Posts by: Matin Durrani

On top of the volcano – part two

 

By Matin Durrani at Sierra Negra, Mexico

Just as my Physics World colleague James Dacey mentioned earlier, neither of us felt super-wonderful yesterday visiting the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), which sits at a height of 4600 metres above sea level.  Spectacular though the facility is, the air pressure is roughly 60% of that at sea level and there is so little oxygen that even walking up a flight of stairs made me feeling pretty light-headed.

So, James and I were both quite glad to descend with LMT director David H Hughes to a height of 4100 metres, where it was time to visit another leading Mexican astronomy facility – the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) gamma-ray observatory.

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Creating craters, Mexican style

By Matin Durrani in Puebla, Mexico

So it’s day five of the Physics World Mexican adventure and today we’ve been to the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP), which is one of the oldest universities in the country. After taking a peek at a new facility containing one of the most advanced supercomputers in Latin America, we headed over to the Institute of Physics, where we bumped into Felipe Pachecho Vázquez.

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Inside Mexico’s giant centre of learning

 

By Matin Durrani in Mexico City

It’s one of the biggest universities in the world with several hundred thousand students, but the Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México (UNAM) is certainly not the oldest. In fact, the first person to get a degree and PhD in physics at UNAM – Fernando Alba – is still alive. Aged 95, he studied at UNAM’s Institute of Physics shortly after it opened its doors in 1939.

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Physics World visit to Mexico kicks off

By Matin Durrani in Mexico City

I don’t know about you, but my trick whenever flying halfway across the world is to shoehorn myself as fast as possible into the new time zone I’m in. Having travelled from the UK to Mexico City with my colleague James Dacey yesterday, that tactic seems to have worked…so far. After staying up till midnight following a mini-feast of fabulous spicy tacos at a nearby restaurant while a thunderstorm broke, I woke up on cue at 7 a.m. as dawn broke in one of the biggest urban areas in the world.

We’re both here to gather material for a Physics World special report on physics in Mexico, which is due out in September. Following fast on the heels of recent reports on India, Brazil, Korea, India (again), Japan and China, the report will shine a light on some of the exciting physics research going on in the country and highlight some of the challenges and opportunities the country’s physicists face, too.

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The May 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

A couple of years back, I had the pleasure of travelling 1100 metres below ground to visit a dark-matter laboratory at the bottom of the Boulby Mine on the north-east coast of England. The journey was certainly memorable – it involved plunging down in a rattling lift cage for several minutes with a group of miners setting off on their morning shift. Once in the lab – housed inside a souped-up set of trailers – I interviewed physicist Sean Paling about the experimental projects going on there.

Setting up an underground lab, like that at Boulby, certainly doesn’t come cheap and in recent years, many have started to diversify into new areas. In the May issue of Physics World, which is now out in print and digital formats, Paling and his colleague Stephen Sadler – who is director at DURRIDGE UK Radon Instrumentation – describe the renaissance in the science taking place far beneath our feet. Studies in underground labs now range from Mars rovers to muon tomography and from radioactive dating to astrobiology.

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What technologies do you love the most?

By Matin Durrani

Here at Physics World, we’ve had a regular programme of videos since 2009, when I led the way into a brave new multimedia world by interviewing the director-general of CERN Rolf-Dieter Heuer. What Heuer had to say was pretty interesting and the question-and-answer format is a common genre among  online videos, but I have to admit that a film of two guys talking to each other while sitting on chairs in an office isn’t the most riveting thing you could ever watch. Even if the chairs were at CERN and one was occupied by the boss of one of the world’s top physics labs.

Since those early days, Physics World has developed and diversified its multimedia efforts, thanks in part to the ideas and inspiration of my colleague James Dacey, who has the rather grand job title of multimedia projects editor. Our content now includes a rolling programme of video documentaries, our 100-second-science strand and even an animation.

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Five amazing physics demonstrations

By Matin Durrani

Even if you’re a hardcore theoretical physicist, I’m sure you’ll agree that experiments are the lifeblood of physics. After all, theory and experiment go hand in hand – and there’s nothing to beat getting your hands dirty to get a proper understanding of the subject.

But how can pupils and students get excited about experiments? Making practical work a key part of exam syllabuses is surely important – yet the danger then is experimental work becomes a chore not a charm.

If you need inspiration, check out the April issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out in print and digital formats. It contains a great feature by Neil Downie – head of sensors at Air Products, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK and a Royal Academy of Engineering visiting professor at the University of Surrey.

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Was Bruno Pontecorvo a spy?

Frank Close (centre) speaking at Prospect magazine HQ on 12 March 2015

Reflecting on – Frank Close (centre) discusses the life of the Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1950.

By Matin Durrani

Like all good publications, Prospect has a strapline about itself – “the leading magazine of ideas”. Physics World is also about ideas, although sadly our magazine, great though it is, doesn’t have adverts for Cartier watches, Embraer executive jets or the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa in the Maldives as Prospect does. Clearly, some people with ideas have more money to spend than others.

I was kindly invited last week by the deputy editor of Prospect, Jay Elwes, to an event he hosted at the magazine’s headquarters in central London. The event featured the University of Oxford physicist Frank Close, who has just published a new book on the life and times of Bruno Pontecorvo. Close was on hand to discuss the key themes of the book, which is entitled Half Life: the Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo. Elwes described the attendees as a “small, high-powered group”, including as it did Pauline Neville Jones, the former chair of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee and Jonathan Evans, the former director-general of the British security service MI5.

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Your secret superpower

By Matin Durrani

The March 2015 issue of Physics World magazine, a special issue about light in our lives that is now out in print, online and via our apps, contains a fascinating feature about an astonishing – and largely unknown – superpower that you perhaps don’t realize you have. It might sound bizarre, but using your naked eyes – and with no additional gadgets whatsoever – you can detect whether or not light is “polarized”. And in the video above, Louise Mayor, features editor of Physics World, tells you how.

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Louise Mayor bags European astronomy journalism prize

Andrew Taylor, Executive Director of the National Laboratories at STFC congratulates the winner of the European Astronomy Journalism Prize 2014. (Courtesy: ESO/STFC)

Andrew Taylor of the Science and Technology Facilities Council congratulates Louise Mayor on winning the European Astronomy Journalism Prize 2014. (Courtesy: ESO/STFC)

By Matin Durrani

If you think that writing a great feature article about physics is easy, think again. You want something that’s pitched at the right level for the audience. You’ve got to avoid jargon and explain technical terms where necessary. You can’t go on and on – you’re not trying to rewrite Wikipedia.

Most importantly, you need to tell a good story and say something new, different and intriguing. And remember, your readers could switch off at any point, so the article has to be well written, flow well from point to point, have plenty of colour and, ideally, have some pay-off or punch-line at the end. No point just trailing off into nothingness. Oh, and good pictures, headlines and captions are a must.

So I’m sure you’ll join me in congratulating my colleague Louise Mayor – features editor of Physics World magazine – who has won this year’s European Astronomy Journalism Prize for an article she wrote for the October 2014 edition of the magazine. Her winning article is entitled “Hunting gravitational waves using pulsars” and looks at efforts to detect gravitational waves using radio telescopes to observe distant pulsars.

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