Category Archives: General

Seeking causes of Mexico City’s earthquake

Landsat image of Mexico City region

Mexico City: built on a basin of sedimentary rock from eroded mountains. (Courtesy: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

At the time of writing, the official death toll stands at more than 200 people following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck near Mexico City on Tuesday. According to the secretary of education, 200 schools have been affected, including the Enrique Rébsamen elementary school in Mexico City’s southern Coapa district where 37 people died, as reported by the BBC. Meanwhile buildings have collapsed at a campus of the Monterrey Institute of Technology killing five people and injuring 40, also in the south of the city.

In a cruel twist of fate, the quake struck on the day of the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that led to the death of up to 10 000 people. Even though yesterday’s event is likely to claim fewer victims than the 1985 disaster, it is still a shocking reminder of how vulnerable Mexico City is to earthquake damage.

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Grabbing a slice of the pie in the sky

(Courtesy: NASA)

(Courtesy: NASA)

By Margaret Harris at the European Planetary Science Congress in Riga, Latvia

If you wanted to mine an asteroid, what would you need? Right now, it’s a hypothetical question: only a handful of spacecraft have ever visited an asteroid, and fewer still have studied one in detail. As commercial ventures go, it’s not exactly a sure thing. But put that aside for a moment. If you wanted to create an asteroid-mining industry from scratch, how would you do it?

Well, for starters, you’d need to know which asteroids to target. “Not every mountain is a gold mine, and that’s true for asteroids too,” astrophysicist Martin Elvis told audience members at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) yesterday. For every platinum-rich asteroid sending dollar signs into investors’ eyes, Elvis explained there are perhaps 100 commercially useless chunks of carbon whizzing around out there, and the odds for water-rich asteroids aren’t much better. Moreover, some of those valuable asteroids will be impractical to mine, either because of their speed and location or because they’re too small to give a good return on investment. “Smaller asteroids aren’t even worth a billion dollars,” Elvis scoffed. “Who’d get out of bed for that?”

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Why is quantum physics so hard to write about?

Live at Leeds: George Musser riffs on writing about quantum mechanics (Courtesy: H Johnston)

Live at Leeds: George Musser riffs on writing about quantum mechanics (Courtesy: H Johnston)

By Hamish Johnston

Why is quantum physics so hard to write about?

That was the theme of George Musser’s keynote talk at a seminar for science communicators held this week at the University of Leeds. Musser – who has written extensively on topics such as quantum entanglement and string theory – gave several reasons and here are a few that stuck in my mind.
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In the footsteps of Cecil Powell

Pion pioneer: a bust of Cecil Powell

Pionic man: a bust of Cecil Powell. (Courtesy: University of Bristol Special Collections)

By  Matin Durrani

I spent yesterday at the University of Bristol, where a meeting was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the pion in 1947.

The particle was spotted by Cecil Powell, who joined the university’s physics department in 1928 and went on to win the 1950 Nobel Prize for Physics for his efforts.

At the time, the pion was thought to be the carrier of the strong nuclear force, which binds protons and neutrons in the nucleus, though we now know it is one of a family of strongly interacting mesons.

As we heard yesterday from introductory speaker Brian Pollard, Powell found evidence for the pion using a series of ingenious (and literally breathtaking) experiments that involved him taking specially manufactured photographic plates to high altitudes up the Pic-du-Midi mountain in the Pyrenees.

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Behind the scenes of peer review

By James Dacey

 

 

This week is Peer Review Week 2017, a global celebration of the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The theme of this year’s event is “transparency in review”, exploring how individuals and organizations could be more open at all stages of the scientific process.

Physics World is published by IOP Publishing and I’ve been part of a crack team assembled to take people behind the scenes of our peer-review processes. As the man with a camera, my job was to create a series of videos with my colleagues in the publishing department who deal with peer review on a daily basis.

First up, we have a video message from Marc Gillet, our associate director of publishing operations, introducing our plans for the week (see above). Marc is joined by a selection of staff revealing the role they play in the peer-review process – drawing inspiration from Bob Dylan’s famous flashcard skit for Subterranean Homesick Blues.

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Angela Saini discusses her book Inferior  

By James Dacey

 

Angela Saini in conversation with Andrew Glester
Science journalist Saini explains why she wrote Inferior and what she has discovered
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“Writing the book has made me question my own feelings about the world.” That is the stark conclusion of science journalist Angela Saini, referring to her recent publication Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.

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The September 2017 issue of Physics World magazine is now out

PWSep17cover-200By Matin Durrani

Some of the daily challenges facing women in physics are tackled in the latest issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out.

As well as a round-up from the recent International Conference on Women in Physics, which took place in Birmingham, UK, there’s a fascinating feature about the life of Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She discovered pulsars 50 years ago next month and became the first female president of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World.

As Bell Burnell points out, “Fix the women!” is often seen as the solution to why women progress more slowly in physics than men. In fact, she argues, larger problems – notably institutional bias and poor policies – are to blame.

Don’t miss either our cover feature on the stunning images Cassini has been beaming back over the last few months before it plunges into Saturn on 15 September. We’ve also got a great Lateral Thoughts article by Daniel Whiteson, illustrated by PHD Comics artist Jorge Cham. Plus, find out how groups of cells move, communicate and organize themselves in networks.

Remember that if you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, you can read Physics World magazine every month via our digital apps for iOS, Android and Web browsers.

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A century ago Einstein sparked the notion of the laser

Another brilliant idea: laser beams illuminate fog (Courtesy: CC BY 2.0/ Jeff Keyzer)

Another brilliant idea: laser beams illuminate fog. (CC BY 2.0/ Jeff Keyzer)

By Philip Ball 

I just got back from having my broken wrist X-rayed (it’s doing fine, thanks), and noticed that a laser beam was used to position and align the X-ray source. Hardly the most sophisticated use of these optical devices, it’s true, but a little reminder that there’s probably hardly a day goes by in the life of an average urbanite without the laser’s beam of coherent photons impinging on it. From supermarket barcode scanning to broadband fibre-optic telecommunications, lasers are everywhere.

The fundamental idea behind this mainstay of modern life was published one hundred years ago by Albert Einstein. But blink and you’ll miss it in his seminal paper, “The quantum theory of radiation”, published in German in Physikalische Zeitschrift 18 121 (English translation here). Einstein is trying to work out what Max Planck’s “quantum hypothesis” – that the energy of an oscillator must take discrete values equal to some integer multiple of the oscillation frequency times a constant h – implies for the way light interacts with matter.

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The quest to create metallic hydrogen

Image of Isaac Silvera

Pressure experts: Isaac Silvera (right) together with Ranga Dias.

By Michael Banks

A team led by Isaac Silvera at Harvard University hit the headlines earlier this year when it claimed to have been the first to create metallic hydrogen. Silvera, who will be giving an invited talk about metallic hydrogen at the Chinese Physical Society meeting at Sichuan University (7–9 September), outlines the challenges in working with the material and what future applications it may have. The event is co-sponsored by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World.

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LIGO–Virgo comments on neutron star rumours, sort of

Caught in the act: has LIGO-Virgo detected merging neutron stars? (Courtesy: NASA)

Caught in the act: has LIGO–Virgo detected merging neutron stars? (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

Have gravitational waves from merging neutron stars been detected for the first time?

Physicists working on the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave detectors have issued a statement that appears to be a response to rumours that both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation from an astronomical event have been detected.

LIGO has already detected gravitational waves from three different binary black-hole mergers. But none of these events appeared to emit electromagnetic radiation that could be detected by astronomers using telescopes on Earth or in space.

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