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The September 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

How and where do new ideas in physics emerge? We often think they arise serendipitously, which is why we love stories like Newton discovering gravity after seeing an apple fall. The reality, though, is often very different.

Writing in the September 2015 issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out, theoretical physicist Vitor Cardoso from the University of Lisbon explains his efforts to find out how breakthroughs – both big and small – really emerge. As he discovered through his project The Birth of an Idea, it turns out that how new thoughts arise is often much more of a communal activity than we might think.

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Chocolate dynamics, recycling urine, the hipster-physicist look and more

Cocoa conch: a chocolate's distinctive flavour and texture comes from "cohching". (Courtesy: iStock/deyangeorgiev)

Cocoa conch: a chocolate’s distinctive flavour and texture comes from “conching”. (Courtesy: iStock/deyangeorgiev)

 

By Michael Banks, Tushna Commissariat and Matin Durrani

Chocolate, the food of the gods, is more popular now as a sweet treat than ever before. And while more and more people know their 70% cocoa from their truffles, “lecithin” still isn’t a word that pops up often. It is an ingredient that plays a key role in chocolate-making and other foods. But this fatty substance has long confounded food-scientists and confectioners alike – we don’t know how this ingredient works on a molecular level and confectioners have had to rely on observations and trial-and-error methods to perfect recipes.

Now, though, chocolatiers have had help from an unexpected field – that of molecular biology – to figure out chocolate “conching” – the part of the chocolate-making process where aromatic sensation, texture and “mouthfeel” are developed. In a special issue on “The Physics of Food” published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Heiko Briesen and colleagues at Technische Universität München, Germany, use molecular dynamics to model and simulate how lecithin molecules, made from different sources, attach to the sugar surface in cocoa butter. “I’m quite confident molecular dynamics will strongly support food science in the future” says Briesen.

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Keep it brief

Academic paper with letter dice

(Courtesy: iStockphoto/MichaelJay)

By James Dacey

“Brevity is a great charm of eloquence,” said the great Roman orator Cicero. A new study published today suggests that researchers would be wise to follow Cicero’s advice when it comes to choosing a title for their next academic paper. Data scientists at the University of Warwick in the UK analysed 140,000 papers and found that those with shorter titles tend to receive more citations.

Similar studies have been carried out in the past leading to contradictory results. But Adrian Letchford and his colleagues have used two orders of magnitude more data than previous investigations, looking at the 20,000 most cited papers published each year between 2007 and 2013 in the Scopus online database. Publishing their findings in Royal Society Open Science, Letchford’s group reports that papers with shorter titles garnered more citations every year. Titles ranged from 6 to 680 characters including spaces and punctuation.

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Queer in STEM, an astronomy rumpus and the heat from a fan

(iStock/Rawpixel Ltd)

(iStock/Rawpixel Ltd)

By Matin Durrani

Our eyes were drawn this week to the results of the first national US survey of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or asexual (LGBTQA) people working in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects. Entitled Queer in STEM, the study was carried out by Jeremy Yoder, a plant-biology postdoc at the University of Minnesota, and Alison Mattheis who’s on the faculty at the College of Education at California State University Los Angeles.

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How to treat your inner geek

 

By Matin Durrani

The word “geek” used to be a bit of insult, but to be labelled a geek these days isn’t such a bad thing after all. I think a lot of that’s due to the sheer power and pervasiveness of smartphones, software and IT — in fact, the top definition of “geek” over at Urban Dictionary is “The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.” I also reckon the huge popularity of TV’s The Big Bang Theory has played its part in the reversal of fortune of the word, with many of us following the stories of Sheldon, Leonard and their geeky physics pals.

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Moving meridians, Stradivarius violins, sunspots and more

The Prime Meridian and the modern reference meridian

Walk the line: Airy meridian is marked as the “Prime Meridian of the World” (dotted line), and the modern reference meridian indicating zero longitude using GPS (solid line).
(Courtesy: 2014 Google Maps, Infoterra & Bluesky)

 

By Tushna Commissariat

A visit to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich is incomplete without walking along the Prime Meridian of the world – the line that literally divides the east from the west – and taking some silly photos across it. But you may be disappointed to know that the actual 0° longitudinal line is nearly 100 m away, towards the east, from the plotted meridian. Indeed, your GPS would readily show you that the line actually cuts through the large park ahead of the observatory. I, for one, am impressed that the original line is off by only 100 m, considering that it was plotted in 1884. A recently published paper in the Journal of Geodesy points out that with the extreme accuracy of modern technology like GPS, which has replaced the traditional telescopic observations used to measure the Earth’s rotation, we can measure this difference. You can read more about it in this article in the Independent.

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How flowing galaxies revealed the immensity of the Laniakea Supercluster

A image showing a 2D slice of the supergalactic equatorial plane, the boundary of Laniakea is the closed orange curve. The white lines are velocity flow curves where red denotes areas of high density and blue shows low density. The Milky Way is the black dot in the right side of Laniakea

In this 2D slice of the supergalactic equatorial plane, the boundary of Laniakea is the closed orange curve. The white lines are velocity-flow curves where red denotes areas of high density and blue shows low density. The Milky Way is the black dot on the right-hand side of Laniakea. (Courtesy: Brent Tully et al./Nature)

By Brent Tully at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawaii

We know that we live on a planet in a solar system in a galaxy in a group of galaxies. But what do we know about our location in the universe beyond that? Some astronomers would answer that we live in the “Local” or “Virgo” supercluster of galaxies. However, the concept has been vague. In the interconnected “cosmic web” it has not been clear where one dense region of galaxies ends and another begins.

Rather than just looking at the distribution of galaxies, it is instructive to consider the motions of galaxies with respect to each other. On the grand scale, galaxies are flying apart from each other with the expansion of the universe. We have to cancel out that motion to see the residual “peculiar” velocities of galaxies that arise from local gravitational attractors.

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Physics World 2015 Focus on Vacuum Technology is out now

By Hamish Johnston

PW_VAC-15cover-200

Fusion power, redefining the kilogram and mimicking the Martian surface are three exciting areas of science and technology that are benefiting from the latest vacuum equipment. In our latest Focus on Vacuum Technology, which you can read free of charge, Christian Day of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany explains how new pumping technologies will be crucial to the successful operation of future fusion power plants. “Proving the power of fusion” focuses on the extraordinary vacuum challenges facing the designers of the planned DEMO reactor, which is expected to generate 2 GW of electrical power by the mid-2030s.

Today, the kilogram is defined in terms of a cylinder of a platinum–iridium alloy that was made in the 1880s. Metrology has moved on since then and all of the other SI base units are now defined in terms of fundamental constants. In “The kilogram’s constant struggle”, Stuart Davidson and Ian Robinson of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, UK, explain how vacuum technology is playing a crucial role in the development of new ways of defining the kilogram, one of which will ultimately be chosen as the new global standard.

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US scientists praise nuclear deal with Iran

Two hands, one with the US flag painted on it, the other teh IRanian flg

Can the US and Iran seal the deal? (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Kagenmi)

By Matin Durrani

Earlier this month my colleague Hamish Johnston published a blog post about the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, in which he reported on a piece by the science historian Alex Wellerstein about whether that first use of a nuclear weapon for non-testing purposes was justified.

It’s a hugely contentious issue – some say that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought to an end a conflict that might otherwise have dragged on much longer, while others claim that a detonation well away from built-up areas would have been a better deterrent. Either way, the Hiroshima anniversary served as a pertinent reminder of the long and controversial role that physicists have played in designing and creating nuclear weapons, from the Manhattan Project onswards.

However, there have been plenty of physicists who have opposed the development of nuclear arms, including the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work”. Another anti-nuclear group is the UK-based Scientists for Global Responsibility, whose executive director Stuart Parkinson is a physicist. Last week it published a report calling for the UK government not to replace its submarine-based Trident nuclear deterrent.

Now, a group of 29 leading US scientists and engineers, including six Nobel laureates, has written a two-page letter to US President Barack Obama backing the deal that the US – along with China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK – has struck with Iran to limit its development of nuclear weapons and permit inspections in return for a lifting of economic sanctions.

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Quantum mechanics in a cup of coffee, hamming it up to the space station, the laws of political physics and more

 

By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks

Physicists tend to drink lots of coffee so I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the above video of Philip Moriarty explaining quantum mechanics using a vibrating cup of coffee. Moriarty, who is at the University of Nottingham, uses the coffee to explain the physics underlying his favourite image in physics. You will have to watch the video to find out which image that is, and there is more about the physics discussed in the video on Moriarty’s blog Symptoms of the Universe.

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