Category Archives: General

All eyes on the ICTP as it turns 50

View from the guest house at the International Centre for Theoretical  Physics in Trieste, Italy

Golden days: the view from the guesthouse at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics as delegates arrive for a conference to mark its first 50 years.

By Matin Durrani in Trieste, Italy

When the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) here in Trieste in 1964, I am sure he would have never quite dared to believe that it would go on to be such a success in helping to further the careers of some of the brightest minds from the developing world. Salam’s dream was for the ICTP to be a focal point for talented theorists from countries seeking to build up their research strengths, bringing such people into contact with leading physicists from front-ranking nations to carry out top-quality collaborative projects.

Now, 50 years after it began, the ICTP is hosting a golden-jubilee conference, where it is quite rightly celebrating all that it has achieved – and looking ahead to the future too.

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What type of physics should you do if you want to bag a Nobel prize?

Noble physics infographic

Prize-winning physics explored in our infographic created by Paul Matson.

By Hamish Johnston

Update on 16 October 2014: The 2014 prize has been added to the infographic.

At 11.45 a.m. CET (at the earliest) on Tuesday 7 October, the winner(s) of the 108th Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced in Stockholm. Like just about everyone else, I have no information about who will win – although I do have my suspicions (more on those tomorrow).

Predicting the future is never easy, but help is at hand with a new infographic that Physics World has created charting the history of the physics Nobel by discipline. Using the categories that we apply to articles on physicsworld.com, we have split the 107 prizes since 1901 into seven categories. If you click on the image above, you can see the infographic in all its glory.

The most popular discipline with Nobel committees through the ages is nuclear and particle physics, which accounts for nearly one-third of the prizes. As well as dominating the prizes in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear and particle physics spreads its tentacles from the very first prize – to Wilhelm Röntgen for the discovery of X-rays – to last year’s prize, which went to François Englert and Peter Higgs for predicting a much more esoteric boson.

Interestingly, that very first prize in 1901 flags up an important challenge I faced while categorizing the prizes using contemporary disciplines. You could argue that when Röntgen discovered X-rays, he was doing atomic physics. Indeed, some of those X-rays would have come from atomic processes, while others would have been bremsstrahlung – which I would consider particle physics. However, because Röntgen accelerated electrons into a target and analysed the radiation produced, I decided that it was a particle-physics experiment.

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Aliens and atheists

By Margaret Harris

Press releases are supposed to be attention-grabbing, but occasionally, I come across one that really goes the extra mile. That was the case this morning when – my eyes still a bit bleary, my coffee still un-drunk – I spotted a real doozy in my in-box.

“Are the world’s religions ready for ET?” the headline asked.

Some might regard this question as unimportant. Even if you care about the official views of religious groups (and many people – including some religious people – do not), their opinions about life on other planets are surely less relevant to daily life than their guidelines on, say, human morality. After all, if extraterrestrial life does exist, it is an awfully long way away: the nearest star system to ours, Alpha Centauri, is more than four light-years off, and astronomers do not regard it as a good candidate for habitable planets. So, if extraterrestrial life is ever discovered, the Earth’s religions will have plenty of time to get used to it before it causes them any practical problems down at the local synagogue, mosque, temple or church (“Baptismal Ceremony ET: For alien life forms unable to answer for themselves”).

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The October 2014 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

There’s some great material in the October issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats. Highlights include a look at Europe’s Rosetta mission, which is set to land a probe on a comet for the very first time, an analysis of whether pulsars could be used to detect gravitational waves, and a great feature by University of Maryland physicist James Gates, who insists that although CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has so far seen no signs of supersymmetry, the search for SUSY must go on.

Another great article in the issue is by my colleague Margaret Harris, who is Physics World‘s careers editor. She’s written an in-depth study of what we’re dubbing the “STEM shortage paradox”. This is the curious fact that many employers in the UK say they are struggling to find enough good people with science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) backgrounds, whereas at the same time lots of physics graduates are finding it hard to get jobs. So is there a really a “STEM shortage”, or do STEM graduates have the wrong skills, aren’t good enough or want to work in other fields? In the video above, Margaret outlines her motivations for writing the article.

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Relive CERN’s highlights as the lab turns 60

By Matin Durrani

CERN has been celebrating its 60th anniversary all this month, but it was in fact six decades ago today – on Wednesday 29 September 1954 – that the lab’s convention was ratified by its first 12 member states: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and Yugoslavia.

Physics World has played its own small part in marking the anniversary, including a careers feature on what skills you need as CERN director-general, a day-in-the-life blog written by current CERN boss Rolf-Dieter Heuer, and an appearance at the lab’s TEDx event last week by our columnist Robert P Crease.

This blog entry rounds off our coverage of CERN at 60 with a few links to classic material from our archives.

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A look back at how the dust fell on BICEP2

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s been five days since the metaphorical dust settled on the apparent “discovery” of the B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background that was reported in March. The claim came from the team behind the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope at the South Pole, and much has been said since about what was then hailed as one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the decade.

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How to give a great TEDx talk

Bob Crease at TEDx, CERN, 24 September 2014

Hitting his stride – Robert P Crease in full flow at yesterday’s TEDx talk at CERN after forgetting about the timer, which is the small object at his feet. (Courtesy: Maya Elhalal)

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

It’s great to go first.

Then you can actually listen to the other performances without fretting about your own. Somewhere near the middle of my TEDxCERN talk yesterday (Wednesday 24 September) I stopped being aware of the timer at my feet, began to have fun and left the stage at the end without even noticing whether I had exceeded my time limit. I made a brief stop backstage to lose my “Madonna” – a microphone that’s not on a neck clip or attached to a headset but extends out from an ear brace – then retook my seat in the front row.

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Behind the scenes at CERN’s TEDx event

Bob Crease (at right) with pals at ATLAS shortly before his TEDx talk in September 2014

All-star line-up – Physics World columnist Robert P Crease (far right) in front of the ATLAS detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider as he and his fellow speakers brace themselves ahead of today’s TEDx talks at CERN.

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

On Tuesday morning I addressed 1300 empty chairs.

I was the first of several presenters yesterday at a dress rehearsal for the TEDxCERN event, which takes place this afternoon, Wednesday 24 September. The rehearsal was held in a huge tent specially constructed for this event, and for CERN’s 60th-anniversary celebrations next week. The programme will be broadcast live today starting at 1.30 p.m. CEST (GMT+2).

It isn’t easy, I discovered, to grab the attention of empty chairs. I stumbled over sentences and forgot to click my slides. Occasionally I felt on automatic pilot, and had the eerie experience of hearing myself speak with a half-second delay, as if I were listening to myself from the back of my head. I went a minute over time and also discovered a typo in a slide that I had viewed approximately a zillion times before. I was relieved to find I wasn’t the only one; some of those who followed, too, tripped over delivery or had trouble with slides.

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The birthday party goes on at CERN

Sorry, you missed this concert by the UN Symphony Orchestra on 19 October, but there is more music coming up (Courtesy: CERN)

Sorry, you missed this concert by the UN Symphony Orchestra on 19 September, but there is more music coming up. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

All this week the people at CERN and in its member states will be celebrating 60 years of particle physics at the world-famous lab in Geneva. There is something for everyone to enjoy and here are a few highlights that we have picked out

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A TEDx train wreck?

Photo of CERN as seen by Robert P Crease from his bedroom windown in September 2014

Calm before the storm – the view of CERN from Robert P Crease’s bedroom window as he tries desperately to shave a final two minutes off his TEDx talk.

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

On Sunday morning I arrived at CERN to find workers putting finishing touches on a huge tent where the lab will host its TEDx event on Wednesday, and its 60th anniversary festivities next week.

“TED”, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a non-profit organization that promotes talks on what it calls “ideas worth spreading”; the “x” denotes an independent event organized in that spirit. This is the second TEDxCERN – the first took place last year – and it’s hosted by Brian Cox. More than 1000 people will watch 14 speakers, three performances and three animations; tens of thousands more viewers are expected online.

James Gillies, CERN’s head of communication, invited me to be a speaker. The subject this year, he said, was how science could better engage with major social challenges. He said that my May Physics World column “Why don’t they listen?” – on why scientists have difficulty getting politicians’ ears – had “hit the nail on the head”, and asked if I’d be interested in discussing the idea.

A week at CERN? A great excuse to implore colleagues take over my classes? Sure! All I had to do, I thought, was talk my way through some extended version of the column.

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