Posts by: Matin Durrani

Physics in the fast lane

By Matin Durrani

Most of us want everything in life right here, right now. From fast food to fast cars, none of us can be bothered to hang about any longer than absolutely necessary. Where’s your reply to my e-mail I sent five minutes ago? Why haven’t you responded to my Tweet? Do you really expect me to read that 500-page novel for fun?

It was perhaps as an antidote to the ever-faster pace of life that so much has been made of two physics experiments that recently produced new data for the first time in years. I’m talking, of course, about the “pitch-drop” experiments at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and the University of Queensland, Australia, which both consist of a glass funnel of sticky tar-like substance. A drop from the Trinity experiment finally fell last July, with a video of the event quickly going viral, while the Queensland set-up dripped this April for the first time in 13 years. (For more on why both experiments proved so popular, check out our great feature by Shane D Bergin, Stefan Hutzler and Denis Weaire from Trinity.)

But if you can’t be bothered to hang around for 10 years or more, you’ll be pleased to hear that physicists at Queen Mary University of London – led by Kostya Trachenko – have now set up a new pitch-drop experiment to explore the difference between solid and liquids on the much shorter timescale of just a few months.

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Art, physics and performance painting

Photo of artwork created by Adrian Pritchard

Artist Adrian Pritchard is a “performance painter” who here has created a public artwork by allowing coloured streams of viscoelastic fluids to mix. (Courtesy: Adrian Pritchard)

By Matin Durrani

I was in London at the end of last week to attend a meeting on “Communicating physics through the arts” (PDF), which had been organized by the Physics Communicators Group of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World.

Held at the IOP’s headquarters in London, the idea of the meeting was to “ask artists to explore how they use their knowledge of physics during the development of their work” and to see “how physics could be communicated to the public through their work”.

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Women Rock Science author bags new student-science award

Hadiza Mohammed

Hadiza Mohammed being presented with the inaugural IOP Student Science Publication Award last night.

The photo above shows me presenting the inaugural Student Science Publication Award, sponsored by the Institute of Physics and IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, to Hadiza Mohammed of the online magazine Women Rock Science. She is a working civil engineer currently doing a Master’s in advanced environmental and energy studies.

The award, which was launched this year, recognizes student journalists who produce a regular science publication and seeks in part to nurture the next generation of science writers. It forms part of the annual awards given by the Association of British Science Writers and was presented at a reception held at the Royal Society in London as the culmination of this year’s UK Conference of Science Journalists.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Nanotechnology is out now

By Matin Durrani

Physics World Focus on Nanotechnology June 2014

One of the beauties of physics, I’m sure you’ll agree, is that it stretches from the very big (cosmology) to the very small (particle physics). In fact, the great questions at the heart of those fields may well have attracted you to physics in the first place. But a lot goes on in-between these extremes, not least at the nanoscale. It might lack the glamour of research into dark energy or the Higgs boson, but nanotechnology has far more of an immediate impact on everyday life than physics at either end of the length scale.

If you want to find out about some of those applications, take a look at the latest Physics World focus issue on nanotechnology, out now in print and digital formats. It covers, for example, the work of the UK firm P2i, which has developed a “dunkable” nano-coating that can keep a mobile phone functioning after being submerged in water for up to half an hour. Could be handy next time you go swimming.

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Seven lessons from Sean Carroll

Photo of Sean Carroll at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival

Sean Carroll in full flow at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival.

By Matin Durrani in Cheltenham

I made the short journey yesterday from Bristol to the regency spa town of Cheltenham, which this week is hosting its annual science festival. One of the largest such events in the UK, it’s been running since 2002 and has a packed programme of A-list speakers and topics ranging from genetics to geology, from cocktails to cake, and from the human brain to the Higgs boson.

My main reason for attending the festival, though, was to meet Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, whose book about the search for the Higgs boson (called The Particle at the End of the Universe ) was picked by Physics World last year as one of our top 10 books of 2013. Carroll was in the Gloucestershire town to give a one-hour talk about the Higgs, although the festival organizers were clearly working him hard as he also spoke in separate lectures on dark matter and dark energy, and on his role as a science adviser to Hollywood. (Carroll’s worked on films including Thor, Avengers Assemble and TRON: Legacy and even played a tiny role on TV’s The Big Bang Theory – stay tuned for more on that in our upcoming audio interview with him.)

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Adventures in Antarctica

By Matin Durrani

It’s the depths of winter in Antarctica right now, but in the new issue of Physics World magazine, there’s a chance to feast your eyes on some stunning images of scientific research in the White Continent, taken a few months ago by photojournalist Enrico Sacchetti.

Sacchetti’s photographs are amazing and in the article he explains his experiences of travelling to Antarctica and taking pictures in what is one of the world’s harshest environments.

“As soon as I stepped off the C-130 [plane], the alien nature of Antarctica was truly jolting…Almost completely absent of atmospheric pollution, the air was crystal clear,” Sacchetti writes.

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So, do you fancy winning $3m?

Money talks – $3m is the proze. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/solvod)

Money talks – $3m is up for grabs in the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation’s  Breakthrough Prize. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/solvod)

By Matin Durrani

An e-mail arrived in my inbox this morning from Rob Meyer, who names himself “administrator” of the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, seeking nominations for the Breakthrough Prize, which is worth a tasty $3m, and for the $100,000 New Horizons Prize, which is aimed at “young researchers”.

In case you’ve forgotten, the foundation was funded by the Russian investor Yuri Milner, who did a degree in physics at Moscow State University before making squillions investing in start-up companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

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When waiting for 10 years is just too long

silly putty experiment

Fed up with waiting 10 years for a drip of pitch to fall? Try Silly Putty instead.

By Matin Durrani

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I do encourage you to read our feature article from the May issue of Physics World about the now-famous pitch-drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin. This simple funnel of pitch shot to fame last year after a drop from it was finally observed falling for the first time – with a video of the dripping drop having so far been viewed more than two million times on YouTube.

Although it was the first time that a drop had been seen to drip from the Dublin funnel, it’s thought that other drops would have fallen about once a decade since the apparatus was set up in 1944. Be that as it may, Trevor Cawthorne from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, UK, e-mailed me this morning, pointing out – quite rightly – that “10 years is a long time to wait for the results of an experiment”.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Optics & Lasers is out now

By Matin Durrani

Physics World focus issue on optics and lasers 2014It’s time to tuck into the latest focus issue of Physics World, which explores some of the latest research into optics and lasers.

The focus issue, which can be read here free of charge, kicks off with a report from the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol in the UK, which is driving a new approach to quantum computing based on integrated photonic circuits.

Elsewhere in the issue, you can find out from Joel England, a physicist at Stanford University in the US, about the new photonic research that could see particle accelerators shrunk to the scale of microchips.

Meanwhile, the huge potential of the photonics sector in general is underlined in our keynote interview with the chief executive of Jenoptik, Michael Mertin, who is also president of the European Union’s Photonics21 consortium, which seeks to unify the European photonics community and advises the European Commission on photonics research, development and innovation needs.

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Why did a drop of pitch in Dublin go viral?

 

By Matin Durrani

It’s always surprising to see the kinds of things that go viral – who’d have thought that a blog with amusing animal pictures would prove such a hit or that a chubby Korean pop singer would clock up nearly two billion views on YouTube?

But I doubt anyone could have predicted that a video of a drop falling from an antique funnel of pitch at a lab at Trinity College Dublin would become one of the science stories of 2013. In fact, here at Physics World we didn’t even write about it at the time.

Partly to make amends, the May issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out, includes a fabulous article by Shane D Bergin, Stefan Hutzler and Denis Weaire from the lab in Dublin where the experiment is based. In the article, they explain the science behind the pitch drop, discuss the history of the experiment and reflect on the value of “slow science” to a hyper-connected, social-media world.

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