Category Archives: General

Lateral Thoughts: Playing favourites

(Courtesy: iStock/hidako)

(Courtesy: iStock/hidako)

By Margaret Harris

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

As the editor in charge of Lateral Thoughts – Physics World’s long-running column of humorous or otherwise offbeat essays on physics – I am sometimes* asked whether I have a favourite. It’s an interesting question, and back in 2014, when I was writing a series of posts for this blog about how Lateral Thoughts had changed over the (then) 25-year history of Physics World, I promised to answer it.

This, however, proved easier said than done. In the weeks that followed my foolish pledge, the Physics World inbox (pwld@iop.org) received a whole series of Lateral Thoughts essays that could have been my “favourite”. One of them, published in May 2014, was John Swanson’s discourse on the quantum nature of the 20:08 train from Bristol Parkway. Another, which appeared in June 2014, contained Chris Atkins’ gloriously straight-faced analysis of the physics of Poohsticks. A third, in July 2014, saw kung-fu expert Felix Flicker explore an unexpected connection between the mathematics of spinors and the art of escaping from an armlock. Then, in August 2014, John Evans pondered various physics-based ways of improving his running – such as refining his aerodynamic profile by developing a beer belly. (Evans, incidentally, went on to write a Lateral Thought on cycling in October 2015, and this month we published his essay on swimming. This means he’s now completed a lateral-thinking triathlon. Congratulations!)

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Secrets of the solar system: the July 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

PWJul16cover-200By  Matin Durrani

Members of NASA’s Juno mission are bracing themselves for the final moments of the craft’s five-year-long journey to Jupiter, which will finally reach its quarry just a few days from now (late on 4 July in North America, early morning on 5 July in Europe). There’ll be an anxious, 40-minute period of radio silence as the spinning craft fires its thrusters and slows down enough to be captured by the gas giant’s gravity.

During that time, staff at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be waiting, nervously, for Juno’s instruments to flicker back on and allow data-taking to begin as the craft starts a year-long orbit of the planet.

For the inside story of Juno and what it hopes to achieve, don’t miss the July 2016 special issue of Physics World magazine – now live in the Physics World app for mobile and desktop. You can also read the article here.

Devoted to planetary science, the special issue includes amazing images from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, an investigation into auroras on planets other than Earth, and an analysis of what we know about Vesta and Ceres – the two largest bodies in the main asteroid belt.

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The fallout from Brexit for physics

Is the UK now a sinking ship? (Courtesy: iStock/NatanaelGinting)

Is the UK now a sinking ship? (Courtesy: iStock/NatanaelGinting)

By Matin Durrani, Editor, Physics World

Amid all the noise and recrimination following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) in last week’s national referendum by a majority of 52% to 48%, I was reminded of a comment that Nicola Clase – Sweden’s ambassador to Britain – made to Times columnist David Aaronovitch before the referendum. When he sought her views on a potential British exit from the EU (Brexit), Clase replied: “It’s like when a child desperately wants to pee in his pants and does it. At first there’s a feeling of relief and for a few moments it’s nice and warm. Then he’s just cold and wet.”

It was a flippant comment for sure, but not far wide off the mark. As a new week dawns, physicists in the UK – and beyond – are coming to terms with the enormity and liable consequences of the vote. A poll by Nature in March showed that the vast majority of UK scientists were overwhelmingly in support of the EU, with 83% saying “no” to an exit. Although, legally, the outcome of the referendum does not have to be acted upon, we can expect huge and completely unnecessary uncertainty over the next few months, if not longer.

Learned societies in the UK, such as the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, as well as the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, have been putting a brave face on the prospect of Britain quitting the EU. They underlined the importance of maintaining free movement of scientists to and from the UK, and ensuring British scientists continue to have access to EU research funds and EU-supported facilities. It will be great if those principles and policies remain in place – but there is no guarantee they will. In any case, why should the rest of the EU now want to bother making life easy for the UK as it negotiates a Brexit?

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From physics degree to Hollywood

By James Dacey

Photo of Rob Pieké

Rob Pieké. (Courtesy: Manisha Lalloo)

This summer many of you will watch smoke billowing out of buildings as yet another villain wreaks havoc on the New York skyline in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I’m willing to bet that as you eat your popcorn you won’t be thinking about the Navier–Stokes equations of fluid dynamics. (Well, perhaps you will now that I’ve mentioned it!)

In fact, part of the reason that virtual smoke in films looks so realistic is because visual effects (VFX) specialists have applied the Navier–Stokes equations to their graphics. This was one of the interesting tidbits I learned from a talk yesterday in London by Rob Pieké, head of software at Moving Picture Company (MPC).

Pieké was speaking as part of a half-day event on “physics and film” organized by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. The gist of his presentation was that basic physics principles are used in a variety of ways to create special effects that capture viewers’ attention. “The audience wants to see something fantastical but grounded in reality,” said Pieké. Another example he gave was how naturally bouncing hair in computer-generated characters is modelled on mass—spring systems. Each individual hair could be modelled on as many as 30 masses connecting by springs.

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Is the 750 GeV bump in LHC data going away?

End of the line: will science journalists be flocking to CERN in August? (Courtesy: CC-BY/Darkzink)

End of the line: will science journalists be flocking to CERN in August? (CC-BY/Darkzink)

 

By Hamish Johnston

Things are heating up in the blogosphere after two A-list physics bloggers have speculated that a tantalizing hint of new physics seen by the CMS and ATLAS experiments at CERN is vanishing now that the latest collision data are being analysed.

The hint is a bump at 750 GeV in the spectrum of photon pairs created when protons collide in the LHC. It is not predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics and has not yet reached a statistical significance of 5σ – the threshold for a discovery. If it turns out to be real, the bump could become one of the most important discoveries in particle physics made so far this century.

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Russia’s Joint Institute of Nuclear Research builds for the future

Superconducting magnets at JINR

Zero resistance: the JINR is building superconducting magnets for both its new NICA facility and the FAIR heavy-ion collider being constructed at GSI Darmstadt.

By Susan Curtis

When our visit was running two hours behind schedule by lunchtime, I knew it was going to be a mind-expanding day. And there was certainly plenty to discover at the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, some 120 km north-west of Moscow.

An international research centre bringing together 18 member states, the JINR has been in the news for its discovery of new superheavy elements (SHEs). According to Andrei Popeko, deputy director of the JINR’s Flerov Laboratory for Nuclear Reactions, all of the last six elements were first synthesized at the laboratory’s U400 cyclotron, in most cases using samples prepared at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US. The JINR is now building the world’s first SHE factory that will boost production efficiency by a factor of 50, which will allow the lab’s scientists to investigate the chemical properties of these short-lived elements.

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Russian bear opens its arms to international science

GUM shopping centre in central Moscow

Free-market economic thinking is now being applied to Russia’s scientific sector. The GUM shopping centre in central Moscow. (Courtesy: Susan Curtis)

By Susan Curtis in Moscow

As an update to my last post, Russia’s deputy minister for science and education, Ludmila Ogorodova, accepted that the 1990s had been a period of crisis management for Russian science, and that in the 2000s plans for rebuilding the academic sector were hampered by lack of funding. But she also pointed to figures suggesting that Russian science has turned a corner over the past couple of years.

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LIGO paints a clearer picture of its merging black holes

Illustration of two black holes spiralling into each other to create a larger black hole (Courtesy: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

Illustration of two black holes spiralling into each other to create a larger black hole. (Courtesy: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

By Hamish Johnston

Physicists working on the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors have released more information about the merging black holes that they announced the discovery of earlier this year. Dubbed GW150914, we now know that the gravitational wave was created by the merger of one black hole that was 36 times as massive as the Sun with a smaller black hole that weighed in at 29 solar masses. The result of the merger was a black hole at 62 solar masses and a spin angular momentum of 0.67, where 1.0 is the maximum value of spin a black hole can have.

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Russian physics comes in from the cold

Physics powerhouse: the main building of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Courtesy: Andrey Gusev)

Physics powerhouse: the main building of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. (Courtesy: Andrey Gusev)

By Susan Curtis in Moscow

It takes less than four hours to fly to Moscow from London, but it feels much more distant and mysterious. Even my colleagues at Physics World, who pride themselves on covering all of physics in all parts of the world, admit to a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Russian science, even though Russia has a strong tradition in physics as well as in mathematics and space science.

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Playing poker with robots on Mars

Photo of a rover prototype sitting on sand under red light inside a dome with a simulated starry sky

A prototype of the ExoMars rover trundles around inside the “space dome” at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

By Margaret Harris

How do you keep an astronaut alive, sane and (ideally) happy during a mission to Mars? The world’s space agencies would very much like to know the answer, but gathering data is tricky. The International Space Station (ISS) makes a good testbed for experiments on the physical effects of space travel, but psychologically speaking, ISS astronauts enjoy a huge advantage over their possible Mars-bound counterparts: if something goes badly wrong on the station, home is just a short Soyuz ride away. Martian astronauts, in contrast, will be on their own.

For this reason, space agencies have become interested in learning how people cope in extreme environments here on Earth, particularly in locations where rescue is not immediately possible. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) sent Beth Healey, a British medical doctor, to spend the winter of 2015 at Concordia Research Station, a remote base in the interior of Antarctica. During the continent’s nine-month-long winter, temperatures at Concordia can plunge as low as –80 °C, making it inaccessible even to aeroplanes, which cannot operate at temperatures below –50 °C. So once the last flight left in February 2015, Healey and the 12 other members of the overwintering team were stuck there until November.

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