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In praise of rocket scientists, ironworkers, superheroes and more

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics.

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics. (Courtesy: Brittney Williams/Symmetry magazine)

By Hamish Johnston

Q: What do you call physicists studying the electrical properties of salad greens?
A: Rocket scientists!

But that’s old news, so lettuce move on to this week’s highlights from the Red Folder…

The rocket scientists referred to in the headline are econophysicists, who got a bad rap from Warren Buffet and others during the financial crisis of 2008. Now that the great depression is nearly over, physicist and author Mark Buchanan has a much more upbeat assessment of those who have made the transition from physics to economics in his blog entry “What’s the use of ‘econo-physics’?”.

Posted on The Physics of Finance blog, Buchanan’s piece offers eight important contributions to economics made by physicists. These include the economic implications of “fat-tailed dynamics” and better methods for “risk judgement”.

And it’s not only financiers who could benefit from a little input from the rocket scientists. In another entry this week, Buchanan turns his attention to the cab business in: “Taxis 2.0: Streamlining city transport with graph theory”.

In other interdisciplinary news, Fermilab Today has a lovely article about two families of ironworkers who have worked at the lab near Chicago. The piece profiles Tom Wicks, who is rigging superintendent at Joliet Steel & Construction. Wicks is part of a team that is dismantling much of the huge CDF detector that he and his mother and stepfather helped built. The article is entitled “Particle detector connects two generations of ironworkers” and also features John Wackerlin of the engineering firm Walbridge, who is also working on the CDF decommissioning.  John’s father Bob worked underground in the Tevatron tunnel before the junior Wackerlin was born.

From ironworkers to Iron Man, who features in the opening paragraph of “Superheroes and particle physics: the dynamic duo” by Calla Cofield. The article, which appears in Symmetry magazine, investigates the connections between physics and superheroes. It is illustrated by several fantastic cartoons by Brittney Williams and Josh Elder that describe a pantheon of physics superheroes, including Neutrino, who moves through solid matter at nearly the speed of light and comes in three flavours: boisterous, bold and impetuous. There’s also Big Data, who uses her hyper-evolved brain to solve tough problems, and Positron, who has built-in particle accelerators for zapping villains.

Finally, a Japanese comic artist has published a manga about his time working at the devastated Fukishima nuclear power plant. Entitled 1F: The Labor Diary Of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the graphic book is by Kazuto Tatsuta, who writes about the painstaking effort of cleaning up the facility while ensuring that no-one is injured by radiation.

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