Category Archives: General

Setting the standard for Brazilian materials science

Brazil's standards lab, Inmetro

Long and low – Inmetro, Brazil’s standards lab.

By Michael Banks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As part of my road-trip round Brazil, I visited Inmetro – the Brazilian standards lab. Located around 50 km north of Rio de Janeiro, Inmetro certainly has the feeling of being well away from the hustle and bustle of one of Brazil’s major cities.

The first thing that you notice when you enter Inmetro’s vast campus is that the buildings have a unique architecture (see above). The bunker-like structures are built in such a way that they are protected from the Sun, which can deliver 40 °C temperatures in summer. (Thankfully, I am here in autumn, but the temperature is still a warm 30 °C.)

Inmetro’s campus was built about 40 years ago with the help of the PTB – the German standards lab. The buildings were also specially designed so that the labs are vibrationally separate from the offices. So, any wild jumping around at your desk won’t affect the sensitive measurements in the lab.


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Boosting innovation in Brazil

Evaldo Ferreira Vilela

FAPEMIG boss Evaldo Ferreira Vilela.

By Michael Banks in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

I’m writing this while on a week-long road trip across Brazil to gather information for a new report that IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, is producing for the Brazilian Materials Research Society.

While on my trip, I have visited a number of institutes that focus on materials research. But I also had the chance to talk a bit of policy when visiting FAPEMIG – the main state funder for research in Minas Gerais, which is the second most populous state in Brazil.

In Belo Horizonte, which is the capital of Minas Gerais, I met Evaldo Ferreira Vilela, who is director of science, technology and innovation at FAPEMIG.


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Why axing practicals from science exams is a bad idea

Science practical exams


By Matin Durrani

I don’t know about you, but I look back rather nostalgically on the practical exams that I took as an 18 year old as part of my A-levels in physics and chemistry. At the time, I wasn’t looking forward to them at all – they lasted three hours each and there was always the very large possibility of completely mucking up your experiment and/or dropping all your samples on the floor.

Although I’ve forgotten everything about my physics practical exam, the chemistry practical still sticks out in my mind. I remember making some needle-like crystals that, through amazing good fortune, turned out really well – certainly far better than the watery mush I’d created in my mock exams. So when I walked over to the other side of the lab to measure the temperature at which the crystals melted, they did so over a really narrow range – and presumably at the “correct” temperature too.


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Physics World Special Report: Brazil

By Matin Durrani

Physics World 2014 Brazil Report

With this year’s FIFA World Cup drawing ever closer, Physics World turns its attention to Brazil – the nation hosting the planet’s biggest sporting event

We’re not, of course, looking at the country’s footballing prowess or examining the controversial – and staggering – sums being spent on staging the World Cup.

Instead, the latest Physics World Special Report examines the challenges and opportunities for physicists in Brazil – the fifth biggest nation by size and the world’s seventh-largest economy.

Physics in the country is thriving, with the Brazilian government having more than quadrupled the amount of money invested in research and development since the turn of the century.


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How can you give yourself time to think?

By Matin Durrani

Physics World April 2014

If you’re a busy researcher, you’ll know just how precious time can be. But for many physicists, there’s a growing pressure to communicate, collaborate and interact – often at the expense of having time in silence to sit and think.

It’s an issue tackled in the cover story of the April issue of Physics World magazine by Felicity Mellor from Imperial College London, who runs a project called “Silences of Science“. The cover of this month’s issue was specially commissioned by us from artist Dave Cutler.

As Mellor puts it, current research policy – in the UK at least – emphasizes silence’s opposite. “From assessing publications and rewarding collaborations, to requirements for public engagement, policy initiatives urge scientists to speak up,” she writes.

Yet there is a danger, Mellor warns, that in the midst of all this enforced interaction, an important precondition for creativity in physics could be lost. “With all these demands to talk, do scientists still have the chance to think?” she wonders.


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Silence the ping: astronomers urge 24-hour microwave-oven ban

By Ken Heartly-Wright

Switch Microwaves Off Now

(Shutterstock/Andris Torms)

An international group of astronomers is calling for people to stop using their microwave ovens for 24 hours next April to give scientists a better chance of finding gravitational waves.

The ubiquitous kitchen gadgets broadcast copious amounts of electromagnetic radiation at frequencies around 2.45 GHz – exactly that of the cosmic microwave background, which bears the signature of gravitational waves from the early universe.

The call for a one-day global microwave oven ban comes just a fortnight after scientists detected B-mode polarization from the early universe using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole.


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We are ill-prepared for climate-change risks

By Hamish Johnston

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Working Group II (WGII) report entitled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability“. Over on our sister website, editor Liz Kalaugher has written a news-analysis piece about the report that looks at the major risks facing different regions of the globe; who is most vulnerable to change; and why we must build on early efforts to adapt to climate change.

Earth from space: adaptation to climate change is a clobal challenge

Earth from space: adaptation to climate change is a global challenge. (Courtesy: NASA)

Kalaugher’s piece includes commentary from leading IPCC members, including Vicente Barros, co-chair of working group II. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future,” says Barros.

Chris Field, WGII co-chair, adds “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.”

However, the report also warns that adaptation will be very difficult with high levels of warming. In that case, Field says that “even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits”.

You can read Kalaugher’s piece here:  “IPCC: world is ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate”.

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Lateral Thoughts: Voices from history

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War. (Courtesy: US Army)

By Margaret Harris

This is the third in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. Click to read the first and second posts.

As part of Physics World’s 25th anniversary celebrations, I’ve been reading through the archive of “Lateral Thoughts”, the magazine’s column of humorous or otherwise off-beat essays about physics. My goal is to get a better feel for the topics that have amused and preoccupied Physics World readers over the past quarter-century, and to understand how the community has changed.

While most Lateral Thoughts have focused on the world of physics, the archive shows that every now and then, the wider world intrudes. The results can be fascinating, sobering and sometimes even disturbing. Consider the essay “Soft zlotys for western hardware”, in which the metallurgist Jack Harris describes taking a research trip behind the Iron Curtain to Poland. “In science, as in other areas, I was struck by how little real contact there was with Russia,” Harris wrote. His Lateral Thought was published in July 1989. Two months later, Poland defied its puppet-masters in Moscow by electing its first non-communist government since the Second World War.


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Student behaviour in the MOOCosphere

Students in a lecture hall

Does student behaviour online mirror the traditional classroom? (Courtesy: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia)

By James Dacey

I’ve written a few times recently about the rise of massive open online courses, or “MOOCs” for short. If this trend in education has so far passed you by, MOOCs are online courses generally offered free of charge by some of the leading universities in the world. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers courses in classical mechanics and electricity & magnetism, and the University of Edinburgh has recently launched a course about the discovery of the Higgs boson.

MOOCs tend to combine video lectures with assignments such as problem sets and extended projects. In many ways, the course formats mirror or complement traditional classroom-based education, incorporating features such as forums where students can discuss the course content amongst themselves. Some of the science courses even include online “practicals” by way of virtual laboratories. But despite the proliferation of MOOCs in the past few years, very little research has been carried out on the way that students are actually engaging with the courses.

Now, a group of researchers in the US has done the first relatively detailed study of student behaviour in the MOOCosphere. The study is described in a paper published on the arXiv preprint server with lead author Ashton Anderson, a computer scientist at Stanford University. Anderson and his team examined the behaviour of the student population in courses offered by Stanford through Coursera, one of the major MOOC providers. The courses were on the topics of machine learning and probabilistic graphical models. After reading the study, it seems to me that the “take away” message is that MOOC students have many different motivations for taking these courses and as a result they behave in an assortment of ways, distinct from classrooms in the real world.


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Fran Scott’s four golden rules for getting kids hooked on science

Fran Scott with CBBC puppet Hacker T Dog

Science presenter Fran Scott with CBBC puppet Hacker T Dog. (Courtesy: CBBC)

By Matin Durrani

“Ever heard a child say ‘Yeah, I get it!’? Well, if you do, they’re lying. They’re only saying those words because you’re boring them and they don’t want to listen any more.”

That’s not me telling you – it’s Fran Scott, a BBC science presenter who has spent the last nine years involved in informal children’s science education, most recently working for Children’s BBC and BBC Learning.


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