Category Archives: The Red Folder

The 10 quirkiest physics stories of 2014

By Michael Banks

From a particle collider made of LEGO to physicists taking on the ice-bucket challenge, physics has had its fair share of interesting stories this year. Here is our pick of the 10 best, in chronological order.

The designated survivor

The nuclear physicist and US energy secretary Ernest Moniz may be 14th in the US presidential line of succession, but if something really terrible had happened in late January, then he might have found himself leading the world’s biggest economy. That is because Moniz was appointed the “designated survivor” while US president Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address earlier this year.

Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz: the designated survivor. (Courtesy: MIT Energy Initiative)

The speech, which is attended by the country’s top leaders, including the vice-president, members of the US cabinet and Supreme Court justices, is where US presidents outline their legislative agenda for the coming year. A designated survivor is a member of the cabinet who stays at a distant, secure and undisclosed location during the address to maintain continuity of government in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack that ends up killing officials in the presidential line of succession.

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Villainous physicists, Hubble’s cat and more

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. (Courtesy: Universal Pictures International)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week we heard about a possible new James Bond film villain and its none other than Stephen Hawking. According to this story in the Telegraph, he feels as if his trademark wheelchair and computerized voice would lend themselves perfectly to the part. On the same note, we saw this interesting feature on the Wired website that looks at the history behind Hawking’s very recognisable voice. Last month, I was lucky enough to attend an early screening of James Marsh’s Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, which includes a rather touching and funny scene of Hawking testing out his voice for the first time. You can read more about the film in the reviews section of the upcoming January issue of Physics World.

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Slamming physics at Fermilab, dancing to Yuri Gagarin and lifting off from ‘Cape Kebaberal’

 

By Hamish Johnston

Giving a fired-up talk at a physics conference is a good way for aspiring researchers to make themselves known to the community, but unless you have a natural gift, lots of practice is required. That’s why many universities and labs host “slams” to encourage staff and students to talk about their research to a broader audience. Above is a video of the sold-out Fermilab Physics Slam 2014, which was held last week at the lab on the outskirts of Chicago.

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Physics of haiku, blizzards and Thor’s hammer

By Hamish Johnston

Students at Camden School for Girls in London have published a lovely book of haiku about science. Called Sciku: The Wonder of Science – in Haiku!, the volume contains 400 poems and is on sale with proceeds going to upgrading the science labs at the school. The students are not the only ones at the school with literary ambitions. Their science teacher Simon Flynn has also written a book called The Science Magpie, which we reviewed two years ago.

Below is a little taste of what is inside the book of haiku and you can also watch several of the students reading their poems in the video above.

Gravity:
An attractive force
Between all objects with mass
Just like you and me

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Creepy comic, Hawking joins Monty Python and that shirt

Frame 142 in Randall Munroe's series of Philae sketches (Courtesy: xcd.org)

Frame 142 in Randall Munroe’s series of Philae sketches. (Courtesy: xkcd.org)

By Hamish Johnston

The big story this week is that Rosetta’s Philae lander has touched down on a comet. During the descent, cartoonist and former physicist Randall Munroe captured the event in a series of 142 sketches. You can see the final instalment above, presumably drawn before Philae’s various problems were widely known.

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Blockbuster physics, bowling balls and feathers in a vacuum, and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

The results of a successful scientific experiment can make scientists very happy. Indeed, in the clip above, taken from the BBC TV series Human Universe, one scientist exclaims “holy mackarel!” when he sees the outcome he was hoping for. In the video, everybody’s favourite physicist Brian Cox carries out an experiment similar to Galileo’s Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, where he tested that no matter the mass of objects, they fall at the same rate under gravity. In the video above, Cox drops a bunch of feathers and a bowling ball in the world’s biggest vacuum chamber – the Space Simulation Vacuum Chamber at NASA’s Space Power Facility in Ohio, US. In the slow-motion video, you can see with exquisite clarity just how accurate Galileo’s prediction was, as the feathers and ball land at precisely the same time. We came across this video on the Dot Physics blog on the Wired Science network, written by physicist Rhett Allain, where he has worked out some of the maths and pointed out some of the nuances of the above experiment, so make sure you take a look.

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Cthulhu cosmology, Halloween outfits with a physics twist and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s not often that classical physics and Post-Impressionist painters collide, but when they do the results can be enchanting and intriguing. In one of the latest TEDEd videos, Natalya St Clair has created a short lesson that looks at “The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night.” The video above looks at the enduring mystery that is the turbulence we see in any kind of flows in the natural world and how the human brain can recognize and actually make some kind of sense of the chaotic random patterns turbulence describes.

As pointed out in the video, famous physicists such as Richard Feynman and Werner Heisenberg have noted the complexity of turbulence, with Feynman describing it as “the most important unsolved problem of classical physics” and Heisenberg saying that “when I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first”. But is it possible that the undoubted genius and troubled painter that was Van Gogh perceived something more about turbulence in nature and is this most clearly represented in his most famous masterpiece – the evocative painting known as Starry Night? Watch the video to find out.

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Strange goings on at CERN, string theory with cats, Isaac Asimov on generating new ideas and more

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D (Courtesy: CERN)

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” is probably the only famous sentence written by the English novelist L P Hartley. It also sums up nicely a collection of photographs of CERN in the 1960s and early 1970s showing among other things a jolly worker wearing a beret, scientists wearing white lab coats and ties, and a strange religious-like procession. There are also lots of photos of vintage kit, including one of those huge vacuum-valve-powered oscilloscopes (probably from Tektronix) that would be familiar to physicists of a certain age. My favourite photo is shown above. It was taken in 1965, when 3D data visualization was actually done in 3D! I believe that the collection was put together by CERN’s Alex Brown and you can enjoy looking at all 55 images in the collection here.

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Candy corn in space, compact fusion reactors and physics in Palestine

 

By Hamish Johnston

Besides the great views of the Earth, one of the best things about being on the International Space Station (ISS) must be messing around in near-zero gravity. In the above video on Science Friday the American astronaut Don Pettit describes an “experiment” that he did on the ISS using candy corn, which are kernel-like sweets. He begins with a blob of floating water into which he inserts the candy corn pointy-end first. The points are hydrophilic so they tend to stay in the water, and eventually Pettit has a sphere of candy corn packed around the water. The flat ends of the candy corn have been soaked in oil to make them hydrophobic so the candy corn layer acts like a detergent film or one half of a cell membrane. It’s a fun video and I wonder how he got the idea in the first place?

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Blood Moons, teachers who moulded the minds of great physicists and more

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her high-school physics teacher

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her high-school physics teacher. (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week has been an exciting and busy one at Physics World HQ, what with two Nobel prizes that included physics – the actual Nobel prize for physics, of course, as well as this year’s chemistry Nobel, which was given to three physicists. Since last week’s Red Folder was full of Nobel trivia and facts, I will only point you to two more interesting Nobel-related articles. The first is an excellent article on the Slate website, by one of our regular freelance authors Gabriel Popkin, where he looks at female physicists who deserve a Nobel. His list is in no way exhaustive, but does well to highlight some excellent work done by women that deserves recognition, so do take a look at “These women should win a Nobel prize in physics”. Also, Ethan Siegel from the Starts With a Bang! blog has written an excellent essay to silence any would-be naysayers about the worthiness of giving the Nobel to the researchers who developed blue LEDs. In “Why blue LEDs are worth a Nobel Prize”, he outlines the history of LEDs and talks about just how many applications they have in today’s times.

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