Posts by: Matin Durrani

Chatting about Chinese computing

: Matin Durrani (left) in conversation with staff at the Beijing Comuptational Science Research Center on 15 June 2016

Calculated efforts: Matin Durrani (far left) in conversation with staff at the Beijing Computational Science Research Center, including Hai-Qing Lin (third left). (Courtesy: Mingfang Lu)

By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China

The last couple of days in the Chinese capital have been unusually damp and cool for the middle of June. Today, however, dawned sparklingly sunny as I headed off with my colleague Mingfang Lu from the Beijing office of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, to the Beijing Computational Science Research Center (CSRC) on the outskirts of the city.

Located on a shiny new software park, this sleek, five-storey building opened in March last year and looks just how you might expect the headquarters of IKEA to be – all minimalist corridors, big glass windows and the odd work of art dotted around. There’s even a fitness room in the basement. It’s currently got 43 full-time faculty, a third of whom are physicists, making this 45,000 m2 building – roughly the size of seven football pitches – seem remarkably sparse.

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Tsinghua University moves on up

Qi-Kun Xue from Tsinghua University , vice-president for research

Figures at the ready: Qi-Kun Xue from Tsinghua University, which has 40,000 students. (Courtesy: Mingfang Lu)

By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China

I like big cities so I feel quite at home in Beijing with its skyscrapers, highways and endless traffic. Still, it was a pleasure yesterday on the third day of my visit to the Chinese capital to arrive at the green lawns of Tsinghua University. Situated in a former imperial garden, the university was founded in 1911 and is one of the top institutions in the country. According to the 2015–16 Times Higher Education rankings, it’s also the fifth best in Asia.

Quite why Tsinghua is so well rated quickly became clear as I listened to the numbers reeled off by Tsinghua’s vice-president for research Qi-Kun Xue: the university has 6000 research faculty and staff, a total research budget of $700m, and more than 40,000 students (two-thirds at postgraduate level). Like much of modern China, it’s benefiting from the government’s long-term commitment to growth through investment in facilities and infrastructure.

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China’s chief Moon scientist Ziyuan Ouyang outlines lunar plans

The Moon man: Ziuyan Ouyang in his office at the National Astronomical Obervatories with a lunar globe covered with images taken by Chinese craft

The Moon man: Ziyuan Ouyang in his office at the National Astronomical Observatories with a lunar globe covered with images taken by Chinese craft. (Courtesy: Mingfang Lu)

By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China

I caught up this morning on the second day of my visit to Beijing with Ziyuan Ouyang, chief scientist of China’s Moon programme at the National Astronomical Observatories, which lies not far from the city’s iconic “bird’s-nest” Olympic stadium.

I’d first met Ouyang on my last visit in 2011 when the country had so far launched two lunar missions – Chang’e 1 (which orbited the Moon for 18 months before crash-landing onto the lunar surface) and Chang’e 2 (another lunar orbiter that later moved off into interplanetary space).

China’s lunar efforts have continued and Ouyang explained to me what has happened since my last visit – and what the country plans to do next.

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China eyes new high-energy collider

Matin Durrani outside the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing on Sunday 12 June 2016

Matin Durrani outside the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing before interviewing Xinchou Lou.

By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China

I had just landed in Beijing this morning when I saw an e-mail from my colleague Mingfang Lu waiting for me on my phone. Mingfang, who’s editor-in-chief at the Beijing office of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, has been helping me to organize my itinerary for the next week as I gather material for our upcoming special report on physics in China. You may remember we published a Physics World special report on China in 2011 but so much has happened since then that we felt it’s easily time for another.

Mingfang’s e-mail was to say we would be off at 2.30 p.m. to interview Xinchou Lou, a particle physicist at the Institute of High Energy Physics, about the country’s ambitious plans for a “Higgs factory”. If built, this 240 GeV Circular Electron–Positron Collider (CEPC) would be a huge facility (50 km or possibly even 100 km in circumference) that will let physicists study the properties of the Higgs boson in detail. I say “if”, but knowing China’s frenetic progress in physics, it will almost certainly be a case of “when”.

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Physics World 2016 Focus on Optics and Photonics is out now

PWOPT16-cover-200By Matin Durrani

Research into optics, photonics and lasers is not only fascinating from a fundamental point of view. It’s also vital for technology, industry and applications in everyday life.

In the latest focus issue of Physics World, which is out now in print, online and through the Physics World app, you can find out about some of the latest research into optics and photonics – and how it’s being put to good use.

In our cover feature, take a look at some of the latest advances in invisibility cloaking – 10 years after first being demonstrated at microwave frequencies.

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The June 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

PWJun16cover-200By Matin Durrani

Physicists can turn their hands to some unusual subjects. But in the June 2016 issue of Physics World magazine – now live in the Physics World app for mobile and desktop – we reveal the unexpected link between physics and ancient Icelandic sagas. If you don’t believe us, check our cover feature out.

Meanwhile, with the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union (EU) looming, we examine what impact the EU has on UK physics – and how remaining in or leaving the EU could affect the country’s science.

Don’t miss either our review of the new film The Man Who Knew Infinity, while our forum section this month has advice from Barry Sanders of the University of Calgary for how best to collaborate with scientists in China. There’s also a great interview with the new president of the US National Academy of Sciences Marcia McNutt.

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The hi-tech way to cycle more easily

Computer simulations with colours depicting different pressure levels when a motorbike is following a cyclist

Easy does it: this computer simulation of a motorbike following a cyclist shows a drop in pressure (red area) that cuts the aerodynamic drag on the cyclist by almost 9%. (Courtesy: Eindhoven University of Technology)

By Matin Durrani

Some of the world’s top cyclists are gathering today in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn to take part in the opening stage of the 2016 Giro d’Italia – the 99th running of a race that is one of the three big European professional cycling stage races, along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España.

Today’s stage is a short (10 km) time trial and will be followed by two, longer stages in the Netherlands before the action moves to Italy, where the race is due to end on 28 May in Turin. Now, even if you have no interest in cycling – and mine stretches no further than tootling back and forth to work each day – one thing that looks truly scary about professional cycle races such as the Giro d’Italia is the phalanx of motorbikes following in the wake of the cyclists.

These motorbikes can carry everyone from TV camera operators and press photographers to doctors, traffic managers and support staff, all keen to keep as close as possible to the action. Now, however, researchers in the Netherlands and Belgium have discovered that having a motorbike right behind a cyclist could give the latter an advantage. Led by Bert Blocken, a physicist in the Department of the Built Environment at Eindhoven University of Technology, the study reveals that a motorbike at a distance of 25 cm behind a cyclist can cut aerodynamic drag on the person on the bicycle by almost 9%. That amounts to a reduction of almost 3 s for every kilometre travelled. (more…)

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The May 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

PWMay16cover-200By Matin Durrani

Physics stretches from the small to the large, from the simple to the complex and from low energy to high. It spans the entire alphabet too, with this month’s issue of Physics World including everything from the race to produce anti-atoms (A) at the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva to a study of the physics of zombies (Z).

Zombies don’t exist, obviously. But we look at two physicists – Alex Alemi and Matt Bierbaum – who have studied the statistical physics of how zombies spread. As science writer Stephen Ornes explains, their interest emerged from a fun student project, but has led to a paper in a leading peer-reviewed journal and helped generate a wider appreciation of statistical physics.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can now enjoy immediate access to the new issue with the digital edition of the magazine in your web browser or on any iOS or Android mobile device (just download the Physics World app from the App Store or Google Play). If you’re not yet in the IOP, you can join as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year to get full access to Physics World digital.

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The field that could improve your research ‘impact’

Preparation of ice-cream in a factory

Where physics meets food: preparation of ice-cream in a factory. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Leonid Shcheglov)

By Matin Durrani

As Physics World editor, I spend most of my time covering science that I have never been involved in. I might write articles about astrophysicists, interview atomic physicists or edit features by particle physicists, but it doesn’t mean I’ve ever done any research in those fields.

It was therefore a pleasant change last Friday to attend a summit organized by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, on physics in food manufacturing. Back in the 1990s, I did a PhD with Athene Donald at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge on the physical properties of mixtures of gel-forming biopolymers – materials that apart from being interesting from a fundamental point of view are also relevant to the food industry.

Many foods, after all, are complex, multicomponent mixtures – and if you can understand how they behave, then you can create foods that are healthier, cheaper and perhaps even tastier too.

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Michael Berry at 75

Sir Michael Berry unveiling a framed photograph of himself

A moment to reflect – Michael Berry unveils a framed photograph of himself in the University of Bristol at an event to mark his 75th birthday. (Courtesy: Brian R Pollard)

By Matin Durrani

Anyone who gets invited to an event that’s being held on April Fools’ Day is bound to think there’s something fishy going on. But last Friday’s meeting to celebrate the 75th birthday of Bristol University physicist Michael Berry was a genuine commemoration of his career, although it did have its lighter moments.

Grandly entitled “Physics, Art, Mathematics, Science”, the meeting was intended to reflect Berry’s extensive and wide-ranging interests, which stretch from the physics of waves and quantum phenomena to optics, tidal bores and magnetic levitation. (There’s also a phenomenon called the Berry phase, although I understand Berry himself is reluctant to use that term.)

It’s difficult to summarize Berry’s many contributions to physics – he has written approaching 500 papers – so I’m going to take the easy way out and instead point you at his excellent website, where you can easily get lost down lots of entertaining and stimulating rabbit holes.

If there’s one item on his site I can recommend, it’s his description of how his work on the mathematics of magnetic levitation led him to share the 2000 IgNobel Prize for Physics with the future (genuine) Nobel laureate Andre Geim, who in 1997 levitated a frog using a powerful permanent electromagnet while at Bristol.

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