Posts by: Margaret Harris

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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Bright spots in the Euro-gloom

European Parliament in Brussels

European Parliament in Brussels. (iStockphoto/Franky De Meyer)

By Margaret Harris in Brussels

For an event built around celebrating Europe’s best scientific spin-out companies, the Academic Enterprise Awards got off to a downbeat start. “Europe is lacking growth, lacking jobs and lacking entrepreneurial appetite,” declared Joanna Drake, director of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within the European Commission. Such enterprises “have a difficult life, and this is getting worse, not improving” agreed the event’s second speaker, MEP Maria Da Graça Carvalho of Portugal.  Then there was Roland Siegwart, vice-president for research and corporate relations at ETH Zurich. In a splendid bit of understatement, he lamented the fact that many bright scientists at his university “have a somewhat not awake entrepreneurial spirit”.

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People, not information, want to be free

Cory Doctorow speaking

Cory Doctorow speaking at the Sense About Science Annual Lecture. (Courtesy: Sense About Science)

By Margaret Harris

I’ve never been a fan of the slogan “Information wants to be free”.  As a journalist and former scientist, I know that the process of creating and disseminating information is definitely not free, and I’m sceptical about the economic alchemy that would supposedly make it that way.  So when I saw that this year’s Sense About Science lecture was entitled “We Get to Choose: How to Demand an Internet That Sets Us Free”, I nearly stayed away.

As it turns out, a more accurate title for the London-based charity’s annual bash would have been “Why Digital Rights Management is Bad and Why You Should Care”, and by the end, the speaker – science-fiction author and blogger Cory Doctorow – had pretty much won me over.

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Five of the best

By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting in Baltimore

With so many sessions taking place at the APS March Meeting, finding time to write about them is almost impossible. However, now that I’m waiting for my flight from Baltimore back to the UK, I’ve got all the time in the world – so here’s my list of five conference highlights.

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One good sign

By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting in Baltimore

“Science remains institutionally sexist. Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men.”  The opening lines of Nature’s recent special issue make an arresting – if depressing – summary, so it’s not surprising that Roxanne Hughes chose them to kick off yesterday’s press conference on women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the APS March Meeting.

Hughes, an education expert at the US National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, spoke about a study she’d done of 26 women undergraduates. All of them entered university with the intention of studying a STEM subject, and 12 had enrolled in a “living and learning community” that offered specialized mentoring opportunities and the chance to live with other female science students. Such programmes have often been touted as a way of helping women persist in science, but on Hughes’ evidence, this particular one made not a whit of difference, at least in numerical terms. The 12 students in the study who switched to non-STEM fields were evenly split between those who participated and those who didn’t.

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