Posts by: Matin Durrani

The October 2015 issue of Physics World is out now

 

By  Matin Durrani

It’s amazing the lengths physicists will go to get things done – from building telescopes on the tops of mountains to lowering neutrino detectors to the bottom of the sea and from firing satellites into space to colliding particles in tunnels. We’ve covered all those efforts in
Physics World many times, but there’s one extreme activity that’s been off our radar – until now.

That is the new but little-known field of “speleophysics” – or “the physics of caves” – which we tackle in the cover feature of the October 2015 issue of Physics World magazine. For the small band of researchers who brave the journey underground, being a speleophysicist is almost the perfect job. Armed with helmets, ropes, torches and boots, they’re able to combine their love of physics with a fascination for the nether world – and experience the thrill (and danger) of caving, too.

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Maxwell’s Torch arrives in Birmingham to mark International Year of Light

Photo of Julia King and others with Maxwell's Torch at the Library of Birmingham on 25 September 2015

Bright affair – Julia King (right) and other dignitaries grasp Maxwell’s Torch at the opening of Lightfest at the Library of Birmingham in the UK. (Courtesy: James Dacey)

By Matin Durrani 

Light was the theme in the UK’s second city last Friday when I and my colleague James Dacey attended Lightfest at the Library of Birmingham. Organized by Aston University and funded by the European Commission, the festival was a celebration of light in science, art, technology and culture during the International Year of Light (IYL2015).

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Carlo Rovelli discusses his ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’

 

By  Matin Durrani

A tiny, 83-page book about some of the basic principles of physics has been a surprise hit in Italy – becoming the single bestselling book of any kind to be published in the country this year.

The book has now been translated into English, entitled Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and its author – the Italian-born theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli – dropped by the Physics World offices in Bristol yesterday en route to giving a sold-out lecture about the book as part of the city’s Festival of Ideas.

In the interview above, Rovelli explains what the book’s about, how he managed to condensed big physics ideas into such a short space – and why its success was absolutely not what he expected.

When he’s not writing popular-science books, Rovelli is based at the University of Marseilles in France, where he carries out research into loop quantum gravity, which he once tackled for Physics World.

If you want to find out more about the book, check out Penguin’s rather splendid interactive website.

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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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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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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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The August 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

 

By Matin Durrani

Mention the two words “science policy” and most physicists’ eyes will probably glaze over. Most of us dream of discovering a new planet or finding the Higgs boson – not poring over budget spreadsheets, championing science to politicians or commenting on legislation.

But science policy is vital in today’s world, which depends hugely on scientific research and in the cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out, Len Fisher and John Tesh offer 12 practical tips for scientists who want their ideas incorporated into science policy. You’ll be intrigued by what the two authors have to say.

Elsewhere in the issue, as my colleague Tushna Commissariat explains in the video above, there’s a great feature based on an interview with the French physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot – the granddaughter of Marie Curie. In the article, Langevin-Joliot explains what’s known as the “Curie complex” and gives her own tips for scientific success. Langevin-Joliot didn’t suffer from the complex herself, but she acknowledges that it is a big problem for others and, these days, spends her time actively promoting careers for women in science

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The July 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

Sometimes, nature does something unexpected – something so rare, transient or remote that only a lucky few of us get to see it in our lifetimes. In the July issue of Physics World, we reveal the physics behind our pick of the weirdest natural phenomena on our planet, from dramatic rogue waves up to 30 m tall, to volcanic lightning that can be heard “whistling” from the other side of the world, and even giant stones that move while no-one is watching. We also tackle tidal bores on rivers and the odd “green flash” that is sometimes seen at sunset.

Plus, we’ve got six fabulous full-page images of a range of weird phenomena, including salt-flat mirrors, firenadoes, “ice towers”, beautifully coloured nacreous clouds, mysterious ice bubbles of gas trapped in columns, as well as my favourite – the delicately wonderful “frost flowers” seen very occasionally on plants.

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