Posts by: Margaret Harris

Cold city, hot science

Skyscrapers above a snowy field

Downtown Chicago rises above a snowy Grant Park.

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

It’s ice cold outside (–16 °C the last time I checked), but Chicago is still a hot ticket for scientists this week as the capital of the American Midwest prepares to host the 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

As usual, there are plenty of fascinating talks planned for the meeting, which runs from today through Monday. Looking through the schedule just now, I’m pretty sure I could fill all five days with seminars on scientific entrepreneurship, policy and communication – although if I did, I’d miss out on some great physics topics such as dark-matter detection, quantum cryptography and next-generation materials for batteries. Which would be a shame.

I’ll be posting regular updates throughout the conference here on the physicsworld.com blog, and I’ll also be live-tweeting a few of the talks (only the really interesting ones, I promise) as @DrMLHarris on Twitter. So check back soon for more on the 2014 AAAS meeting.

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100 leading British scientists

By Margaret Harris

Earlier this week, the UK’s Science Council – an umbrella group for learned societies and professional bodies – published a list of the country’s 100 leading practising scientists. The rationale behind the list is interesting: according to the Council’s press release, it’s meant to “highlight a collective blind spot” in our attitudes towards scientists, which tend to “reference dead people or to regard only academics and researchers as scientists”.

I gave a quiet cheer when I read this. As I’ve noted before, fully 96% of the UK’s science PhD graduates make their careers in something other than academic research, yet their contributions often go unrecognized. There are many reasons for this, including commercial confidentiality and poor visibility (almost every academic scientist has their own webpage; most industry scientists don’t) along with the aforementioned “blind spot”.  But whatever the reasons, a list honouring non-academic scientists seems long overdue.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Science Council’s list fits that description.

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Lateral Thoughts: some things never change

By Margaret Harris

This is the second in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. You can read the first one here.

The Lateral Thoughts column of humorous, off-beat or otherwise “lateral” essays has been part of Physics World ever since the magazine was launched in October 1988. In my previous post about the column’s history, I described some ways that Lateral Thoughts have changed since the early days (tl;dr version: loads of sexism, side order of class conflict).  But in my trawl through the archive, I’ve also discovered that some things haven’t changed very much at all over the past quarter-century.

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Lateral Thoughts: a foreign country

By Margaret Harris

LT-cartoon
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

I’ve been re-learning this lesson recently thanks to “Lateral Thoughts”, the column of humorous, off-beat or otherwise “lateral” essays that appears on the back page of Physics World each month. These articles are written by our readers and they have been part of the magazine ever since it was launched in October 1988. In fact, Lateral Thoughts is the only section of Physics World that has remained unaltered in its 25-year history.

Unaltered in its format, that is. But what about the actual content of the essays? Lateral Thoughts are not normally commissioned by members of the editorial team; instead, they’re selected from a pool of submissions sent in, unsolicited, by Physics World readers. Any shifts in style or subject matter should, therefore, tell us something about the way that the physics community has evolved over the years.

With this in mind, I began trawling through the archive of past Lateral Thoughts, looking for evidence of change. And boy, did I ever find it.

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Quiz of the year 2013

By Margaret Harris

Physics World’s light-hearted quiz about the year in physics has occupied the back page of the December print edition every year since 2004 and this year, as we did last year, we’ve created an interactive online version. The 2013 quiz can be found here and although there’s no prize for getting a high score, you’ll be able to check your results once you’ve completed all of the 25 questions. Each question is based on an event or story that the magazine has reported on this year.

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Book of the Year shortlist for 2013

By Margaret Harris
PW-TOP10-books-2013

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for Physics World to dig into its cabinet full of popular-physics volumes, pore over the reviews and decide which of the 59 books we covered in 2013 deserves to be our pick for the year’s best.

As we did last year, we’ve begun by selecting a shortlist of the 10 books that most closely meet our award criteria, which are that the winning book must be novel, scientifically interesting and (of course) well written. This required us to make some tough choices: although many books fulfilled two of our requirements, fewer could claim high marks in all three areas.

The books on the 2013 shortlist are an eclectic group, reflecting the “big tent” nature of physics in recent times. They include popular-science works on biophysics, bombs and a seriously important boson, plus vivid biographies of two very different figures from the history of physics. And we are fairly certain that ours is the only “best books” list you’ll ever see that pits a scholarly argument about the nature of time up against a fan-friendly look at mathematics in the animated TV show The Simpsons.

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Boson book scoops Royal Society prize

Sean Carroll, winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for science books

Sean Carroll, winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for science books.

By Margaret Harris

It’s been a good year for particle-physics prizes, and the Higgs-stravaganza continued last night in London as the cosmologist and author Sean Carroll walked away with the £25,000 Royal Society Winton Prize for his book The Particle at the End of the Universe.

Carroll’s book – which includes a behind-the-scenes account of how the Higgs boson was discovered, as well as explanations of the Higgs field and other concepts – was the “unanimous” choice of the prize’s five-member judging panel. Uta Frith, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at University College London and the judging panel’s chair, called The Particle at the End of the Universe “a real rock star of a book,” and cited Carroll’s energy and passion for his subject among the reasons why it beat out the five other books on the shortlist.

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New diamond centre cuts the ice

By Margaret Harris

An Element Six employee shows visitors some of the company's products

An employee shows visitors around Element Six’s new facility. Credit: Element Six

The Harwell Science and Innovation Campus added another jewel to its crown yesterday when the industrial-diamonds firm Element Six officially opened its £20m new R&D facility on the Oxfordshire site, which is already home to organizations such as the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the UK’s flagship synchrotron, the Diamond Light Source.

I’d heard about Element Six’s plans thanks to this article, which appeared in the careers section of June’s Physics World. The author, Stephanie Liggins, is a physicist who joined Element Six after completing her PhD at the University of Warwick, and towards the end of the article she mentioned that she would soon be moving to the company’s new Global Innovation Centre – which she described as “the world’s largest synthetic-diamond research and development facility”.

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Writing about Oppenheimer

By Margaret Harris

Ray Monk (left) on the enigmatic J Robert Oppneheimer

Ray Monk (left) on the enigmatic J Robert Oppenheimer.

The American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer has been the subject of many biographies. It’s easy to see why. As the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer presided over one of the most important events of the 20th century: the development of the first atomic weapons during the Second World War. Not long afterwards, he became a prominent victim of another key moment in history: the anti-communist “red scare” that swept the US during the 1950s. And on a personal level, he was a learned and cultured man – one who quoted his own translation of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita (“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”) when asked how he felt after the first test of the atomic bomb.

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Do “real scientists” take research trips instead of holidays?

By Margaret Harris

Photo of beach-wear

Getting away from research for a while on a beach. (iStockphoto/David Franklin)

I’ve just started reading Letters to a Young Scientist, a new book by the eminent biologist Edward O Wilson. I picked it up as a possible subject for Physics World’s Between the Lines column of short book reviews because while Wilson is definitely not a physicist – he made his name studying the social systems of ant colonies – his book is written for scientists in all disciplines.

I haven’t finished it yet, but one bit of advice from the chapter “What it takes” grabbed my attention. After stating that academic scientists should expect to work 60-hour weeks, Wilson drops the real bombshell.  “Real scientists do not take vacations,” he writes. “They take field trips or temporary research fellowships in other institutions.”

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