Category Archives: General

Scotland’s future

Castle Stalker

Scotland: staying in the UK following the referendum. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jack Torcello)

By Matin Durrani

In the end, it was perhaps not too unexpected when Scotland voted against independence in yesterday’s referendum. Almost all of the polls in the run-up to the vote had signalled a win for the “no” camp – and so it turned out, with 55% of voters wanting Scotland to remain tied to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of the UK. But it was a relatively close-run affair and many will be relieved that the two sides have avoided having tospend the next few years arguing, like a divorcing couple, over how to divide their spoils.

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A day in the life of CERN’s director-general

Rolf-Dieter Heuer

All in a day’s work. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Geneva

There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a CERN director-general (DG), certainly not this one in any case. In my experience, each incumbent has carved out a slightly different role for themself, shaped by the laboratory’s priorities and activities at the time of their mandate. For me, every day goes beyond science, management and administration, and I am particularly fortunate to have been DG through a remarkable period that has seen not only the successful launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and confirmation of the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism, but also an opening of CERN to the world – an area that I have pursued with particular vigour.

As I regularly joke, we have changed the “E” of CERN from “Europe” to “Everywhere”, and that has meant a lot of travel for the CERN DG, as we hold discussions with prospective new members of the CERN family. And when the CERN Council opened up membership to countries from beyond the European region in 2010, it seemed to me that we should also be extending our contacts in other directions as well.

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Proton-beam therapy explained

By James Dacey

The story of young brain-tumour patient Ashya King has gripped the British public over the past few weeks, with every twist and turn covered extensively in the media. In a nutshell, the five year old was removed from a hospital in Southampton at the end of August by his parents, without the authorization of doctors. They wanted their son to receive proton-beam therapy, which was not offered to them through the National Health Service (NHS). The family went to Spain in search of the treatment, triggering an international police hunt that subsequently saw the parents arrested before later being released.

The drama was accompanied by a heavy dose of armchair commentary, with Ashya’s parents, the hospital in Southampton and the police all receiving both criticism and praise. Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, got caught up in the affair, as he offered his personal support to the parents. To cut a long story short, Ashya’s parents finally got their wish and they have ended up at a proton-therapy centre in the Czech Republic where their son’s treatment begins today.

But what is proton therapy? It is a relatively new medical innovation that shows great promise in the treatment of cancer, though it is only currently available in certain countries. Beams of protons can be directed with precision at tumours in the body – allowing the energy to destroy cancer cells, while causing less damage to the surrounding tissue than is possible with conventional radiation therapies. The treatment, however, is only really useful in specific cases of cancer, such as where is vitally important that surrounding structures are not damaged. And because it is relatively new, there is less information available about how effective it is compared with more established treatments.

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Pushing the frontiers of precision

High Precision Laboratory

The €25m Precision Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany. (Courtesy: MPI-FKF)

By Michael Banks in Stuttgart, Germany

“There is nothing like this in Germany,” states Klaus Kern, a director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany, as we walk around the institute’s Precision Laboratory, which opened in 2012 at a cost of €25m.

Kern took me on a guided tour of the the centre, which he has been involved with since its conception in 2008, during a break from attending a symposium celebrating the life of Manuel Cardona, a former institute director who passed away earlier this year.

The building is unique, not only in Germany but worldwide, as it offers researchers a space in which to do experiments that are seismically, acoustically and electrically isolated from the environment.

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Sweet-talking physics

By Louise Mayor

We’re always up for trying new formats and approaches to journalism here at Physics World. You’ve probably seen our documentary-type films, podcasts and 100 Second Science video series, but the latest addition to our repertoire is a short monthly video in which one of our editorial team highlights something in the upcoming or current issue as a kind of taster.

So this month, I decided to take the plunge and get in front of the camera myself to present the third edition of what we have started jokingly referring to in the office as our “fireside chats”. (Here are the July and August versions.)

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How to make the perfect hollandaise sauce

Hollandaise sauce

A scientific approach to making sauces. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/mikafotostok )

By Matin Durrani

I got an e-mail the other day from a London PR agency telling me about the latest edition of a new journal that’s tapping into the burgeoning interest in using scientific methods to improve and understand the foods we eat. Published by Elsevier, the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science seeks to bring chefs and scientists together “by conceiving culinary projects that nurture the relationship between cooking, science and research”.

Intrigued, I had a quick skim of the contents and my eyes were immediately drawn to an article by researchers in Norway, Denmark and Germany, who had examined the factors that affect the quality of a hollandaise sauce – and worked out the best way to make one.

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Is desperation for new physics clouding our vision for new colliders?

By Hamish Johnston

This month marks the 60th anniversary of CERN and to kick-off our coverage here at physicsworld.com, I’m highlighting an essay on the future of collider physics that has just been written by Nobel laureate Burton Richter called “High energy colliding beams; what is their future?“.

Burton Richter

Burton Richter warns against desperation. (Courtesy: Stanford University)

Richter shared his 1976 Nobel prize with Samuel Ting for their independent discoveries of the J/ψ meson. He knows his particle colliders, having helped to design and build the world’s first collider in the late 1950s at Stanford University and later directing the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for 15 years.

Richter believes that the international community is not facing up to tough decisions that must be made about what to do when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is retired sometime in the early 2030s. He thinks that “the perspective of one of the old guys might be useful”.

Planning the next huge collider involves the co-operation of three main groups of physicists: those who design and build the accelerators; those who design and build the experiments; and the theoretical physicists who work out what the experiments are looking for. Richter thinks that this is not going well at the moment.

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Physicists take on the ice bucket challenge

 

By Michael Banks

The ice bucket challenge, which involves people pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads, has taken the social media world by storm raising millions of pounds for motor neurone disease and other charities.

Not wanting to miss out, researchers have also got involved in the act. One of those to take part is the Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, who has suffered with the disease since he was 21. He stepped up to the challenge – albeit with a twist. In a video filmed outside his family home in Cambridge, UK, Hawking says that as he suffered from a bout of pneumonia last year it would “not be wise” to have a bucket of ice-cold water poured over him. So instead he passed over the challenge to his children – Robert, Lucy and Tim – who were then doused with three buckets of icy water, while Hawking watched on.

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The physics of twitter

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Some university physics departments are modern, others are old-fashioned, but by and large they tend to contain similar features: a bunch of physicists and a selection of equipment such as microscopes and lasers. That was why I was caught by surprise in the physics department of the University of Buenos Aires when I stumbled across a collection of caged birds living in the corner of one of the labs. My curiosity was captured and I had to find out more.

Researcher in front of a cage of zebra finches

Ana Amador in front of a cage of zebra finches.

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Pointless or profound?

By Matin Durrani

Cover of Physics World September 2014 issueThe cover feature of the September 2014 issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats, concerns “sterile neutrinos” – a hypothesized fourth kind of neutrino in addition to the familiar electron, muon and tau neutrinos. Sterile neutrinos are controversial – they have never been detected and we are not even sure if they exist at all. But if they do, sterile neutrinos could potentially solve a raft of unsolved problems in physics, including why neutrinos themselves have mass, what makes up dark matter and why there is so much more matter than antimater in the universe.

In the article, you can find out more about the mysteries these hypothetical particles could solve. But since they might not exist, why – you may wonder – would anyone bother looking for them? In other words, is the search for sterile neutrinos pointless or profound? Check out the September issue to find out more.

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