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Seeing is believing

Ebb and Flow by P Mininni et al

By Matin Durrani

Two silent round flashes on a dark screen. That was the image witnessed by researchers crowded into the control room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva on 10 September that heralded the successful passage of the first beam of protons around the 27 km collider. Later that day physicists watched as one of the LHC’s main experiments – the Compact Muon Solenoid – generated its first images from the debris of particles produced when the proton beam was deliberately steered into a tungsten collimator block.

Particle physics has long been a rich source of iconic images – from the tracks in the bubble chambers of the 1950s to the particle collisions that signalled the detection of everything from the W-boson to the top quark. But visualization has a proud history in other areas of science too. Ever since Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens in 1609 and saw mountains on the Moon and spots on the Sun, researchers have sought to see beyond what is possible with the naked eye. Indeed, astronomers now claim to have directly observed extrasolar planets for the first time.

In recent years, however, huge advances in computing power have revolutionized visualization. The December issue of Physics World looks at some of the most interesting advances, beginning with a gallery of stunning new images. Selected from a special focus issue on visualization in New Journal of Physics, they cover everything from bone structure and fluid flow to colliding galaxies and merging black holes. Our other three features show how images in astronomy are invaluable for encouraging the public into science, how animations of quantum computers have been used to sell the subject to funding agencies, and how pictures of networks can reveal insights in economics and medical science that would be hard to tease out using, say, spreadsheets or graphs.

For those who weren’t aware, I should point out that New Journal of Physics (NJP) was launched by the German Physical Society and the Institute of Physics (the publishers of Physics World) 10 years ago this month, NJP has been a pioneer in open access publishing. Only available online, the journal does not charge subscriptions but instead makes all articles available for anyone to read electronically in return for a fee from the author. Although open-access publishing is not as widespread as some might have envisaged, NJP has, it is fair to say, been a success story. Indeed, being purely online, it can exploit the full potential of the Web – invaluable for presenting visualizations, simulations and multimedia content.

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