands of people across the globe.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as Philae’s batteries slowly drained of power, thousands mourned. “So much hard work..getting tired…my battery voltage is approaching the limit soon now,” Tweeted the Philae crew, and yet, the lander’s story was ultimately happy and successful. Although it spent only 57 “active” hours on the comet, ESA mission scientists were happy to report that the lander had indeed completed the entirety of its primary science mission.

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