Category Archives: General

The May 2015 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

A couple of years back, I had the pleasure of travelling 1100 metres below ground to visit a dark-matter laboratory at the bottom of the Boulby Mine on the north-east coast of England. The journey was certainly memorable – it involved plunging down in a rattling lift cage for several minutes with a group of miners setting off on their morning shift. Once in the lab – housed inside a souped-up set of trailers – I interviewed physicist Sean Paling about the experimental projects going on there.

Setting up an underground lab, like that at Boulby, certainly doesn’t come cheap and in recent years, many have started to diversify into new areas. In the May issue of Physics World, which is now out in print and digital formats, Paling and his colleague Stephen Sadler – who is director at DURRIDGE UK Radon Instrumentation – describe the renaissance in the science taking place far beneath our feet. Studies in underground labs now range from Mars rovers to muon tomography and from radioactive dating to astrobiology.

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New York dims its lights for birds

Photograph of birds flocking over Central Park in New York

Birds flock over Central Park. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/giovanni1232)

By James Dacey

It’s been a great week for birds – or at least those flying over the state of New York – after state governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to create safer migration routes for our feathered friends. All state buildings will now have to comply with a national US initiative that seeks to curb levels of light pollution, which can disorient birds and lead to huge numbers of avian deaths by “fatal light attraction”.

Many species of bird rely on the light from star constellations to help them navigate during spring and autumn migrations. Unfortunately, artificial light sources can throw the animals off course, and light reflected from glass can cause the birds to smack into windows, walls, floodlights and other hard surfaces. It is estimated that as many as a billion birds succumb to this cruel end each year in the US alone, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

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IYL 2015 gets Swiss design makeover

Posters inspired by IYL 2015

IYL 2015 is the theme of this student poster project.

By James Dacey

One of the big aims of the International Year of Light (IYL 2015) is to take scientific ideas out of the lab to show the world just how inspiring and useful they can be. In the process, it can forge relationships between different communities, including scientists, engineers, artists, journalists, architects, politicians, aid workers…the list goes on.

Here in Bristol, where Physics World is produced, we’ve seen a fantastic local example of this by way of an art project at the University of the West of England (UWE). Second-year graphic-design students were set the brief of creating posters themed on IYL 2015. Last night we hosted an evening at IOP Publishing headquarters to showcase the students’ work and to let them find out more about science publishing.

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Self-powered camera can take selfies forever

Photograph of the self-powered camera

Say cheese: is this self-powered camera the future of photography? (Courtesy: Computer Vision Laboratory, Columbia Engineering)

By Ian Randall

With a smartphone in every pocket and remotely operated cameras on every street corner, digital cameras are a ubiquitous part of life. Last year alone an estimated two billion cameras of various sorts were sold worldwide – with such sales likely to increase. While personal cameras are easily recharged, many new remote applications require smaller and longer-lasting power supplies.

But what if your camera could self-power while you take selfies? This is the idea put forward by Shree Nayar and his colleagues at Columbia University in New York City, who have created the first ever completely self-powered video camera.

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Astronomers fill supervoid in their knowledge

A cold spot in the cosmic microwave background

The cold spot (bottom right) resides in the southern galactic hemisphere. (Courtesy: ESA Planck collaboration)

By James Dacey

Astronomers believe they may finally be able to explain the origin of the “cold spot”, a  glaringly large cool region in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Maps of the CMB, such as that created by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and more recently by the Planck mission, reveal the distribution of radiation left over after the Big Bang. When in 2004 researchers noticed this cold spot on the map, they soon realized it was either a sign of exotic physics linked to the Big Bang itself or it was caused by some sort of structure in the foreground between the CMB and the Earth.

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Nanometre-scale printing technique could put its stamp on the electronics industry

By Anna Demming

Qiangfei Xia in

Qiangfei Xia in the lab.

This year marks 20 years since Stephen Chou, Peter  Krauss and Preston Renstrom first published their work showcasing a versatile approach for mass production of identical nanostructures for the electronics industry. This technique is called nanoimprint lithography and it involves pressing a nano-patterned structure into a hot molten polymer. As the polymer cools, the pattern stamped into it sets so that it can be used as a mould to make several identical replicas of the original structure.

Just as the printing press brought literature to the masses, it is easy to imagine how this nanofabrication technique could have a significant impact on the production of integrated circuits. To commemorate the development, Nanotechnology has published a perspective article on the technique, and I had a chance to talk to the author Qiangfei Xia of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst about the technique’s advantages, challenges and outlook for the future.

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Philae comet lander set for reboot

Artist's impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P

Here comes the Sun: the Philae lander may reawaken soon. (Courtesy: ESA/ATG medialab)

By Michael Banks

Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) are hoping that the Philae lander, which successfully landed on a comet last year, will re-establish contact soon as it travels closer to the Sun. Philae was part of ESA’s Rosetta mission that was launched in 2004 but when Philae separated from Rosetta in November, it landed on the comet in an awkward position. This meant that the craft’s solar panels did not receive enough sunlight to recharge its battery, but the lander’s 10 instruments were able to carry out measurements before it went into hibernation mode about 50 hours after landing.

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Balloon-borne experiment will reveal how cosmic rays damage computer memories

By Tamela Maciel at the APS April Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland

The CRIBFLEX logo

Little bits: the CRIBFLEX logo. (Courtesy: Drexel University Society of Physics Students)

A group of undergraduate students at Drexel University in Philadelphia is ready to click “confirm” on an Amazon order that will include a weather balloon, a memory storage device, a GPS, a Geiger counter and a BeagleBoard computer (described to me as a “beefier version of Raspberry Pi”). For less than $2000, this team of physics, engineering and computer-science students plans to launch a weather-balloon experiment that will measure the effects of cosmic rays on DRAM memory devices at high altitudes.

The team is part of the Drexel University Society of Physics Students and the members presented their experiment design at the April Meeting of the American Physical Society in Baltimore, Maryland, last weekend.

DRAM is a very quick and simple type of electronic memory – each bit takes the form of a capacitor that either has charge or doesn’t, according to whether it’s storing a zero or one. Unfortunately, this simple design can make the bits very sensitive to radioactivity or cosmic rays, which can cause bits to flip values and introduce “soft errors” into the data.

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Elect a physicist

Photograph showing the directions to a UK polling station

Cast your vote for the Physics Party. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/TylaArabas)

By Margaret Harris

It’s the issue no-one is talking about in the run-up to the UK’s general election on 7 May, but I’m convinced that a brand-new party is set to make significant inroads on the British political scene, increasing both its overall share of the vote and its number of parliamentary seats.

“What is this bold new force?” I hear you ask. “Is it the Green Party? The Scottish or Welsh nationalists? The UK Independence Party (UKIP)?” My friends, it is none of these. Nor is it the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats (the three parties that traditionally grab the lion’s share of seats at Westminster), or any of the parties representing Northern Ireland. It is something far more novel. More interesting. And above all, more able to solve the Schrödinger equation.

I’m talking about the Physics Party.

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What technologies do you love the most?

By Matin Durrani

Here at Physics World, we’ve had a regular programme of videos since 2009, when I led the way into a brave new multimedia world by interviewing the director-general of CERN Rolf-Dieter Heuer. What Heuer had to say was pretty interesting and the question-and-answer format is a common genre among  online videos, but I have to admit that a film of two guys talking to each other while sitting on chairs in an office isn’t the most riveting thing you could ever watch. Even if the chairs were at CERN and one was occupied by the boss of one of the world’s top physics labs.

Since those early days, Physics World has developed and diversified its multimedia efforts, thanks in part to the ideas and inspiration of my colleague James Dacey, who has the rather grand job title of multimedia projects editor. Our content now includes a rolling programme of video documentaries, our 100-second-science strand and even an animation.

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