Category Archives: General

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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Connecting physics with Argentine industry

Photo of scientists in an optics lab

That’s me on the right visiting an optics lab at the University of Buenos Aires.

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

This week, physics PhD students and advanced undergraduates from across Argentina will flock to the University of Buenos Aires for the physics department’s winter school. It’s an annual event where budding researchers spend a few days at the nation’s premier academic institution to learn about some of the latest developments in fundamental research. The year, however, the meeting will be focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry.

I’ve been in Buenos Aires as part of a fact-finding mission to learn about the physics-education system in Argentina. After meeting with various people involved with Argentine physics education, it seems to me that the theme of this year’s winter school at the University of Buenos Aires is indicative of a change in the way physics is being presented to students. The subject is being rebranded from a purely intellectual pursuit into a practical science that can equip students with highly sought-after professional skills. The bigger picture, of course, is that right now the Argentine economy needs all the fresh ideas and workforce it can get!

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Vacuum Technology is out now

By Matin Durrani

Vacuum technology is big business these days, with companies in the sector producing advanced scientific equipment that is vital not only for academic research, but also for manufacturers in other industrial sectors.
Physics World 2014 Focus on vacuum technology
In fact, one giant of the vacuum industry – Swedish firm Atlas Copco – bought its UK rival Edwards Vacuum for an eye-watering $1.5bn last year.

If you want to find out more about why Atlas Copco forked out so much cash, don’t miss the latest Physics World focus issue on vacuum technology, which includes an interview with Geert Follens, president of Atlas Copco’s newly created vacuum-solutions division. In the interview, Follens discusses the takeover in more detail and explains why he expects further strong growth in the vacuum market.

Elsewhere in the issue, you can read about a European Union project uniting academia and industry to improve vacuum metrology for production environments. Such efforts are vital even in the drinks industry, where the Van Pur brewery in Poland, for example, uses equipment from KHS Plasmax to coat the inside of bottles with an ultrathin layer of glass using plasma impulse chemical vapour deposition under vacuum.

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Physics World’s futuristic look

Physics World magazine seen through the NPL device

Holographic view: The August 2014 issue of Physics World, seen through the NPL device. (Courtesy: NPL/Richard Stevens)

By Tushna Commissariat

Some of you may remember a news story I wrote last month that looked at a new optical gadget that uses a holographic waveguide to augment reality. The device hopes to transform the wearable-display market – it allows users to overlay full-colour, 3D, high-definition images into their normal line of sight, thereby interacting with their surroundings. The waveguide was developed by UK-based company TruLife Optics, along with researchers from the adaptive-optics group at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) near London.

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Discovering your inner scientist

Chad Orzel

Chad Orzel in action.

By Matin Durrani

Chad Orzel writes one of the most active and longest running science blogs on the net, having posted the first entry on his blog Uncertain Principles back in June 2002. A physicist at Union College in Schenectady, New York, he’s also written two popular-science books, based on the cute premise of trying to teaching first quantum physics and then relativity to his dog.

So, a couple of months back, when we noticed that Orzel was coming to the UK, we decided to invite him to give a talk as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Orzel kindly accepted our offer and last night saw him speak here at the offices of IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World. The talk was entitled Eureka! Discovering Your Inner Scientist, which just happens to be the title of Chad’s next book. (And what’s wrong with a spot of self-publicity?)

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Shining a brighter light on topological transport

Topological light travels easily around the edge of the matrix yet gets muddled in the middle (Courtesy: JQI)

Topological light travels easily around the edge of the lattice, yet it gets muddled in the middle. (Courtesy: JQI)

By Hamish Johnston

Last year we reported on a fascinating experiment that simulated the quantum Hall effect using light. Mohammad Hafezi and colleagues at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) of the University of Maryland created a lattice of ring-shaped silicon waveguides that are placed just nanometres apart (see image above). This allows light in one ring to “tunnel”  into a neighbouring ring and make its way across the matrix, hopping from ring to ring.

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Why we’re five years overdue for a damaging solar super-storm

By Matin Durrani

The cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out in print and digital formats, looks at the Sun – and in particular, at the consequences here on Earth of a “solar super-storm”. As I point out in the video above, these violent events can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field – potentially inducing damaging electrical currents in power lines, knocking out satellites and disrupting telecommunications.

One particularly strong solar super-storm occured back in 1859 in what is known as the “Carrington event”, so named after the English astronomer who spotted a solar flare that accompanied it. The world in the mid-19th century was technologically a relatively unsophisticated place and the consequences were pretty benign. But should a storm of similiar strength occur today, the impact could be devastating to our way of life.

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‘Outspoken’ scientist reveals his Hollywood life

Photograph of Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2014

Sean Carroll helps Hollywood use more believable science better in films. (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

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.

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Yeah but no but yeah but no but…

The various regions at the edge of thes olar system.

The various regions at the edge of the solar system. (Courtesy: Southwest Research Institute)

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.

Last September, we blogged about a paper in Science that, yep, it had definitely left the solar system a year before – on 25 August 2012 in fact.

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).

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The July 2014 issue of Physics World is out now

 

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.

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