Posts by: Matin Durrani

Fran Scott’s four golden rules for getting kids hooked on science

Fran Scott with CBBC puppet Hacker T Dog

Science presenter Fran Scott with CBBC puppet Hacker T Dog. (Courtesy: CBBC)

By Matin Durrani

“Ever heard a child say ‘Yeah, I get it!’? Well, if you do, they’re lying. They’re only saying those words because you’re boring them and they don’t want to listen any more.”

That’s not me telling you – it’s Fran Scott, a BBC science presenter who has spent the last nine years involved in informal children’s science education, most recently working for Children’s BBC and BBC Learning.

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Making brain-busting ideas easier to grasp

Maths doodle by Tracey

Maths-inspired doodle; click to enlarge. (Courtesy: Tracey)

By Matin Durrani

With all the talk yesterday of evidence for inflation and signs of primoridal gravitational waves imprinted on the cosmic microwave background, many non-physicists (and probably quite a few physicists too) might have been left scratching their heads at the implications of the findings obtained by the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from the fact that many concepts in physics are hard and that cutting-edge experiments are incredible feats of technical endeavour. We can, though, all take solace from the fact that physicists at the frontiers of research have often spent decades living and breathing their subjects, which means they know the basics of their own field far better than anyone else.

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New ways to teach and learn physics

By Matin Durrani

If there’s one thing that unites pretty much all of us who like physics, it’s that we’ve all sat through physics classes at some point in our lives. We all know teachers and lecturers who’ve been brilliant and inspired us, but equally we’ve all sat through classes that have quite frankly bored us out of our pants.
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In the March 2014 issue of Physics World a PDF copy of which you can download free of charge – we offer a snapshot of just some of the many innovative ideas that exist for learning and teaching physics. It’s not an exhaustive selection, but includes topics that we felt were interesting or novel.

So, download the issue to find out about the huge growth of “massive open online courses”, or MOOCs, in which universities make their lectures freely available in video form on the Internet, and discover Philip Moriarty’s behind-the-scenes experiences as one of the stars of the Sixty Symbols series of YouTube science videos.

Elsewhere, check out the great feature by BBC science presenter Fran Scott, who reveals her four golden rules for engaging children with science, and discover the importance of helping children develop computer-programming skills from an early age. Don’t miss out either on Eugenia Etkina and Gorazd Planinšič’s article on the implications for teachers of the fact that learning involves physical changes in the brain.

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Getting a measure of Brazilian research

Photo of llama at São Carlos zoo

A llama at São Carlos zoo yesterday.

By Matin Durrani

If you’ve been keeping an eye on this blog, you’ll remember that I spent a week in Brazil last November gathering material for an upcoming Physics World Special Report, which will examine the challenges and opportunities facing physicists in the world’s fifth largest country. I travelled to São Paulo, São José dos Campos and Rio de Janeiro, visiting everywhere from the first overseas offshoot of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics to the Brazilian National Observatory, where Brazilian research pretty much began.

I’ve just been putting the finishing touches to that report, which includes news, features and an exclusive interview with the Brazilian science minister Marco Antonio Raupp, who is a physicist by training. Brazil’s investment in science has more than quadrupled over the last decade and in the interview Raupp outlines his priorities for the Brazilian research community. Stay tuned for the Physics World Special Report, which we’ll make available via this website from next month. (One rather flippant question we asked Raupp is who he thinks will win this year’s FIFA World Cup taking place across Brazil this summer – we didn’t have room to fit his answer into the report, but I can exclusively reveal on this blog that the Brazilian science minister has got his money on the home nation. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

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Physics World brings Feynman lecture to life

Physics World doodle by Perrin Ireland

Richard Feynman lecture doodle by Perrin Ireland taken from the March 2014 issue of Physics World magazine.

By Matin Durrani and Louise Mayor

Commissioned by Physics World for the March 2014 education special issue, which examines new ways to teach and learn physics, this colourful image is based on a lecture by Richard Feynman called “The Great Conservation Principles”. It is one of seven Messenger Lectures that the great physicist gave at Cornell University in the US exactly 50 years ago, a video of which can be watched here or in the digital version of Physics World.

The drawing’s creator is professional “science doodler” Perrin Ireland – science communications specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US – who describes herself as “a learner who needs to visualize concepts in order to understand them”. For people like Ireland, thinking visually or in a story-like way helps them to recall facts and explanations, which can come in very useful when trying to learn something new.

So to find out what science doodling could bring to physics, we invited Ireland to watch Feynman’s 1964 lecture and create a drawing for us – the picture above being the result. Half a century after his lecture, Feynman remains an iconic figure in physics and although we’ll never know what he would have made of Ireland’s doodle, our bet is he would have been amused.

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The February 2014 issue of Physics World is out now

By Matin Durrani

Physics World February 2014

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), it’s time to get stuck into the new issue of Physics World, which you can access free via the digital version of the magazine or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.

In this month’s cover feature, Margaret Morrison from the University of Toronto examines the use of  “fictional models” in science, including Maxwell’s model of electromagnetism, which included a piece of pure fiction in the form of an invisible, all-pervasive “aether” made up of elastic vortices separated by electric charge.

On a more practical note, this month’s issue examines strange discrepancies in experimental measurements of the gravitational constant, G, while our lead news and analysis piece tries to find out more about the US National Security Administration’s leaked initiative on quantum computers. There’s an abridged extract of cosmologist Max Tegmark‘s new book about the mathematical nature of the universe and don’t miss a great Lateral Thoughts about an unusual domestic mystery – why tiny spikes grow in the ice tray in your freezer.

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Now you see them, now you don’t…

Photo of "Spannungsfeld" by Julian Voss-Andreae

Spannungsfeld by Julian Voss-Andreae is set to be installed at the University of Minnesota next month.

By Matin Durrani

I don’t know if they’re going to be dubbed “Alice” and “Bob”, but those names seem fairly appropriate for the two new figures – one male, one female – that make up the latest artwork from the German-born quantum-physicist-turned sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae.

Set to be installed at a new physics and nanotechnology building at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St Paul, the work is officially titled Spannungsfeld – a German term that literally means “tension field” and which implies, according to Voss-Andreae, a “dynamic tension, often between polar opposites, that permeates everything in its vicinity”.

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The January 2014 issue of Physics World is out now

By Matin Durrani

Physics World Jan 2014

Happy new year and welcome back to Physics World!

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), it’s time to get stuck into the new issue of Physics World, which you can access free via the digital version of the magazine or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.

In this month’s cover feature, Peter Coles from the University of Sussex in the UK examines the implications of the data of the cosmic microwave background obtained by Europe’s Planck satellite.

There’s also a great article by science journalist Philip Ball, who looks at exactly why quantum computers are so fast – the speed is often put down to many calculations operating in parallel, but some theorists are not so sure. Meanwhile, Joshua Pearce from Michigan Technological University explains how physicists can contribute to open-source “appropriate technology” – devices that can be easily and cheaply built usiing materials and techniques available to people in developing nations.

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Postcard from Rio – following in Einstein’s footsteps

Photo of Einstein visiting Brazil's National Observatory in 1925

Einstein visiting Brazil’s National Observatory in 1925. (Courtesy: Observatório Nacional)

By Matin Durrani in Rio de Janeiro

I don’t think I’ve ever talked to the head of a physics lab with a parrot screeching outside the window. But that was the case today when I visited the Brazil’s National Observatory – the country’s oldest scientific institution, founded in 1827 by Emperor Dom Pedro I just five years after the country won independence from Portugal.

The parrot was somewhere in the lush green trees directly outside the open windows of the director’s elegant first-floor office, which is currently occupied by the physicist Joao dos Anjos, who took over as head of the observatory earlier this year. (He also claimed his secretary had seen a ghost in the office recently, but that’s another story.)

After closing the windows’ shutters and switching on the air-conditioning, Dos Anjos explained how the observatory is now focused on three main activities – astronomy, geophysics and metrology. In fact, the observatory is still the official body in Brazil for setting time, which was one of its original missions, along with determining geographical locations and studying the country’s climate.

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The December 2013 issue of Physics World is out now

By Matin Durrani

PWDec13cover-200

For anyone living or travelling beyond the Arctic Circle, it’s going to be pretty cold and dark right now, which means it’s hard to imagine what impact climate change could have on the flora and fauna of this remote region.

But as our cover story explains, a hardy band of researchers has spent the past three summers travelling to the far north-west of Finland to find out the effects of warming conditions on the area. Joining them in August for us was Liz Kalaugher, editor of environmentalresearchweb – a website produced by IOP Publishing to complement its open-access journal Environmental Research Letters. Her first-hand account of the trip was supported by a science-journalism fellowship from the European Geosciences Union.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can  access the entire new issue free via the digital version of the magazine or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.

Elsewhere in the December issue, we have a feature by Martin Fischer from Duke University in the US on how the laser-based technique of pump-probe microscope has been used to map the distribution of lapis-lazuli pigment in Puccio Capanna’s 14th-century masterpiece  The Crucifixion.

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