Category Archives: General

Dipping into the physics of a chocolate fountain

Picture of Adam Townsend with a chocolate fountain

Dark flow: Adam Townsend ponders the dynamics of a chocolate fountain. (Courtesy: London Mathematical Society)

By Tushna Commissariat

When most people look at a chocolate fountain in a restaurant or maybe at a party, they are mostly thinking about all the yummy treats they can dunk into the liquid-chocolate curtain. But when a physicist or a mathematician looks at one, they can’t help but notice some of the interesting fluid dynamics at play – most visible is how the curtain of chocolate does not fall straight down, rather it pulls inwards, and that melted chocolate is a non-Newtonian fluid.

University College London (UCL) student Adam Townsend decided to work on this topic for his MSci project and has now published a paper on his findings in the European Journal of Physics. To study the inflow effect, he looked into some classic research on “water bells”, where the same flow shape is seen. “You can build a water bell really easily in your kitchen,” says UCL physicist Helen Wilson, who was Townsend’s MSci project supervisor and the paper’s co-author. “Just fix a pen vertically under a tap with a 10p coin flat on top and you’ll see a beautiful bell-shaped fountain of water.”


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A great day out in celebration of Maxwell’s equations

Pillars of light: this week's meeting at the Royal Society focussed on how Maxwell's equations illuminate physics (Courtesy: Tom Morris/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pillars of light: this week’s meeting at the Royal Society focused on how Maxwell’s equations illuminate physics. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Tom Morris)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week I caught the 6.30 a.m. train from Bristol to London to attend the second day of “Unifying physics and technology in light of Maxwell’s equations” at the Royal Society. It was a particularly damp and gloomy morning as I emerged from Piccadilly Circus station and tramped through St James, my sights set on the Duke of York pillar next to the Royal Society in Carlton House Terrace.

It seemed like the perfect morning to be thankful for the light described by James Clerk Maxwell’s equations, and to ponder how they have since illuminated many shadowy corners of physics.

The meeting was organized by three physicists at nearby King’s College London: biophysicist and nanotechnologist Anatoly Zayats; particle physicist John Ellis and condensed-matter physicist Roy Pike. Already, you can see the breadth of physics covered at the meeting.


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Radiation blasts render Earth’s twin inhospitable to life

Illustration showing Kepler 438b being irridiated by its host star

Radioactive? Kepler-438b is regularly irradiated by huge flares of radiation from its host star. (Courtesy: Mark A Garlick/University of Warwick)

By Tushna Commissariat

In the past decade or two, exoplanetary research has been booming as NASA’s Kepler telescope and its cohorts have found nearly 2000 exoplanets and 5000 promising candidates. Unsurprisingly, we have been searching long and hard for those planets that could be habitable or are as similar in shape, size and proximity to the host star as the Earth is to the Sun. Indeed, in January this year Kepler scientists announced that they had found the most Earth-like planet to date – Kepler-438b – orbiting within the habitable zone of its host star, the red dwarf Kepler-438, which lies about 470 light-years from Earth.

The planet, which is slightly bigger than our own, was found to be rocky, and, thanks to its location, rather temperate, meaning that it could have flowing water on it – two key factors that astronomers look for when accessing a planet’s habitability. Unfortunately, David Armstrong of the University of Warwick in the UK and colleagues have now found that Earth’s twin is regularly bathed in vast quantities of radiation from its star – a real dampener when it comes to the formation of life as we known it.


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Making noise in the quietest room in the Netherlands

Wiggling electrons: an undulator at one of FELIX’s free-electron lasers.

By Tim Wogan in Nijmegen, the Netherlands

Tucked away near the German border is the Dutch city of Nijmegen and Radboud University, which has a treasure trove of fantastical physics facilities. I was in town for a two-day, whistle-stop tour of the university that included the the opening of the FELIX facility. FELIX stands for “free-electron laser for infrared experiments laboratory”. It is a  cavernous chamber housing four free-electron lasers that together can generate high-intensity, tunable radiation with wavelengths anywhere between 3–1500 μm. Something, I was told, that is possible nowhere else in the world.


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Marking time on precision engineering

Adventures in science: the Magna centre in Rotherham, UK

Adventures in science: the Magna centre in Rotherham, UK.

By Susan Curtis

At a time when the UK steel industry is close to meltdown, it felt quite humbling to be standing inside a disused steelworks on the outskirts of Rotherham. In its heyday in the 1970s the colossal plant employed 3000 people and housed six electric arc furnaces that set new records for steel production. Since closing in 1993, the facility has forged a new identity as the Magna Science Adventure Centre, which offers visitors an insight into the steel-making process and its heritage in the area around Sheffield.

Recently, I was at Magna for the annual TRAM conference, which showcases the latest technology advances in the aerospace industry. Organized by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), one of the UK’s Catapult centres based at the University of Sheffield and supported by Boeing, TRAM highlights how aircraft makers and their suppliers are improving materials and manufacturing processes to reduce cost and enhance performance. But among the talk of powder metallurgy, high-performance machining and the factories of the future, a presentation by Nick English from the UK-based watchmaker Bremont highlighted manufacturing innovation at a much smaller scale.


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Laser show lights up Institute of Physics awards dinner

Dancer at 2015 Institute of Physics awards dinner

Light me up – the 2015 Institute of Physics awards dinner got off to a spectacular start last night. (Courtesy: Institute of Physics)

By Matin Durrani

And so to London last night to attend the annual awards dinner of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World.

It’s a time when the Institute recognizes physicists who are making a “remarkable contribution” to physics, with awards going to teachers, researchers and businesses – as well as those who’ve served the Institute, shown best practice in professional development, and the university departments that have tackled the under-representation of women in physics. International awards are given too.

It being the International Year of Light, guests were also treated to two spectacular stage shows. Having just settled into our seats, we first watched as three dancers performed in front of lasers, dry ice and strobe lighting (see photo above) – certainly a first for an Institute awards dinner – while after the meal we were treated to a troupe called Feeding the Fish.

Their dancers carry laser batons to create “one-of-a-kind performances that fuse tight choreography with…specialized lighting effects”, with the batons being used to show everything from triangles and butterflies to even the logo of the Institute of Physics. Quite how it all worked certainly had physicists in the audience scratching their heads.


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CMS on canvas

Collage of the CMS detector at CERN

Collage of the CMS detector at CERN created by Genevieve Lovegrove.

By Michael Banks

We’ve already had a LEGO model of the giant CMS detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) but now University of Leicester modern literature student Genevieve Lovegrove has attempted to go one better by creating a collage of the LHC detector made from everyday objects.


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The November 2015 issue of Physics World is out now


By Matin Durrani

Whether it’s the shortest wavelength, the lightest particle, the highest pressure or the brightest beam, there’s something intrinsically appealing about pushing boundaries to break records and establish new limits of what’s physically possible. Reaching new extremes is healthy for science too, spurring researchers to outperform rivals in the quest for grants, kudos or new jobs.

The November 2015 issue of Physics World, which is now out, covers three frontier-busting research endeavours. We kick off by looking at a human-made extreme: the search for the blackest materials ever produced – a tale that’s had a dark side of its very own. Next, we examine how physics techniques are unravelling the secrets of tough lifeforms that exist in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. Finally, we go beyond Earth to a cosmic extreme: magnetars – a special kind of rotating neutron star that are the strongest magnets in the universe.


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Horsing around with some innovative physics

Photograph of three physicists, Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater, holding their IOP Innovation Award

(Left to right) Physicists Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater of Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging celebrate their success in the IOP Innovation Awards.

By Margaret Harris

Imagine you’re a veterinarian and a trainer asks you to take a look at a horse. The animal, a champion showjumper, is limping slightly but there is no obvious injury. Exploratory surgery would probably do more harm than good, and the alternative – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – isn’t risk-free either. You’d need to put the horse under a general anaesthetic, and you know horses don’t react well to that; in fact, around 0.5% suffer serious injuries while coming round afterwards. And that’s assuming you can even find a scanner big enough to fit a horse. What do you do?

This might sound like a fairly niche dilemma, but for Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging it has become the basis for a thriving business – a business, moreover, that has just won an IOP Innovation Award for the successful application of physics in a commercial product.

At the awards ceremony – which took place last night in the Palace of Westminster, London, just down the hall from the House of Commons chamber – I caught up with Hallmarq’s operations and technical director, Steve Roberts. After sketching out the scenario of the veterinarian and the injured horse, Roberts, a physicist, explained that Hallmarq’s MRI scanner fits around the horse’s leg. This means that equine patients can simply be led into it, sedated but conscious. Sophisticated error-correction and image-processing software helps the scanner compensate for the horse’s movement, and in 15 years of operation, Roberts estimates that veterinarians have used Hallmarq’s machines to scan more than 60,000 horses.


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Can physics reveal the secrets of Egypt’s pyramids?

By James Dacey

“Just because a mystery is 4500 years old doesn’t mean it can’t be solved.” That is the tagline of a major new project to uncover the secrets of Egypt’s pyramids without damaging a single stone.

Map of locations of the pyramids in the Scan Pyramids project

Study locations. (Courtesy: Scan Pyramids)

Scan Pyramids – launched by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities – will deploy an arsenal of non-invasive technologies to probe the structure of four pyramids from Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty (from 2575 BC to 2465 BC). On the Giza plateau, about 20 km south-west of Cairo, it will study the Pyramid of Khafre, along with the Pyramid of Khufu, aka the “Great Pyramid of Giza”, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Meanwhile, on the site of Dahshur, around 40 km south of the Egyptian capital, it will investigate the North and South pyramids. (Click to expand the map.)

Despite their global fame and familiarity, these ancient monuments still hold many mysteries. Chief among them is the question of how the ancient Egyptians managed to build these huge edifices. The Great Pyramid of Giza was originally 150 m tall and weighed 5 million tonnes, yet it was constructed in just 25 years. Egyptologists also believe that these pyramids could be concealing hidden chambers, which could house tombs and secret treasures.


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