Posts by: Matin Durrani

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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How Charles Wheatstone got to see polarization

By Matin Durrani

Things seem to have quietened down a bit following last month’s announcement by astronomers in the BICEP2 collaboration that they had obtained the first evidence of cosmic inflation – the period of rapid expansion in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang. As you’ll know if you’ve been keeping up, the evidence was obtained by searching for certain “B-mode” polarizations in the cosmic microwave background, which are related to primordial gravitational waves that are thought to have abounded in the early universe. These polarizations differ from “E-mode” polarization, which describes how the magnitude of polarization varies across the CMB.

But never mind your fancy B-modes and E-modes, how well do you understand the concept of polarization in the first place? Intriguingly, in the late 1840s Sir Charles Wheatstone, who was then professor of experimental philosophy at the University of London, decided to create a mechanical device to explain the principles of the concept – several decades before James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic nature of light.

The video above shows a rare surviving example of one of these “Wheatstone Wave Machines”, which has been restored to working order by Robert Whitworth and colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the UK as part of their collection of historic physics instruments. Wheatstone designed the machine to visualize the wave nature of light and offer what Whitworth calls “a vivid insight into the theoretical concepts of wave motion”. At the time, there were other devices that showed the behaviour of travelling plane waves, but Wheatstone’s was different in that it was the first to demonstrate circularly polarized light.

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Why axing practicals from science exams is a bad idea

Science practical exams

(iStock/LuVo)

By Matin Durrani

I don’t know about you, but I look back rather nostalgically on the practical exams that I took as an 18 year old as part of my A-levels in physics and chemistry. At the time, I wasn’t looking forward to them at all – they lasted three hours each and there was always the very large possibility of completely mucking up your experiment and/or dropping all your samples on the floor.

Although I’ve forgotten everything about my physics practical exam, the chemistry practical still sticks out in my mind. I remember making some needle-like crystals that, through amazing good fortune, turned out really well – certainly far better than the watery mush I’d created in my mock exams. So when I walked over to the other side of the lab to measure the temperature at which the crystals melted, they did so over a really narrow range – and presumably at the “correct” temperature too.

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Physics World Special Report: Brazil

By Matin Durrani

Physics World 2014 Brazil Report

With this year’s FIFA World Cup drawing ever closer, Physics World turns its attention to Brazil – the nation hosting the planet’s biggest sporting event

We’re not, of course, looking at the country’s footballing prowess or examining the controversial – and staggering – sums being spent on staging the World Cup.

Instead, the latest Physics World Special Report examines the challenges and opportunities for physicists in Brazil – the fifth biggest nation by size and the world’s seventh-largest economy.

Physics in the country is thriving, with the Brazilian government having more than quadrupled the amount of money invested in research and development since the turn of the century.

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