By Margaret Harris
As the editor in charge of Lateral Thoughts – Physics World’s long-running column of humorous or otherwise offbeat essays on physics – I am sometimes* asked whether I have a favourite. It’s an interesting question, and back in 2014, when I was writing a series of posts for this blog about how Lateral Thoughts had changed over the (then) 25-year history of Physics World, I promised to answer it.
This, however, proved easier said than done. In the weeks that followed my foolish pledge, the Physics World inbox (email@example.com) received a whole series of Lateral Thoughts essays that could have been my “favourite”. One of them, published in May 2014, was John Swanson’s discourse on the quantum nature of the 20:08 train from Bristol Parkway. Another, which appeared in June 2014, contained Chris Atkins’ gloriously straight-faced analysis of the physics of Poohsticks. A third, in July 2014, saw kung-fu expert Felix Flicker explore an unexpected connection between the mathematics of spinors and the art of escaping from an armlock. Then, in August 2014, John Evans pondered various physics-based ways of improving his running – such as refining his aerodynamic profile by developing a beer belly. (Evans, incidentally, went on to write a Lateral Thought on cycling in October 2015, and this month we published his essay on swimming. This means he’s now completed a lateral-thinking triathlon. Congratulations!)
By Margaret Harris
How do you keep an astronaut alive, sane and (ideally) happy during a mission to Mars? The world’s space agencies would very much like to know the answer, but gathering data is tricky. The International Space Station (ISS) makes a good testbed for experiments on the physical effects of space travel, but psychologically speaking, ISS astronauts enjoy a huge advantage over their possible Mars-bound counterparts: if something goes badly wrong on the station, home is just a short Soyuz ride away. Martian astronauts, in contrast, will be on their own.
For this reason, space agencies have become interested in learning how people cope in extreme environments here on Earth, particularly in locations where rescue is not immediately possible. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) sent Beth Healey, a British medical doctor, to spend the winter of 2015 at Concordia Research Station, a remote base in the interior of Antarctica. During the continent’s nine-month-long winter, temperatures at Concordia can plunge as low as –80 °C, making it inaccessible even to aeroplanes, which cannot operate at temperatures below –50 °C. So once the last flight left in February 2015, Healey and the 12 other members of the overwintering team were stuck there until November.
By Margaret Harris
The “reproducibility crisis” in science has become big news lately, with more and more seemingly trustworthy findings proving difficult or impossible to reproduce. Indeed, a recent Nature survey found that two-thirds of respondents think current levels of reproducibility constitute a “major problem” for science. So far, physics hasn’t been affected much; the crisis has been most severe in fields such as psychology and clinical research, which, not coincidentally, involve messy human beings rather than nice clean atomic systems. However, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to physicists. Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking to three physics graduates who have become personally involved in addressing the reproducibility crisis within their chosen profession: medicine.
Henry Drysdale, Ioan Milosevic and Eirion Slade are third-year medical students at the University of Oxford. All three earned their undergraduate degrees in physics, and they now make up one-third of COMPare – an initiative by Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) that tracks “outcome switching” in clinical trials. As Drysdale explained to me over coffee in an Oxford café, researchers who want to perform clinical trials have to state beforehand which “outcomes” they intend to measure. For example, if they are trialling a new drug to treat high blood pressure, then “blood pressure after one year” might be their main outcome. But researchers generally keep track of other variables as well, and often their final report focuses on a positive result in one of these other parameters (a dip in the number of heart attacks, say), while downplaying or ignoring the drug’s effect on the main outcome.
By Margaret Harris
I have a mental block about Carlton House Terrace. This elegant little street in central London is home to several of the UK’s national academies, including the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), and I’m sure I’ve visited it at least half a dozen times. Yet somehow, whenever I emerge from Charing Cross underground station in the middle of Trafalgar Square, I never know which way to go next.
Fortunately, this is the 21st century, so when the usual disorientation struck me yesterday on my way to an “Innovation in Space” event at the RAEng, I simply pulled out my smartphone. Within seconds, an app told me exactly where I was (plus or minus a few metres) and how to walk from there to 3 Carlton House Terrace. Minutes later, I was safely ensconced in the seminar room, nodding in agreement as the event’s chair, Sir Martin Sweeting, explained how space-related innovations – including, ahem, the network of satellites that make up the Global Positioning System (GPS) – have become an integral part of our daily lives.
By Margaret Harris at the AAAS Meeting in Washington, DC
Although Thursday’s LIGO result was extremely exciting, I’m afraid I can only spend so much time pondering ripples in the fabric of space–time before I start yearning for something a little more…concrete. Like, well, concrete. And asphalt. And cement. These decidedly ordinary materials were the stars of two of the most fascinating talks I’ve seen at the AAAS meeting here in Washington DC over the past two days.
First up was Erik Schlangen, a civil engineer at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who develops “self-healing” materials. One of his projects (which you can watch him demonstrate in a TED talk) involves mixing porous asphalt with fibres of steel wool. The resulting conglomerate is magnetic (that’s a magnet sticking to it in the photo), which means that microscopic cracks in it can be repaired using induction heating. The heat melts the bitumen in the asphalt, allowing it to re-fuse, but the surrounding aggregate remains relatively cool – meaning that cars can be driven over asphalt road surfaces almost as soon as the repair is complete.
By Margaret Harris at the AAAS meeting in Washington DC
Not with a bang, but a chirp.
That’s how the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) kicked off on Thursday, thanks to the spectacular news that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has, for the first time ever, directly observed the ripples in space–time known as gravitational waves. As our news story explains, LIGO’s twin interferometers picked up the waveform produced as two black holes spiralled into each other, emitting gravitational waves at frequencies and amplitudes that rose sharply with time, like the chirp of a cricket.
The LIGO researchers announced their discovery at a packed press conference in downtown Washington, DC. The excitement in the room was palpable, even though, as it turned out, most of the journalists present already knew what they were about to hear. This actually isn’t unusual. It’s common practice for scientific journals to send new research papers to journalists a few days ahead of publication; the idea behind this so-called embargo system is that it gives journalists time to report accurately on complex science stories.
What was unusual was that this time, there was no embargoed paper. Instead, there was a vigorous rumour mill casting out information in a messy, somewhat underhand and highly anisotropic way. This is rather interesting, and I wish that LIGO’s Gabriela González hadn’t dismissed the journalist who asked about it with an incredulous “The facts are so beautiful – why do you talk about rumours?”
By Margaret Harris
“Science has always been the Cinderella amongst the subjects taught in schools…not for the first time our educational conscience has been stung by the thought that we are as a nation neglecting science.”
Sounds like something David Cameron or Barack Obama might have said last week, right? Wrong. In fact, it comes from a report by the grandly named Committee to Enquire into the Position of Natural Sciences in the Educational System of Great Britain, which presented its findings clear back in…1918.
I came across this quotation thanks to Emma Smith and Patrick White, a pair of education researchers at the University of Leicester who have spent the past few years studying the long-term career paths of people with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Smith and White presented the preliminary findings of their study at a seminar in Leicester yesterday, and one of the themes of their presentation – reflected in the above quote – was the longevity of concerns about a shortage of STEM-trained people, especially university graduates. As Smith pointed out, worries about the number and quality of STEM graduates are not new and, historically, reports of a “STEM crisis” have been as much about politics as they have economic supply and demand.
By Margaret Harris
What kind of scientist are you? In a world where astronomers are getting into (exo)biology, geologists file their programming manuals next to their rock hammers and three physicists shared a chemistry Nobel prize for work with medical implications, it can be hard to keep track. But fear not. For behold, in the midst of this glorious interdisciplinary muddle (and, for many readers, the holiday season), we bring you tidings of great clarity. As it turns out, your scientific identity crisis can be solved with a simple flowchart.
The idea for the flowchart came last summer, when physicist Eugene Hickey submitted his ideas on sorting the geoscientists from the cosmologists to Lateral Thoughts, Physics World’s column of humorous and otherwise off-beat essays about physics and physicists. Hickey began his essay by observing that in his university (the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, near Dublin, Ireland) the interdisciplinary spirit has even trickled down to undergraduate level. For example, to create a materials-science degree, “the right physicist met up with the right chemist [and] decided to bolt together the best elements of both disciplines into a coherent bundle”. Students taking this degree, he added, “spent half their time in each department, like some sort of joint custody arrangement”.
By Margaret Harris
Well written, scientifically interesting to physicists, and novel: these are the criteria used to select Physics World’s annual list of the year’s top physics books. We’ve done this every year since 2009, and over the past few weeks, we’ve been at it again, sifting through the 52 books reviewed in the magazine in 2015 and separating the best from the rest (most of which, I should add, are also very good – we try not to review bad books).
This is never an easy task, and as usual, the selections in our shortlist have been influenced by the views of external experts: the physicists, science writers and science historians who read and reviewed books for Physics World magazine throughout 2015. Their reviews (and, in a few cases, their private opinions) helped us decide which books deserved a closer look, and we thank them all for their contributions.
Deciding on a winner, however, is a privilege we reserve for ourselves, and with so many great books to choose from, it has been both a privilege and a challenge this year. We’ll be announcing our “Book of the Year” in a special edition of the Physics World podcast later this month, but in the meantime, here are the candidates:
By Margaret Harris in Glasgow
If you’re the first speaker after lunch at a conference, how do you make sure your audience stays awake and engaged?
For Oliver Ambacher – who occupied the dreaded post-prandial slot during Wednesday’s applied photonics conference at Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC) – the answer is simple. You pretend to jump off a cliff.
Ambacher, the director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics in Freiburg, Germany, made his leap (actually, several leaps of varying lengths) to illustrate one of the toughest challenges in applied physics: the yawning gap between what academic researchers can provide, and what industry scientists need to turn that research into innovative products. This gap is sometimes called the “valley of death”, and Ambacher’s point was that the risks of leaping across it are generally higher on the industry side. “If I, whose heart is still in physics, jump into the valley of death, I lose funding, maybe a project,” Ambacher explained. “But somebody from industry, they may lose their job. So they cannot jump so far.”