Category Archives: The Red Folder

The pin-up of particle physics, an octopus-inspired robot and Witten versus Horgan redux

 

By Hamish Johnston

One of my favourite radio programmes is The Life Scientific, in which the physicist Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their lives and work. Al-Khalili introduces this week’s guest as “the pin-up of particle physics”, whose remarkable career has taken him from playing keyboards in pop bands, to winning a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to do particle physics, to hosting one of the BBC’s most popular science programmes.

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A scientific pyramid scheme, symmetry through the ages, why physics students are “standing a little taller” and more

Pyramid power: this lovely pyramid has nothing to do with postdocs. It is model of a much larger  Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

Pyramid power: this lovely object has nothing to do with postdocs. It is a simpler version of a much larger Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

By Hamish Johnston

Just this week six people were convicted in Bristol of crimes related to running a pyramid scheme. This involves taking money from lots of new investors and giving it to a smaller number of investors who signed up earlier – until the pyramid collapses. Is the current model for training scientists a pyramid scheme of sorts? That is the claim in a piece on the US’s National Public Radio (NPR) website written by Richard Harris.

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The secret life of hairdryers, the crackpot conundrum and mesmerizing animations

By Hamish Johnston

Secret lives will be revealed at the Science Museum in London (Courtesy: Batholith)

Its secret life will be revealed at the Science Museum in London. (Courtesy: Batholith)

If you happen to be in London next Saturday (20 September), the Science Museum is running a workshop called “The field life of electronic objects”. Participants will measure the electromagnetic fields surrounding everyday objects such as hairdryers and hard drives “to produce astonishing light images of these objects’ secret life”. Space is limited, the cost is £10 and you can register online.

One thing that we really struggle with here at physicsworld.com is comments from crackpots. My colleagues and I put a lot of effort into writing and editing articles that we believe will be of general interest to the physics community. There is nothing more soul-destroying than spending hours trying to understand and then explain a tricky piece of research only to see the comments on your article hijacked by someone promoting their own bizarre theory.

The American Physical Society (APS) takes a brave and novel way of dealing with crackpots – it gives them their own sessions at APS conferences. In “The Crackpot Conundrum”, blogger Henry Brown describes the mood at such sessions as depressing, something that I understand based on a session that I sat through. Brown then reviews some of the various ways that physics bloggers deal with crackpots and in a moment of deep introspection suspects that he might be seen by some as a crackpot!

Finally, if you are winding down on a Friday afternoon, you can put yourself in a trance by watching these mesmerizing animations by the Irish physicist David Whyte.

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Food for Martian thought, proton role-playing in a video game and more

By Tushna Commissariat

With space agencies across the world planning manned missions to Mars in the coming decades, pondering what one would eat while on Mars seems like a sensible thing to do. SpaceX engineer Andrew Rader helps us out with this difficult question in the video above, sharing gems like “chickens can’t swallow in space.” In the video, titled “Cooking on Mars” Rader cooks and eats a seemingly unappetizing option – bugs and insects – and makes it clear that is the fare future astronauts will be partaking in.

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Radiation levels near Fukushima, trust in science and fun with correlations

Do divorcees eat more margarine? Or does the butter substitute break up marriages? (Courtesy: Tyler Vigen)

Do divorcees eat more margarine? Or does the butter substitute break up marriages? (Courtesy: Tyler Vigen)

By Hamish Johnston

This week’s Red Folder begins in Japan, where the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant continues to cause misery for the 100,000 or so local people who still cannot return to their homes. But who is to blame? Writing in World Nuclear News, Malcolm Grimston of Imperial College London argues that radiation levels in much of the current exclusion zone are no higher than natural levels in other parts of Japan – and much lower than natural levels in some other populated regions worldwide. Grimston concludes that “an overzealous infatuation with reducing radiation dose, far from minimizing human harm, is at the heart of the whole problem”. His article is called “What was deadly at Fukushima?”.

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Hello Kitty in space, Lord of the Rings physics homework and more

Image of Yi So-yeon

Yi on the day of her launch – 8 April 2008. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, South Korea’s one and only astronaut, 36-year-old Yi So-yeon, has quit her job, thereby signalling the end of the country’s manned space programme for the time being. In 2008 Yi became the first Korean to go into space, when for 11 days she travelled on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, after being chosen through the government-run Korean Astronaut Program. Yi cited personal reasons for quitting, but has been studying for an MBA in the US since 2012. You can read more about her work and reasons for leaving in articles from Australia Network News and abc News.

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Rise of the real transformers, a celestial farewell for your furry friend and more

A view of the robot in three stages

Ready, steady, go: a profile view of the “transformer” robot. (Courtesy: Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute)

By Tushna Commissariat and Michael Banks

While the latest Transformers film hit cinemas in the UK earlier this month, scientists in the US at Harvard University, along with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have developed the very first “real life” transformer: a robot that starts out flat, folds and assembles itself into a complex shape and can then crawl away – all without any human intervention. Indeed, these printed robots can self-fold themselves in about four minutes – a huge improvement on previous models that could take up to two hours. They can even turn and naviagte around, making them a handy and practical tool.

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Ice cream that changes colour, tag-team parenting and the ITER director-general hits back

Shades of pink: the Xamaleón ice cream in action. (Courtesy: IceXperience)

Shades of pink: the Xamaleón ice cream in action. (Courtesy: IceXperience)

By Hamish Johnston

It has been a cracker of a summer here in south-west England, with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the mid-twenties just about every day. Not surprisingly, I have been eating my fair share of ice cream, but unlike this concoction whipped up by a physicist-turned-chef in Spain, the stuff you get in Bristol does not change colour when you lick it!

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Life after a nuclear bomb, farewell to MetroCosm and the nerdiest thing ever

 

(Courtesy: David Ng)

Observed change in Tatooine surface temperature 100BBY – 10ABY. (Courtesy: David Ng)

By Hamish Johnston

What’s it like to have a nuclear bomb dropped on you? Okay, I know the question is a bit heavy for this light-hearted column but I was really inspired by this piece about Shinji Mikamo who was less than a mile from the epicentre of the Hiroshima bomb. He was 19 at the time and not surprisingly the bomb changed the course of his life in many ways. What I found most amazing is that Mikamo managed to survive an explosion so intense that it blasted off the glass and hands of his father’s pocket watch, but not before imprinting the time of the blast on the watch’s melted face. The article is called “When time stood still” and it appears on the BBC website.

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A theremin fit for a gerbil, hairdos for physicists and the trouble with Richard Feynman

Calling all musical gerbils: a new take on the Theremin (Courtesy: Paul Goddard)

Calling all musical gerbils: a new take on the theremin. (Courtesy: Paul Goddard)

By Hamish Johnston

How we created spooky experimental music in a superconductor lab”: what physicist could resist clicking on this story, which appeared on the Guardian website earlier this week? Written by the physicist-turned-computational-biologist Andrew Steele, the article describes how Steele and a few pals converted a magnetic sensor into a musical instrument. Like the theremin, which is played by waving your hands around an antenna, this new instrument responds to the player’s motion. But because the sensor was optimized for studying superconductors rather than creating freaky mood music, Steele explains the “instrument covered three octaves in less than a centimetre of hand movement”. He suggests that playing the instrument should probably be left to a talented gerbil rather than talented superconductor researchers. You can listen to Steele’s attempt at making music on SoundCloud.

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