Posts by: Margaret Harris

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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The valley of death

By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting in Baltimore

small black blast gauge held in a man's palm

The blast gauge developed at DARPA, held by Robert Colwell.

In industry, the gap between making a scientific discovery and turning it into a practical product is often termed the “valley of death”.  Many an idea that seemed promising in the laboratory has failed to become a real application for want of funding, industrial know-how or, usually, some combination of the two.

The Industrial Physics thread of this year’s APS March Meeting – which my colleague Louise Mayor and I are attending this week on behalf of Physics World – includes a number of talks about the “valley of death” problem, and the one that kicked off yesterday’s session really brought home the importance of addressing it.  The speaker, Robert Colwell, directs the Microsystems Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Better known by its acronym – DARPA – the agency is part of the US Department of Defense, and one of the products that physicists in Colwell’s office have developed is a “blast gauge” for soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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The Finkbeiner test

By Margaret Harris

Here’s a little game for you to play the next time you read a profile of a woman in science. As you read the article, count the number of times it mentions:

The fact that she is a woman
Her husband’s job
Her childcare arrangements
How she acts as a “nurturing figure” towards junior scientists
How she was taken aback by the competitiveness of her field
That she’s a “role model” for other women
How she’s the “first woman to…”

If the article’s total score is anything other than zero, then it fails the Finkbeiner test.


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Of physics and famine

The Harvesters
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Harvesters (1565) shows a scene of plenty, but
people like the peasants depicted in it would have been all too familiar with famine.
(Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By Margaret Harris

Physics and medieval history don’t overlap that often. I should know: I got an undergraduate minor in medieval and renaissance studies in part because I wanted a break from doing physics. So the fact that this arXiv paper and this documentary have both come out in the past 10 days is about as unusual as – well, finding a medieval king buried in a car park.

Fascinating as the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton is, though, I’m going to write instead about the arXiv paper, which proposes something even more remarkable: a possible link between space weather and episodes of famine in late medieval Europe.


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Quiz of the year 2012 goes interactive

By Margaret Harris

A quiz of the year’s events has been a regular feature of Physics World‘s print edition since 2004, and in some years we’ve posted it on as well. This year, however, we’re doing something different. For the first time, we’ve created a fully interactive version of the quiz, dragging it kicking and screaming into the Web 2.0 era.

The 2012 quiz can be found here and you’ll be able to check your score once you’ve gone through all of the 24 questions. Each question is based on an event or story that Physics World magazine has reported on this year, although it’s fair to say that some stories (such as the probable discovery of the Higgs boson) got more publicity than others (such as the version of Monopoly based on the life of a certain UK scientist).

Sadly, there is no prize except the “bragging rights” of getting a higher score than your friends and colleagues, but we hope you enjoy taking part.

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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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