Posts by: Margaret Harris

Prize-worthy books, part 2

By Margaret Harris

Well-written. Scientifically interesting. Novel.

These are the criteria we established in 2009 when Physics World started picking the year’s best physics books; and thanks to the current renaissance in science writing, we’ve never had trouble finding books that qualify.

In fact, the magazine reviewed so many good books in 2012 that we’ve decided not to rank them in a rigid top 10 list this year. Instead, we’ve drawn up a 10-strong shortlist (see below). Over the next few weeks, my colleagues and I will be trying to decide which of these outstanding books should be Physics World‘s Book of the Year for 2012.

We’ll announce the winner on 18 December during our regular books podcast, in which the genially impartial James Dacey will moderate while Physics World editor Matin Durrani and I champion a few of the books we like best.

In the meantime, though, we would love to hear your views on the shortlist. Is there a book that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest? Did we leave out your favourite among the books that Physics World reviewed this year? If so, let us know by e-mail at or vote for your favourite book from the shortlist below via our latest Facebook poll.

The shortlist for Physics World‘s Book of the Year 2012 (including brief descriptions and links to reviews).

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher
After BP’s Macondo well blew out on 20 April 2010, company experts, government scientists and a “brain trust” of physicists assembled by US Energy Secretary Steve Chu spent months desperately trying to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Joel Achenbach’s book about the disaster is a fast-paced and even-handed account of how things went wrong and who did what to fix them.

The Science Magpie: A Hoard of Fascinating Facts
Books of science trivia are a dime a dozen here at Physics World‘s reviews desk. Really good books of science trivia aren’t nearly as common. Simon Flynn’s grab-bag of stories from all branches of science exudes enthusiasm, breathing fresh life into a venerable format.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
In its heyday Bell Labs produced some of the most important and ubiquitous inventions of the modern era, from transistors and gas lasers to CCDs and wireless networks. Jon Gertner’s history of this “idea factory” describes what made Bell Labs special, and why none of today’s technological giants has replicated its success.

Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution
Acclaimed science writer John Gribbin has written about Schrödinger’s physics several times before, beginning in 1984 with In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. Now Gribbin is back with a biography of the man himself, skilfully combining Schrödinger’s scientific contributions with the quantum pioneer’s often complicated personal life and his legacy for both physicists and biologists.

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters
In this polemical book, science journalist Mark Henderson argues passionately that science and critical thinking should be at the heart of public life, and he urges readers not to wait for someone else to make it happen. His book offers plenty of concrete suggestions on ways that so-called geeks can make their views count.

Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos
Biophysics has mostly been left out of the boom in popular-physics writing, so we’re pleased to have Peter Hoffmann’s clearly written book about molecular motors and other nanoscale structures on our shortlist this year. Though not an easy read (particularly for physicists who haven’t studied biology since their schooldays), it does a very good job of capturing the excitement driving current research on this increasingly important topic.

How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture and the Quantum Revival
Quantum physics has always included some pretty trippy ideas, but its mind-blowing tendencies really came to the fore in the 1970s, thanks to a loose-knit group of physicists with a passion for Bell’s inequality and (in some cases) a penchant for psychedelic drugs. David Kaiser’s fascinating history of this unlikely bunch of insider-outsiders explains how they helped revive interest in the foundations of quantum mechanics.

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog
Chad Orzel’s first book, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, made it to No 2 on our list of 2010′s best physics books, thanks to its mixture of solid physics and gentle doggy humour. So it’s no surprise that its sequel has bounded into this year’s shortlist, ears cocked and positively slobbering with excitement at the prospect of a walk through Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity.

Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics and the 300-Year Journey to the Black–Scholes Equation
In the wake of the financial crisis, physicists on Wall Street have been harshly criticized, with no less an authority than Warren Buffet inveighing against “geeks bearing gifts” and the “financial weapons of mass destruction” they created. But how did physicists get into the financial industry in the first place? George Szpiro’s book brings the colourful history of econophysics to life.

Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything
Margaret Wertheim’s sociological study of physics crackpots is one of the year’s most thought-provoking books. Well argued and suffused with dry wit, this book asks important questions about what constitutes science and who gets to participate in it.

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Prize-worthy books, part 1

By Margaret Harris

Last night’s awards ceremony for the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books highlighted the diversity of modern science writing, with six very different books competing for the prestigious £10,000 award.

Two of the shortlisted authors, James Gleick and Brian Greene, are well known in the physics community thanks to their earlier bestsellers on (respectively) chaos theory and string theory. However, they were not the only heavyweights competing, with Gleick’s book The Information and Greene’s The Hidden Reality up against Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein; Lone Frank’s My Beautiful Genome; Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature; and Nathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm. For those of you keeping track, that’s one book about information theory; one about multiple universes; one about the science of memory; one about genomics; one on the psychology of conflict; and one on emerging infectious diseases. Whew!

The ceremony’s host, comedian Ben Miller, began by riffing on some of the year’s big scientific events, including the summer’s (probable) discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN and the recent (rumoured) discovery of methane on Mars. The biggest laugh of the evening came later, though, when Miller was interviewing Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of five judges for the award. After Miller complained that studying science at school hadn’t offered him much in the way of “social lubrication”, Bell Burnell’s response was a deadpan, “Try being a female physicist!”

The bulk of the evening, however, belonged to the shortlisted authors themselves. After reading brief passages from their books, five of the authors (Wolfe was unable to attend) joined Miller onstage for a panel discussion, fielding questions about their books and the role of science communication. For me, this was a highlight of the evening; aside from The Hidden Reality, which was on Physics World‘s list of the “best physics books of 2011″, I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted books, so it was great to learn a little more about each of them.

In his speech announcing the prize, Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse hailed the recent “renaissance” in science writing, adding that the shortlisted books were “all great contributions to that tradition”. But there could only be one winner – and it was James Gleick’s The Information, which the judges praised as an “audacious book” offering “remarkable insight” into how information is used, transmitted and stored. Gleick seemed genuinely surprised, thanking “all the very smart people who have helped me over the years” before being bundled into a live TV interview with Channel Four News.


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Academics and the other 96%

Climbing the academic pyramid

By Margaret Harris

Like most physics students, I initially thought that getting a PhD would lead me to a career in academia. But also like most physics students, that isn’t how it worked out. In fact, data collected by the Royal Society in 2010 show that more than 96% of PhD-qualified scientists pursue careers outside academic research, with most finding work in the wider, non-research economy, while a significant minority are employed in government labs or industrial R&D.

The implications of that 96% figure – including how it affects the prospects and plans of early-career researchers; what it says about advice and training for PhD students; and its likely effects on science as a whole – are the subject of an in-depth article in this month’s Physics World graduate careers focus. You can also download an entire special section on graduate careers (including more than 10 pages of adverts for jobs both inside and outside the university environment).

As I learned while researching the article, the real problem with that 96% figure is that it conflicts so sharply with another statistic: 46% of new physics PhD students want to work in a university. Put those two numbers together, and they add up to a lot of disappointed and frustrated early-career physicists. And let’s be absolutely clear: these are not, by and large, people who “couldn’t cut it” in a research environment; it’s just that, statistically, not everyone can climb to the top of the academic pyramid.

Opinions are, naturally, divided over what (if anything) should be done about the apparent oversupply of PhD physicists relative to the number of long-term jobs in academic physics. If you have suggestions or if you want to share your experiences, please do so via the article’s comments area.

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Supporting the careers of physics postdocs

By Margaret Harris

If you want to pursue a career in physics, it might help if you like to move around. Last week’s Facebook poll asked what steps you had taken in order to pursue your career in physics, and the most popular responses – by, ahem, a country mile – involved moving to a new location. A lot of those moves involved significant distances, too, with 38% of the 110 poll respondents having moved more than 500 miles at least once in their career, while 13% had moved a shorter distance.

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The most popular non-geographic change, according to the poll, was switching to a different field of research: 19% of respondents had done this. Changing sectors – the example given was moving from academia to industry – was much less popular among poll respondents, with only a handful (5%) having made this type of move.

Respondents who picked the last two options in the poll – “two of the above” and “three or more of the above” – are harder to categorize because there is obviously going to be some overlap. Nevertheless, the 8% of respondents who picked “three or more” must have moved locations, too, and it seems likely that at least some of the 16% who selected “two of the above” will have done so as well. The total figure, then, is around two-thirds, give or take a few per cent.

In retrospect, I wish I had included a “none of the above” option in the poll. I suspect there aren’t many professional physicists out there who have stayed in one location, field and sector for their entire careers, but you never know. If you are one of them, please accept my apologies for not giving you the option of saying so.

This week’s poll is a bit more abstract, and like the poll we presented two weeks ago about choosing a postdoctoral position, it focuses on early-career researchers.

Which of the following actions would be most helpful to physics postdocs?

Better advice on career options outside academia
More training in transferrable skills
Longer-term contracts (e.g. three years rather than one)
Creating more mid-level “permanent postdoc” jobs
Improved support for postdocs with spouses and families

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response or give us more suggestions by posting a comment below the poll or by e-mailing us at

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What happens when novelists turn to physics for inspiration

By Margaret Harris

 Physics in fiction podcast

From science-fiction epics such as H G Wells’ The Time Machine to Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, physics has long been a rich source of themes and characters for fiction writers.

In our latest books podcast, we discuss four recent additions to the “physics in fiction” genre, including works of historical fiction about Newton and Kepler, a thriller about the world of mathematical finance and a novel about the creation of the universe.

Find out how they measure up by listening to the podcast here or downloading it via this link.

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What steps have you taken to pursue your career in physics?

By Margaret Harris
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In last week’s Facebook poll, we asked for your views on the most important criterion for choosing a postdoc position. The results weren’t quite what I had expected. While it makes sense that “institutional resources” came out on top – you can’t do much experimental physics without lab space and equipment, and theory is certainly easier if you’ve got a good bunch of colleagues – I was surprised by how much it outpaced the other poll options. A whopping 65% of voters rated “institutional resources” as the most important factor, with “prestige” of the supervisor and institution coming a distant second and third at 17% and 13%, respectively.

But the thing that really puzzled me was the low emphasis placed on “location”, which picked up a measly 5% (three votes out of 63). Are physicists really not that fussy about where they go to do postdoctoral research?

To find out, I’ve constructed this week’s Facebook poll so that it focuses on mobility – both geographic and intellectual.

What steps have you taken to pursue your career in physics?

Moved to a new location (less than 500 miles away)
Moved to a new location (more than 500 miles away)
Changed my field of research or expertise
Switched to a different sector (e.g. from academia to industry)
Two of the above
Three or more of the above

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response or give us more suggestions by posting a comment below the poll or by e-mailing us at

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Sláinte to science


By Margaret Harris

I didn’t make it over to Ireland in mid-July for the big 2012 European Science Open Forum (ESOF) conference/science party in Dublin, so I was pleased to see one of ESOF’s more unusual offshoots land in my in-tray this week.

2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines is a lightweight little book with some hefty thinking inside it. As the title implies, the book contains 20 short poems about science – each written by a different poet from the island that gave the world such scientific luminaries as John Bell, William Rowan Hamilton and George Stokes. The poems’ subject matter ranges from the cosmic to the whimsical to the mundane, and two of the entries are composed of six lines in Irish Gaelic paired with six-line English translations. One that I particularly like (even though – or perhaps because – my pronunciation skills aren’t up to speaking it in the original) is called “Manannán”, and author Gabriel Rosenstock has provided the following translation:

Ladies and gentlemen
Allow me to introduce Manannán:
A microchip which is planted in the brain
Enabling us
To speak Manx

The book has been edited by Iggy McGovern, a physicist at Trinity College Dublin, so naturally, physics features in a number of the poems. One of the most inventive of these is Maurice Riordan’s “Nugget”, which is about – yes, really – the gold-covered lump of plutonium that Los Alamos scientists occasionally used as a doorstop during the Manhattan Project. Two others try to capture the sense of wonder found in gazing up at the night sky (with or without a telescope). All in all, it’s a lovely little book for anyone interested in Ireland, poetry or science – or better yet, all three.

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The nomadic life of a particle physicist

Fermilab podcast

By Margaret Harris

When I heard that Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator was going to be shut down, my first thought wasn’t about the race to discover the Higgs boson, or the shutdown’s implications for CERN and the rival Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Instead, it was “What will happen to the scientists?”.

One of the great things about being a science journalist is that, once in a while, you get the chance to find answers to questions like this. So when Physics World sent me to Fermilab last autumn to learn more about the lab’s scientific plans for a post-Tevatron future, I added a few personal questions to my interviews, such as “What are you going to do now?” and “What was the day of the shutdown like?”.

You can hear a few of the answers in this podcast, which is drawn from more than nine hours of interviews with 25 different physicists. Most of the interviews were conducted at Fermilab, but I also did a few at CERN, because I wanted to hear from people who had followed the “energy frontier” as it moved from the Tevatron to the LHC. As one of these emigrants explained to me, being a particle physicist is sometimes a little like being a surf bum: “you go where the waves are good, where the beam is good”.

You can listen to the podcast here, or download it via this link.

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Double gongs for discoverers of Kuiper belt

By Margaret Harris

It’s been a good week for the astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu.

On Tuesday, the pair – whose discovery of the Kuiper belt of small, icy objects back in 1992 quickly reshaped our understanding of the outer solar system – learned that they had won this year’s Shaw Prize in Astronomy. This is a pretty big deal. The nine-year-old Shaw prizes are a relatively new kid on the scientific-awards block, but the astronomy prize already has a prestigious track record: previous winners include both last year’s dark-energy Nobel laureates (Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt) and the exoplanet pioneers Geoff Marcy and Michael Mayor. Oh yes, and each Shaw prize is also worth a cool $1m, which is a fair whack even in this age of inflation and economic uncertainty.

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But Jewitt and Luu’s week wasn’t over yet. Earlier today, Norway’s Kavli Foundation announced that Jewitt and Luu had also won its big astro gong: the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. They’ll share this honour – and its attendant $1m prize pot – with a third astronomer, Michael Brown, who followed up on Jewitt and Luu’s Kuiper-belt observations by discovering some of the region’s largest objects, including the Pluto-sized body known as Eris.

So what happens when you win two major science prizes in a week? I contacted Jewitt and Luu shortly after the prizes were announced, and although neither had much time to talk – “I am not being snooty, it’s just that all the deadlines are converging right now,” Luu explained in an e-mail – Jewitt said it was “very flattering” that two independent prize committees had come to the same decision about their work. Their long and ultimately successful search for objects beyond Neptune’s orbit had, he added, triggered an “explosion” of research into planet formation and the evolution of the outer solar system. For example, subsequent studies of the Kuiper belt have shown that it is the source of most of the comets that pass the Earth, since the proximity of Neptune’s gravitational well alters the trajectory of nearby objects and scatters them into the inner solar system.

As for what the pair plan to do with the prize money, Luu – who began her award-winning work as a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now a technical member of staff at the institute’s Lincoln Laboratory – said that was a tough question, and winning a second prize made it even tougher. However, she added that “it is a good problem to have, so I am certainly not complaining”.

Jewitt, who was Luu’s PhD advisor and is now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, took a slightly more direct view. “Like many people, I’m massively in debt,” he told “The prize[s] might help there, but I haven’t decided yet.”

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Metallurgy and the Armada

By Margaret Harris

One quirk of working for Physics World is that most staff members are assigned a British newspaper to skim each day in search of science news. The exact rationale determining which of us gets what paper is not entirely clear, but for whatever reason, I have ended up with that venerable mouthpiece of British conservatism, the Daily Telegraph.

As a result of this arrangement, I have become a connoisseur (if that’s not too flippant a word) of the Telegraph‘s obituaries page. My favourites are the obituaries of eccentric aristocrats straight out of P G Wodehouse, but the Telegraph‘s writers also have a nice line in honouring little-known heroes of World War II – and every now and then, I come across an obituary with a connection to physics.

Take yesterday’s entry on Sydney Wignall, an adventurer and marine archaeologist who died on 6 April at the age of 89. Wignall was best known for leading a 1955 expedition to the Tibetan Himalayas that ended with his capture and torture by Chinese troops, who suspected him (accurately, as it turned out) of being a spy. Later in life, however, he was instrumental in excavating two wrecked ships from the ill-fated Spanish Armada. In the course of this project, Wignall discovered that an inadequate understanding of materials science probably contributed to the Armada’s defeat.

To understand how, you first need to appreciate that when the Armada sailed in 1588, marine gunnery was still in its infancy. In fact, a proper science of ballistics would not appear until 150 years later, when a British military engineer, Benjamin Robins, began a systematic study of cannon-ball trajectories using Newtonian mechanics. To make matters worse, the stone, lead and iron shot available to 16th century gunners were anything but uniform. This non-uniformity meant that a cannon loaded in the same way, with the same amount of gunpowder (another notoriously non-uniform quantity), by the same people, elevated to the same angle and fired at the same point in the ship’s rolling motion would almost certainly not deliver its deadly package to the same place.

Wignall’s contribution was to show that Spanish gunners faced an extra difficulty. By performing X-ray analyses on shot brought up from wrecks on the sea floor, Wignall’s team was able to demonstrate that Spanish craftsmen had routinely poured cold water into the moulds after the shot was cast. This sped up the manufacturing process, but it also caused the outer layers of the shot to contract and become brittle. In addition, the archaeologists found that some of the Spanish 7-inch-diameter iron shot was partly composed of recycled 3-inch shot. These smaller metal spheres would melt only imperfectly during casting, which meant that the final product had a very non-uniform density and was unstable in flight.

It is probably for historians, not physicists or materials scientists, to determine how much this poorly made Spanish shot contributed to the Armada’s defeat. But it is pretty clear that it would have been, as a minimum, a source of immense frustration for the Spanish gun crews, who repeatedly watched their perfectly aimed shots veer away from their targets for no apparent reason – all for the want of better metallurgy.

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