Category Archives: General
By Matin Durrani
This blog is a shameless plug for the latest Physics World podcast, in which I talk to Sean Carroll – the California Institute of Technology cosmologist who also serves as a science adviser to Hollywood.
I chatted with Carroll when he was in the UK speaking at the recent Cheltenham Science Festival and, in the podcast, you can find out about his favourite science-fiction films and why he thinks it’s important to get the science in such films right. Carroll also reveals who he thinks he’s most like in TV’s The Big Bang Theory.
By Matin Durrani
Has the Voyager spacecraft left the solar system and entered interstellar space? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a teensy weensy bit bored by this question, which has been going on for years now.
Previous to that, though, there had been other reports that no it hadn’t (June 2013), it really, definitely is getting near the edge, but hang on actually not yet (March 2013), we’re not quite sure (June 2011), of course it’s definitely heading for interstellar space (November 2009), it’s already right near the edge (or possibly not) (November 2003).
By Matin Durrani
Unless you’re prepared to modify our understanding of gravity – and most physicists are not – the blunt fact is that we know almost nothing about 95% of the universe. According to our best estimates, ordinary, visible matter accounts for just 5% of everything, with 27% being dark matter and the rest dark energy.
The July issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats, examines some of the mysteries surrounding “the dark universe”. As I allude to in the video above, the difficulty with dark matter is that, if it’s not ordinary matter that’s too dim to see, how can we possibly find it? As for dark energy, we know even less about it other than it’s what is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate and hence making certain supernovae dimmer (because they are further away) than we’d expect if the cosmos were growing uniformly in size.
By Tushna Commissariat
Plumbing problems do not get any bigger and more complicated than a backed-up volcano. But geophysicists looking at the responses of ground waves below Japanese volcanoes have now come up with a technique for identifying where pressurized volcanic fluids build up, allowing them to better anticipate when a volcano may erupt. Scientists already knew that seismic waves from large earthquakes agitate volcanic systems and that large eruptions generally follow a build-up of pressurized fluids at some depth. But they had been unable to pin down the specific physical changes that seismic waves cause. Now though, Florent Brenguier of the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in Grenoble, France, and colleagues at the University of Tokyo have used recordings of seismic-wave velocity from the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake to create a map of seismic-velocity changes in its aftermath. Surprisingly, the largest changes were not observed in the area closest to the earthquake epicentre near the Pacific coast but farther inland, immediately below volcanic regions. The image above highlights an anomalously low seismic velocity below the Mount Fuji volcano after the earthquake, despite it being some 500 km from the epicentre. The drop in velocity is because the regions are susceptible to earthquake shaking – cracks in the crust open so that fluids at high pressures can escape, and could be seen as proxies for the high-pressure fluid build-up (Science 345 80).
By Michael Banks
Two Russian physicists have turned to the fundraising website Indiegogo in the hope of raising a cool $800,000 to build a Tesla Tower.
Leonid and Sergey Plekhanov – graduates of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology but now working in industry – want to reconstruct the famous Wardenclyffe Tower that was built by the inventor and engineer Nicola Tesla to find a commercial application for long-distance wireless energy transmission.
By James Dacey
Many academics believe that they have an idea in them that could lead to a nifty new technology – and make them some cash in the process. But there is a world of difference between discussing an idea in the departmental common room and actually launching a new product to fit into an unexploited niche in the market. One of the biggest challenges that start-up companies face is known as the valley of death, which we have illustrated for you here with this quirky animation.
The voice you hear is that of Stan Reiss, who works for the international venture capitalist firm Matrix Partners. He explains how the valley of death is a metaphor for the financial challenges faced by a spin-off company in the early stages of its development. In this phase, the firm may have a prototype for a product but it might not have the income or the capital to comfortably survive and grow. Often, the company simply runs out of money and falls by the wayside. “There’s a lot of dead bones and skeletons at the end of that valley,” says Reiss.
By Margaret Harris
I’ve been mulling over this topic for a while, but a pair of blog posts this week has finally prompted me to write about it. One of them, entitled “Why I won’t be studying physics at A-level” appeared yesterday in the education section of the Guardian newspaper. In it, the anonymous female author lists a number of reasons why she is leaving physics, including a lack of female teachers and an “uninspiring” GCSE physics syllabus that “seemed out of touch compared with the stem cells and glucoregulation we were studying in biology”. There’s plenty to debate there already, but to me, the following paragraph was the most striking:
“I don’t dislike physics; neither do I find it boring or particularly difficult. But I do enjoy my other subjects more, so when it came to choosing between physics and geography for my fourth AS-level I opted for the latter. I thought it would be good to take a humanities subject to balance out the sciences.”
By Matin Durrani
We’re not the kind of people here at Physics World who resort to national stereotypes – if anything, physicists are pretty much the same the world over no matter where they’re from.
But in the case of Spain, there is a widely held (and probably unfair) view that the Spanish are a bit on the lazy side, saddled with a reputation for long lunches, snoozy siestas and late nights out.
In fact, the Spanish are aware of the problem and there has been much debate in the Spanish media over what can be done to improve productivity and working lives. A Spanish parliamentary commission last year even proposed that the country should turn its clocks back by an hour from Central European Time (CET) to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Doing so, the commision said, would improve “productivity, absenteeism, stress, accidents and school drop-out rates”.
By Matin Durrani
Most of us want everything in life right here, right now. From fast food to fast cars, none of us can be bothered to hang about any longer than absolutely necessary. Where’s your reply to my e-mail I sent five minutes ago? Why haven’t you responded to my Tweet? Do you really expect me to read that 500-page novel for fun?
It was perhaps as an antidote to the ever-faster pace of life that so much has been made of two physics experiments that recently produced new data for the first time in years. I’m talking, of course, about the “pitch-drop” experiments at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and the University of Queensland, Australia, which both consist of a glass funnel of sticky tar-like substance. A drop from the Trinity experiment finally fell last July, with a video of the event quickly going viral, while the Queensland set-up dripped this April for the first time in 13 years. (For more on why both experiments proved so popular, check out our great feature by Shane D Bergin, Stefan Hutzler and Denis Weaire from Trinity.)
But if you can’t be bothered to hang around for 10 years or more, you’ll be pleased to hear that physicists at Queen Mary University of London – led by Kostya Trachenko – have now set up a new pitch-drop experiment to explore the difference between solid and liquids on the much shorter timescale of just a few months.
By Matin Durrani
I was in London at the end of last week to attend a meeting on “Communicating physics through the arts” (PDF), which had been organized by the Physics Communicators Group of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World.
Held at the IOP’s headquarters in London, the idea of the meeting was to “ask artists to explore how they use their knowledge of physics during the development of their work” and to see “how physics could be communicated to the public through their work”.