Posts by: Margaret Harris

Top physics books of 2015

By Margaret Harris

PW book logo 2015Well 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:

(more…)

Posted in General | Tagged | 5 Comments | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Leaping across the innovation divide

Glasgow's Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of G)

Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of Strathclyde)

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.”

(more…)

Posted in International Year of Light 2015 | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Horsing around with some innovative physics

Photograph of three physicists, Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater, holding their IOP Innovation Award

(Left to right) Physicists Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater of Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging celebrate their success in the IOP Innovation Awards.

By Margaret Harris

Imagine you’re a veterinarian and a trainer asks you to take a look at a horse. The animal, a champion showjumper, is limping slightly but there is no obvious injury. Exploratory surgery would probably do more harm than good, and the alternative – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – isn’t risk-free either. You’d need to put the horse under a general anaesthetic, and you know horses don’t react well to that; in fact, around 0.5% suffer serious injuries while coming round afterwards. And that’s assuming you can even find a scanner big enough to fit a horse. What do you do?

This might sound like a fairly niche dilemma, but for Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging it has become the basis for a thriving business – a business, moreover, that has just won an IOP Innovation Award for the successful application of physics in a commercial product.

At the awards ceremony – which took place last night in the Palace of Westminster, London, just down the hall from the House of Commons chamber – I caught up with Hallmarq’s operations and technical director, Steve Roberts. After sketching out the scenario of the veterinarian and the injured horse, Roberts, a physicist, explained that Hallmarq’s MRI scanner fits around the horse’s leg. This means that equine patients can simply be led into it, sedated but conscious. Sophisticated error-correction and image-processing software helps the scanner compensate for the horse’s movement, and in 15 years of operation, Roberts estimates that veterinarians have used Hallmarq’s machines to scan more than 60,000 horses.

(more…)

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Solarquest, Pluto and the importance of New Horizons

A photo of the board game Solarquest, which contains images of all nine planets, several of their moons, and a path between them

The Solarquest board, complete with planets, moons and artificial satellites.

By Margaret Harris

Last night, in honour of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, I pulled out my copy of Solarquest. This classic board game was a childhood favourite of mine, and it’s basically Monopoly in space: instead of buying properties named after streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey (or London, if you’re British), you buy planets, moons and artificial satellites. Then, when your fellow players land on an object you own, you charge them rent.

Such nostalgia is all well and good, I hear you say, but what’s it got to do with New Horizons or Pluto? Well, Solarquest’s inventors clearly took their science seriously. By board game standards, there’s quite a lot of physics in it. For example, you can’t leave a planet unless you roll a number high enough to overcome its gravitational pull, and its Monopoly-like property deed cards include facts about each planet and moon as well as their prices.

(more…)

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 2 Comments | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Settling scientific disputes in public

Poster advertising the Science in Public 2015 event
By Margaret Harris

Here’s a Tuesday quiz for you. If you disagree with a colleague about something scientific, what should you do? Your choices are:

(a) Nothing. This is science, and the truth will win out no matter what I do;
(b) Take them aside and explain, privately, why you think they are wrong. Then, if they still disagree with you, get even by writing snarky anonymous reviews of their papers;
(c) Organize a panel “discussion” and tear them to shreds in front of all your colleagues;
(d) Take your case to the public by writing a popular-science book explaining the superiority of your own theory.

Okay, this is a trick question: I’m not sure any of those options is really a good idea (although I’m sure they’ve all been tried). I’d like to focus on the last one, though, because it was the subject of an interesting talk at the Science in Public conference, held last week in Physics World’s home city of Bristol.

(more…)

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 9 Comments | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Success, failure and women in physics

xkcd comic

Courtesy: xkcd.com

By Margaret Harris

Giving out science careers advice is tricky. On the one hand, you want to be encouraging – not least because if you aren’t, there is a chance that your advisee will go on to win a Nobel prize, and you will then look extremely silly. But on the other hand, you also want to prepare the person, mentally, for the possibility of failure. Otherwise, when they do fall short, they may not know how to recover and try again.

The need for balance between encouraging big dreams and preparing for failure was one of the central insights to come out of Sunday’s panel on “Feminism, sexism and bringing up girls” at the Cheltenham Science Festival. After one of the panel members, psychologist Tanya Byron, noted that in clinical practice she sees many bright, successful girls whose fear of failure is “absolutely destroying them”, her fellow panellist Gabriel Weston put her finger on the heart of the problem. How, Weston asked, do we celebrate young women’s achievements and encourage their dreams without also pushing them to be “perfect little glass statues” who shatter under pressure?

(more…)

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 10 Comments | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Elect a physicist

Photograph showing the directions to a UK polling station

Cast your vote for the Physics Party. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/TylaArabas)

By Margaret Harris

It’s the issue no-one is talking about in the run-up to the UK’s general election on 7 May, but I’m convinced that a brand-new party is set to make significant inroads on the British political scene, increasing both its overall share of the vote and its number of parliamentary seats.

“What is this bold new force?” I hear you ask. “Is it the Green Party? The Scottish or Welsh nationalists? The UK Independence Party (UKIP)?” My friends, it is none of these. Nor is it the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats (the three parties that traditionally grab the lion’s share of seats at Westminster), or any of the parties representing Northern Ireland. It is something far more novel. More interesting. And above all, more able to solve the Schrödinger equation.

I’m talking about the Physics Party.

(more…)

Posted in General | Tagged , | 9 Comments | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Coming soon(ish) to a galaxy near you

Image of Smith's Cloud taken by the Green Bank Telescope.

Image of Smith’s Cloud taken by the Green Bank Telescope. (Courtesy: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

By Margaret Harris at the AAAS meeting in San Jose

A giant cloud of hydrogen gas is barrelling towards the Milky Way faster than the speed of sound, and dark matter may hold it together long enough to produce a spectacular outburst of new stars in the night sky – but not for another 30 million years.

The cloud – which is known as Smith’s Cloud after Gail Bieger-Smith, who discovered it as an astronomy student in 1963 – is one of several starless blobs of hydrogen known to exist in the space between galaxies. According to Felix “Jay” Lockman, principal scientist at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank Telescope, such gas clouds are, in effect, “construction debris” left over from an earlier age of galaxy formation. “These are parts for remodelling your house that didn’t arrive by the time the contractor left,” Lockman told an audience at the 2015 AAAS meeting in San Jose, California.

(more…)

Posted in AAAS Annual Meeting 2015 | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

A sight for blind eyes

Diagram of a system showing how images get to the retina

A schematic of the prosthetic vision system developed by Daniel Palanker. (Courtesy: Daniel Palanker)

By Margaret Harris at the AAAS meeting in San Jose

“Restoration of sight to the blind” is a brave claim, one with an almost Biblical ring to it. For Daniel Palanker, though, it is beginning to look as if it is an achievable goal. A medical physicist at the University of Stanford, Palanker has developed a prosthetic vision system that replaces damaged photoreceptors in the retina with an array of tiny photodiodes. When infrared images are projected onto this array, the photodiodes convert the light pulses into electrical signals, which are then picked up by the neurons behind the retina and transmitted to the brain. The result is an artificially induced visual response that, while not as good as normal vision, could nevertheless provide “highly functional restoration of sight” to people with conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

(more…)

Posted in AAAS Annual Meeting 2015 | Tagged , , | 2 Comments | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Photonics by the Bay

 

By Margaret Harris in San Francisco

The International Year of Light is a global celebration, but right now, it’s definitely got its heart in San Francisco. For the past five days, experts in optics, lasers and biomedical imaging have been converging on the “city by the bay” for the annual Photonics West conference, and I’ve joined them in order to learn more about the hot topics in optical science.

(more…)

Posted in International Year of Light 2015 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile