Category Archives: General
By James Dacey
Today is Mexico’s Independence Day, marking the Grito de Dolores – the day in 1810 when the Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo called on his congregation in the small Mexican town of Dolores to revolt against the Spanish colonial government. This “Cry of Dolores” is seen as the flash point that triggered the Mexican War of Independence.
Modern-day Mexico is still a place with its fair share of turmoil, as the government faces increasing pressure over its inability to deal with drugs, violence and corruption. One area that is starting to look more positive, however, is Mexico’s science base – the administration of president Enrique Peña Nieto has vowed to double Mexico’s investment in science and technology to 1% of GDP and has already sanctioned increases in 2013 and 2014.
To shine a light on what the Mexican physics community is up to, this month sees the publication of a new free-to-read Physics World special report on physics in Mexico. We believe that physicists in Mexico are doing engaging work that deserves to be more widely known. In choosing our coverage for the report, we have not only focused on the challenges for the Mexican community, but also hope to give you a flavour of the rich culture and geography of this most colourful of countries.
By Michael Banks
Ever tried – and duly failed – to pull apart two interleaved phone books? Well, a team of researchers from France and Canada, led by Héctor Alarcón of the University Paris-Sud, has now studied why this is such an impossible task.
By James Dacey
Researchers at CERN are renowned for their musical side-projects. Notable examples include the album released by scientists at the ATLAS detector in 2010, and the “Large hadron rap“, which currently has almost 8 million hits on YouTube. And of course don’t forget the pop-star-turned-physicist Brian Cox who had the UK chart-topping hit “Things can only get better” in the 1990s with his band D:Ream.
Following in this musical tradition, a duo of Mexican researchers has invented a “Cosmic Piano” inspired by the technologies used at the ALICE particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The instrument’s inventors Arturo Fernández Téllez and Guillermo Tejeda Muñoz hold positions at CERN and the University of Puebla in Mexico. They hope the device can demonstrate both the science and the art of the work being carried out at particle-physics facilities.
By Matin Durrani
How and where do new ideas in physics emerge? We often think they arise serendipitously, which is why we love stories like Newton discovering gravity after seeing an apple fall. The reality, though, is often very different.
Writing in the September 2015 issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out, theoretical physicist Vitor Cardoso from the University of Lisbon explains his efforts to find out how breakthroughs – both big and small – really emerge. As he discovered through his project The Birth of an Idea, it turns out that how new thoughts arise is often much more of a communal activity than we might think.
By James Dacey
“Brevity is a great charm of eloquence,” said the great Roman orator Cicero. A new study published today suggests that researchers would be wise to follow Cicero’s advice when it comes to choosing a title for their next academic paper. Data scientists at the University of Warwick in the UK analysed 140,000 papers and found that those with shorter titles tend to receive more citations.
Similar studies have been carried out in the past leading to contradictory results. But Adrian Letchford and his colleagues have used two orders of magnitude more data than previous investigations, looking at the 20,000 most cited papers published each year between 2007 and 2013 in the Scopus online database. Publishing their findings in Royal Society Open Science, Letchford’s group reports that papers with shorter titles garnered more citations every year. Titles ranged from 6 to 680 characters including spaces and punctuation.
By Matin Durrani
The word “geek” used to be a bit of insult, but to be labelled a geek these days isn’t such a bad thing after all. I think a lot of that’s due to the sheer power and pervasiveness of smartphones, software and IT — in fact, the top definition of “geek” over at Urban Dictionary is “The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.” I also reckon the huge popularity of TV’s The Big Bang Theory has played its part in the reversal of fortune of the word, with many of us following the stories of Sheldon, Leonard and their geeky physics pals.
By Brent Tully at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawaii
We know that we live on a planet in a solar system in a galaxy in a group of galaxies. But what do we know about our location in the universe beyond that? Some astronomers would answer that we live in the “Local” or “Virgo” supercluster of galaxies. However, the concept has been vague. In the interconnected “cosmic web” it has not been clear where one dense region of galaxies ends and another begins.
Rather than just looking at the distribution of galaxies, it is instructive to consider the motions of galaxies with respect to each other. On the grand scale, galaxies are flying apart from each other with the expansion of the universe. We have to cancel out that motion to see the residual “peculiar” velocities of galaxies that arise from local gravitational attractors.
By Hamish Johnston
Fusion power, redefining the kilogram and mimicking the Martian surface are three exciting areas of science and technology that are benefiting from the latest vacuum equipment. In our latest Focus on Vacuum Technology, which you can read free of charge, Christian Day of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany explains how new pumping technologies will be crucial to the successful operation of future fusion power plants. “Proving the power of fusion” focuses on the extraordinary vacuum challenges facing the designers of the planned DEMO reactor, which is expected to generate 2 GW of electrical power by the mid-2030s.
Today, the kilogram is defined in terms of a cylinder of a platinum–iridium alloy that was made in the 1880s. Metrology has moved on since then and all of the other SI base units are now defined in terms of fundamental constants. In “The kilogram’s constant struggle”, Stuart Davidson and Ian Robinson of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, UK, explain how vacuum technology is playing a crucial role in the development of new ways of defining the kilogram, one of which will ultimately be chosen as the new global standard.
By Matin Durrani
Earlier this month my colleague Hamish Johnston published a blog post about the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, in which he reported on a piece by the science historian Alex Wellerstein about whether that first use of a nuclear weapon for non-testing purposes was justified.
It’s a hugely contentious issue – some say that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought to an end a conflict that might otherwise have dragged on much longer, while others claim that a detonation well away from built-up areas would have been a better deterrent. Either way, the Hiroshima anniversary served as a pertinent reminder of the long and controversial role that physicists have played in designing and creating nuclear weapons, from the Manhattan Project onswards.
However, there have been plenty of physicists who have opposed the development of nuclear arms, including the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work”. Another anti-nuclear group is the UK-based Scientists for Global Responsibility, whose executive director Stuart Parkinson is a physicist. Last week it published a report calling for the UK government not to replace its submarine-based Trident nuclear deterrent.
Now, a group of 29 leading US scientists and engineers, including six Nobel laureates, has written a two-page letter to US President Barack Obama backing the deal that the US – along with China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK – has struck with Iran to limit its development of nuclear weapons and permit inspections in return for a lifting of economic sanctions.
By Andrew Silver
Can the unaided eye see the light from a single candle from 10 miles away? According to some claims on the Internet, the answer is yes – but now two scientists in the US have borrowed techniques from astronomy to show that a pair of binoculars would probably be needed.
The story behind this work began high in the Andes one moonless night when a candle was lit on the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory telescope catwalk. Somebody walked 400–600 m away and said the flame was as bright as the brightest stars in the sky. Nobody wrote down any numbers.