Posts by: Matin Durrani

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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How can you give yourself time to think?

By Matin Durrani

Physics World April 2014

If you’re a busy researcher, you’ll know just how precious time can be. But for many physicists, there’s a growing pressure to communicate, collaborate and interact – often at the expense of having time in silence to sit and think.

It’s an issue tackled in the cover story of the April issue of Physics World magazine by Felicity Mellor from Imperial College London, who runs a project called “Silences of Science“. The cover of this month’s issue was specially commissioned by us from artist Dave Cutler.

As Mellor puts it, current research policy – in the UK at least – emphasizes silence’s opposite. “From assessing publications and rewarding collaborations, to requirements for public engagement, policy initiatives urge scientists to speak up,” she writes.

Yet there is a danger, Mellor warns, that in the midst of all this enforced interaction, an important precondition for creativity in physics could be lost. “With all these demands to talk, do scientists still have the chance to think?” she wonders.

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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.
PWMar14-cover-200

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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