Posts by: Susan Curtis

Marking time on precision engineering

Adventures in science: the Magna centre in Rotherham, UK

Adventures in science: the Magna centre in Rotherham, UK.

By Susan Curtis

At a time when the UK steel industry is close to meltdown, it felt quite humbling to be standing inside a disused steelworks on the outskirts of Rotherham. In its heyday in the 1970s the colossal plant employed 3000 people and housed six electric arc furnaces that set new records for steel production. Since closing in 1993, the facility has forged a new identity as the Magna Science Adventure Centre, which offers visitors an insight into the steel-making process and its heritage in the area around Sheffield.

Recently, I was at Magna for the annual TRAM conference, which showcases the latest technology advances in the aerospace industry. Organized by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), one of the UK’s Catapult centres based at the University of Sheffield and supported by Boeing, TRAM highlights how aircraft makers and their suppliers are improving materials and manufacturing processes to reduce cost and enhance performance. But among the talk of powder metallurgy, high-performance machining and the factories of the future, a presentation by Nick English from the UK-based watchmaker Bremont highlighted manufacturing innovation at a much smaller scale.


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

Flying high in Baltimore


By Susan Curtis in Baltimore, US

After two days of getting to grips with biophysics – see here and here for my experiences –  I was ready for a change of scene. And a visit to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), co-located with the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore but operated on behalf of NASA, was just what I needed.

The STScI is home to many of the scientists and engineers who made the Hubble Space Telescope possible, and who have been working for many years to design the optics and instrumentation for its successor – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to be launched in 2018. The institute also runs the science operations for Hubble and soon will for the JWST, providing software tools for astronomers to make their observations and processing the raw data acquired by the onboard instruments to make it ready for scientific analysis.


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

Big data offers biomedical insights

A molecular dynamics simulation of the p53 protein shows stictic acid fitted into the protein’s reactivation pocket

Suits you. This simulation of the p53 protein shows stictic acid fitted into the protein’s “reactivation pocket”. (Courtesy: Özlem Demir)

By Susan Curtis in Baltimore, US

At the 59th annual meeting of the Biophysical Society today, Rommie Amaro of the University of California, San Diego, highlighted the power of computational methods to speed up the discovery of new drugs to treat diseases as diverse as flu and cancer. Amaro focused on a recent project conducted while she was at the University of California, Irvine, to identify compounds that could play a vital role in future anti-cancer drugs by helping to reactive a molecule called p53 that is known to inhibit the formation of cancer cells.


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

Physics meets biology in Baltimore

Photo of T-shirt from Biophysics Society meeting in Baltimore, US, Feb 2015

Biophysics in Baltimore: the T-shirt that does what it says on the tin.

By Susan Curtis in Baltimore, US

I’m in Baltimore this week for the 59th annual meeting of the Biophysical Society. The field of biophysics has grown rapidly in recent years as physics-based techniques have opened up new ways to study and understand biological processes, but with my limited knowledge of biology I was nervous that I would feel a little out of my depth.

The first talk of the “New and Notable” symposium helped to allay my fears. Michelle Wang is a physicist at Cornell University in the US who exploits optical techniques to trap and manipulate biomolecules. While established methods can only trap a single biomolecule at a time, Wang and her colleagues have pioneered the use of nanophotonic structures that can trap multiple biomolecules in a standing wave created within an optical waveguide.

“Our optical-trapping innovation reduces bench-top optics to a small device on a chip,” Wang told when the team first reported their so-called nanophotonic standing-wave array trap last year. Since then, Wang and her colleagues have been working to integrate fluorescent markers with the nanophotonic trap to track the position of individual biomolecules, and have also been experimenting with optical waveguide materials other than silicon to improve performance and enable new applications.


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

Physics road trip through the north-east of Brazil

The new IIP building in Natal

Susan Curtis (left), Sarah Andrieu (centre) and Alvaro Ferraz admire the new IIP building in Natal.

By Susan Curtis

This week, several of us from IOP Publishing have been visiting the north-east of Brazil. Our prime focus has been the annual meeting of the Brazilian Materials Research Society in João Pessoa, where we launched a new Science Impact report highlighting materials research in Brazil. But during the week I travelled to Natal with my colleague Sarah Andrieu to visit Alvaro Ferraz, director of the International Institute of Physics (IIP).


Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Postcard from Campinas – the site of Brazil’s future synchrotron

Artist's impression of Brazil's Sirius synchrotron source.

Artist’s impression of Brazil’s Sirius synchrotron source. (Courtesy: LNLS)

By Susan Curtis in Campinas, Brazil

For the first time this week I woke to a brilliant blue sky, and below my hotel room I could see young Brazilians enjoying a quick game of football in the relative cool of the morning. Away from the traffic jams and unseasonably wet weather of the past few days, this seemed much more like the image of Brazil that’s projected to the outside world.

Today I was in Campinas, the third largest city in the state of São Paulo, some 100 km north-east of São Paulo itself. On the outskirts of the city is the National Center for Energy and Materials (CNPEM), home to Brazil’s synchrotron source as well as three national laboratories for nanotechnology, biosciences and ethanol production – which is a big deal for Brazil, since it offers a way to produce fuel from its abundant sugar cane.


Posted in Brazil visit 2013 | Tagged , | 1 Comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Postcard from São Carlos – a hub for Brazilian science

Traffic jams in São Paulo

In search of calmness – stuck in traffic in São Paulo.

By Susan Curtis in São Carlos

Sitting in one of São Paulo’s famous traffic jams as part of the Physics World fact-finding mission, we slowly turned into a road named after Order e Progresso (Order and Progress), the motto that forms a key element of the Brazilian national flag. I couldn’t help smiling, because there wasn’t much order on the roads, and precious little progress either.

The crazy traffic in Brazil’s largest city is just one reason why many physicists prefer to be stationed in the University of São Paulo (USP)’s science and engineering campus in São Carlos, some 200 km north-east of the mega-city.


Posted in Brazil visit 2013 | Tagged | 1 Comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

When East meets West


Centennial Hall in Wrocław, where the meeting took place

By Susan Curtis

I was recently in the Polish city of Wrocław to attend the second Asian-European Physics Summit (ASEPS), where one message emerged loud and clear – scientists from West and East need to collaborate with each other more.

The summit brought together representatives of the European Physical Society with those from the Association of Asian Physical Societies. The latter is an umbrella organization that represents the physical societies of countries such as Japan, China, Korea, Australia and India.

Physicists at the meeting argued that working together is the best way to push the boundaries of scientific discovery, while policy-makers recognized that the drive for ever-more-sophisticated research facilities can only be realized by combining global resources.

There was good news in Wrocław from speakers from Japan, Korea and China, who reported that science funding is increasing across Asia. While Japan already has a reputation for research excellence, China and Korea are making big investments in basic research in a bid to move up the value chain from product supply to a knowledge-based economy. They are keen to work with European research centres to speed up that transition, and to learn from Europe’s approach to developing a structured and collaborative research infrastructure.

A good example of how that’s happening in practice is Korea’s activity in fusion research. Having established its capability with the KSTAR research tokamak, Korea has become a key member of the ITER consortium, which is building a proof-of-concept fusion reactor in the south of France. Korea plans to exploit the experience gained at ITER to build a commercial nuclear-fusion facility sometime between 2022 and 2036.

But collaborations like that are few and far between. Asian scientists have traditionally viewed the US as the best place to develop a physics career, so much so that Asia is suffering a brain drain as talented scientists relocate for better pay and research opportunities. And while some Asian scientists come to Europe to work on particular projects, very few European researchers spend significant time in Asia.

In January 2009 the EU set up a project called KORANET to investigate the reasons why. One obvious problem is the eight- or nine-hour time gap, combined with the cultural and linguistic differences that make it hard for Asian scientists to live and work Europe, and for Europeans to move to Asia. More practical problems also discourage mobility, such as finding suitable accommodation and ensuring continuity of pensions provision and healthcare insurance.

One idea suggested by KORANET is for European research organizations to set up “branches” in Asia. A particularly successful initiative has been the Sino-German Center for Research Promotion, a joint venture formed 10 years ago to co-ordinate and encourage collaborative activities between China and Germany. The Max Planck Society has also established 24 partner groups in China, which allows Chinese students and postdocs to gain research experience in Europe before returning to work in well funded, well equipped Chinese facilities.

For their part, delegates at the ASEPS event said that more exchange opportunities should be developed for small research programmes as well as for large projects, and that a network of local contact points should be set up to help scientists who are working in an unfamiliar part of the world.

To encourage student mobility – which will be crucial for future collaboration – delegates were keen to ensure mutual recognition of degrees, and suggested a joint summer school to address some of the key challenges facing young physicists, such as the need for sustainable energy technologies.

A small working group will take these ideas forward so that real progress can be reported at the next ASEPS meeting, which is due to take place in Asia at some point over the next two years.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our Physics World special report on China, which can be read via this link.

Posted in General | Leave a comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Fukushima tops nuclear bill in Dallas

By Susan Curtis at the APS March Meeting in Dallas

Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister from 1956 to 1963, once famously said that the biggest challenge facing politicians was “Events, dear boy, events”. Little did the American Physical Society (APS) know that those same words would apply to session H5, entitled “Drowning in carbon: the imperative of nuclear power”, when it was conceived some nine months ago.

Unsurprisingly, the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan reverberated through the entire session. Most telling was that Toshikazu Suzuki of Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, who had been due to speak on the country’s nuclear programme, was unable to attend because of his responsibilities in Japan.

Other speakers and commentators focused on the partial meltdown at Fukushima, as well as the impact that such a serious incident will have on nuclear-power programmes in other parts of the world. Ray Orbach, former under-secretary for science at the US Department of Energy and now director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, had originally planned to talk about the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, but instead gave a detailed commentary on the damage sustained by the Fukushima reactor and lessons for similar reactors in other parts of the world.

According to Orbach, the reactor shut down safely immediately after the earthquake, but it was the subsequent tsunami that caused the emergency power generators to fail – and with them the water-based cooling system used to store spent nuclear fuel rods. But he questioned why it took more than two days for the reactor’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to start injecting seawater into the core to stop the fuel rods from overheating.

“Why did they wait so long?” he asked. “Well of course you ruin the reactor when you do it. It’s also a question of the power company not wanting to admit that all else has failed.”

TEPCO was also criticized for keeping a large inventory of spent fuel rods in cooling ponds on the reactor site. Fuel rods are normally water-cooled for a number of years before being transferred to dry concrete casks for off-site storage, but at Fukushima the number of spent fuel rods in the cooling ponds had accumulated because of delays in building an off-site reprocessing facility.

Despite these issues, Orbach offered some technical solutions to improve safety at similar reactors in other parts of the world. Top of the list is to introduce passive cooling for spent fuel storage ponds, which would be unaffected by any disruption to the power supply.

That theme was picked up by Robert Rosner of the University of Chicago, who was also director of the Argonne National Laboratory from 2005 to 2009. Rosner argued that the US has reached a pivotal time in its use of nuclear energy. There are currently 104 nuclear power plants operating in the US, but there have been no new starts since 1977 – largely because of public concern over safety.

“We need to choose whether to only focus on regulation – or even stop nuclear altogether – or to spend some money to identify and fix the safety problems,” he told the meeting. With US funding for energy research falling, and an even more suspicious public in the wake of Fukushima, could it be that the balance is tipping away from nuclear – at least in the US?

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

Message from the Physical Society of Japan

By Susan Curtis at the APS March Meting in Dallas, Texas

It was good to see representatives from the Physical Society of Japan at the APS March Meeting. Keizo Murata of Osaka City University, who is also editor of the Journal of the Physical Society of Japan (JPSJ), wanted us to pass this message on to anyone in the physics community who wishes to make a donation to the relief efforts following the earthquake and tsunami:

“We, the Physical Society of Japan and the JPSJ, deeply appreciate the encouragement we have received from our colleagues all over the world.

“We welcome your donations to the relief and recovery from Japan’s disaster in March 2011. To help this, as well as to avoid any problems with currency exchange, we recommend that you make your donations via authorized organizations in your own country, such as the American Red Cross.

“However, to share your warm sympathy with the worldwide physics community, we would like to recognize your donation. This will be sure to encourage members of the Physical Society of Japan and people around us.

“To achieve this:

1. Send an e-mail to with the subject: “donation Japan disaster” and your name.

2. In the e-mail please note in this order:

• Your name
• Your email address
• Your institution/affiliation
• Your country
• Value of donation (optional)
• The organization that took your donation
• Date of donation
• Any message (optional)
• Permission to use your message with your name on our site (yes/no)

3. If you should make further donations, please send another e-mail to but include “your name (nth time)” in the email.

“Thank you for your kind co-operation,

The Physical Society of Japan
The Journal of the Physical Society of Japan

Murata also told us that JPSJ is still offering online services as normal, although some publications may be rescheduled.

Posted in APS March Meeting 2011 | Leave a comment | Permalink
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile