Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

Science, scepticism and fear at the theatre

Olivia Williams (left) and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood

Sceptical siblings: Olivia Williams (left) and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood. (Courtesy: National Theatre/Brinkhoff & Mogenburg)

By Tushna Commissariat

Working at Physics World for the last six years has taken me to some pretty cool labs – everywhere from CERN to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). My job has allowed me to meet some quite famous people too…at least in the world of physics, that is. But getting to spend a morning at the National Theatre in London watching Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams rehearse for a play is not usual even for me. That is precisely why I jumped at the chance, when I found out that the pair star as sisters in the recently opened play Mosquitoes.

You may be wondering what a play with that moniker has to do with physics. Mosquitoes tells the story of rational and lucid Alice (played by Williams), a particle physicist at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and her often-illogical sister Jenny (played by Colman) “who spends a lot of time Googling” and is easily swayed by the bad science she chances upon. Written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Rufus Norris – the National Theatre’s current artistic director, the play follows the siblings through a family tragedy, as well as the fairly disastrous switching on of the LHC in 2008, and takes a hard look at our relationships with science, facts, belief and so much more. Kirkwood, whose previous successes include Chimerica and The Children, was commissioned to write the play by the Manhattan Theatre Club as part of its Alfred P Sloan Foundation initiative, which aims to “stimulate artists to create credible and compelling work exploring the worlds of science and technology and to challenge the existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination”.

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Physics World visits LIGO Livingston

(Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Wave sign: the secluded road that leads to LIGO Livingston. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

 

By Tushna Commissariat and Sarah Tesh at LIGO Livingston, Louisiana, US

Being a journalist can be a busy and often stressful job, especially as deadlines loom fast and furious. But one of the best perks of the job is the chance to meet some amazing people and visit some of the best scientific facilities in the world. As most regualr readers of Physics World will know, we – Sarah and Tushna – have been in New Orleans, Lousiana for the APS March Meeting 2017. And it just so happens that about a two-hour drive away from New Orleans lies one half of one of the most advanced experiments in the world – the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) at Livingston.

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Google’s ‘supreme’ 20-qubit quantum computer

John Martinis (right) and some of his team.

Quantum cohort: John Martinis (right) and some of his team.
(Courtesy: Matt Perko)

By Tushna Commissariat in New Orleans, Louisiana, US

“We should have a 20-qubit chip ready very soon… in the next two months most likely,” says Google’s John Martinis to me as we lean against a wall in a relatively quiet corner of the sprawling convention centre in New Orleans. Martinis, a tall man with a mop of silver hair and an Alan Alda-esque manner, is very busy and I’m lucky to have caught him. Earlier that day, he gave one of the APS March Meeting‘s most popular talks on “quantum supremacy: checking a quantum computer with a classical supercomputer”. Martinis, whose team is based at the University of California Santa Barbara, spoke about how they are working towards developing a “scientifically and commercially useful quantum computer” made up of 50 qubits – a 7 by 7 array of superconducting qubits (each of which is coupled to its nearest neighbour) that can be programmed with a one or two-qubit gate – which has an error rate of about 0.1% and can actually do quantum computations.

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Holiday word challenge

rev-astronomy-poty-coverTo keep your brain cells active over the festive period, we have put together a word puzzle based wholly on articles published in Physics World this year. We have two copies of Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Collection 5 to give away as prizes. Download a PDF of the puzzle here.

For the fifth year in a row, the Royal Observatory Greenwich has produced a beautiful hardback book showcasing the winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. This year, its publisher Collins Astronomy has kindly offered us two copies to give away to readers. You just need to complete the festive puzzle in this PDF to be in with a chance of winning. Terms and conditions apply.

See “Galaxies and auroras and planets, oh my!” for our review of Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Collection 5 and a sneak preview of the photos.

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Physics World‘s shortlist for Book of the Year 2016

pw-top-book-of-the-year-rgbBy Margaret Harris and Tushna Commissariat

The year 2016 has not covered itself in glory. Divisive elections, various natural and human-made disasters and a depressingly long obituary roll of well-loved celebrities mean that for many residents of planet Earth, this solar orbit has been one to forget.

But if, for a moment, we concentrate solely on the year in physics, the picture looks brighter. In particular, it’s been another strong year for popular-physics writing, and over the past few weeks, we have been determining which of the 57 books reviewed in Physics World in 2016 deserve to be on our list of the year’s best.

The books that appear on the shortlist below are all well written, novel and scientifically interesting to physicists – the criteria we’ve followed since 2009, when The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo’s landmark biography of Paul Dirac, became our first “Book of the Year”.  A couple of biographies appear on our 2016 shortlist, too, but they face stiff competition from books on big science, stringy science, loopy science, spooky science, jazzy science and more. There’s even a book of science infographics in the running – a first for a competition that is, naturally, dominated by words rather than images.

We’ll announce the winner of our “Book of the Year” award in the Physics World podcast in mid-December, but in the meantime, take a look at the shortlist. We think it’s proof, if you needed any, that the year 2016 had some redeeming features after all.

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The facts and figures of peer review

infographic-thumbnail

Counting up: peer review by numbers – click to expand. (Courtesy: IOP Publishing)

By Tushna Commissariat

I mentioned yesterday that it was the start of “Peer Review Week”, which this year takes “recognition for review” as its theme. Physics World is published by IOP Publishing, which makes us a “society publisher” as we’re wholly owned by the Institute of Physics – a charity. IOP Publishing is also a relatively small operation compared with other large commercial publishers, but we still pack a punch, publishing more than 70 journals.

If you’ve ever wondered just how big a deal peer review is to the publishing sector, the infographic above (click on it to see the whole graphic) reveals some key figures such as the number of reviews completed last year at IOP Publishing, the average time taken to complete a review, as well as the reviewers’ geographical spread.

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Recognizing peer review and all those who referee

Recognised reviewers: Peer Review Week 2016

Recognized reviewers: Peer Review Week 2016

 

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, academic publishers all over the world are celebrating peer review and the vital role it plays in the scientific process. Indeed, this week is officially dubbed “Peer Review Week” and this yearly event aims to bring together “individuals, institutions and organizations committed to sharing the central message that good peer review, whatever shape or form it might take, is critical to scholarly communications”. This is the second time the event is being held, and this year’s theme is “recognition for review”.

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Award-winning ‘Bailys Beads’, schoolyard accelerators , pulsar poems and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Its officially that time of the year again when we can marvel at this year’s winners of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016. The awards ceremony, held at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, has unveiled some truly spectacular and ethereal shots of our universe. The overall winner this year is a truly amazing composite image of the 2016 total solar eclipse that shows the ‘Baily’s Beads’ phenomenon and was taken by photographer Yu Jun in Luwuk, Indonesia. In the video above, the judges explain why this particular image was the main winner for the year.

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Primal colours across the spectrum, impossible space engines

 

By Tushna Commissariat 

Physicists and artists have long been intrigued and drawn in by the various mysteries that light and its many colours offer. In the latest installation to be unveiled at the Natural History Museum in London, artist Liz West has unveiled her stunning new work dubbed Our Spectral Vision. The exhibit aims to delve into the long and complex history of the development of colour and vision “through the eyes of nature”. Our regular readers will recall the many physics papers that look into the same, from the structural colour of butterflies to the nanostructures in avian eggshells to the mantis shrimp’s visual superpowers. West’s exhibit deals with many of these topics and more including some fantastic “350 rarely seen specimens, from beautiful birds to fossils of the first organisms with eyes”. If you are based in the UK, do visit the exhibit and otherwise, take a look at the video above to see through West’s eyes.

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Cracking water drops caught on camera

(Courtesy: E Ghabache et al., Phys. Rev. Lett.)

(Courtesy: E Ghabache et al./Phys. Rev. Lett.)

By Tushna Commissariat

Drops of water normally tend to splash when they strike a surface. But what happens if they hit something very cold? It turns out they first freeze and then crack, forming intricate fracture patterns, one of which you can see in the image above.

It was taken using a high-speed camera by Christophe Josserand, Thomas Séon and colleagues at the Jean Le Rond d’Alembert Institute in France. They watched water solidifying as it dripped onto a stainless-steel surface cooled to various temperatures between 0 and −60 °C (Phys. Rev. Lett. 117 074501). Due to the contact between the drop and the surface, the water’s ability to freeze is limited and mechanical stress makes it fracture in a few milliseconds.

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