Category Archives: General

LIGO–Virgo comments on neutron star rumours, sort of

Caught in the act: has LIGO-Virgo detected merging neutron stars? (Courtesy: NASA)

Caught in the act: has LIGO–Virgo detected merging neutron stars? (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

Have gravitational waves from merging neutron stars been detected for the first time?

Physicists working on the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave detectors have issued a statement that appears to be a response to rumours that both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation from an astronomical event have been detected.

LIGO has already detected gravitational waves from three different binary black-hole mergers. But none of these events appeared to emit electromagnetic radiation that could be detected by astronomers using telescopes on Earth or in space.

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America’s night in a day

August 2017 total solar eclipse

Day’s night: the Great American Eclipse. (Courtesy: Tami Freeman)

By Sarah Tesh

On Monday 21 August, the US witnessed some unusual events. Day turned to night, temperatures dropped as much as 6 °C, animals behaved weirdly and street lights came on in the middle of the day – all because a vast, 115 km-wide shadow swept across the land.

This was, of course, a solar eclipse – where the Moon passed in front of the Sun casting a shadow on Earth. Millions watched with special glasses, home-made pin-hole cameras, digital cameras, and – in the case of scientists – satellites and telescopes.

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The American eclipse: wonder, science and festivities

 

by David Appell in Salem, Oregon, US

The Moon partially blocks the Earth’s view of the Sun at least twice, but the 21 August total solar eclipse – the “Great American Eclipse” –  is “likely to be the single most viewed natural phenomenon in history of America”, according to Randall Milstein, an astronomy instructor at Oregon State University. He says a total of 324 million people live within a 9-hour drive of the path of totality.

While the total solar eclipse will span the US – the first to do so since 1891 – the UK will only see a slight partial eclipse, where a sliver of the Moon covers the Sun. Starting over Belfast at 7:37 p.m. BST and leaving Plymouth at 8:33 p.m. BST, this partial eclipse will extend to eastern continental Europe. But it will only be a 4% blockage at best – so be sure to use eclipse safety glasses!

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Documentary explores the history of astronomy in China

 

By James Dacey

A new documentary explores the development of astronomy in China, taking viewers from the protoscience of ancient China through to the nation’s ambitious space exploration programmes of today. Directed by Beijing-based filmmaker René Seegers, the film has recently been broadcast on Shanghai Television along with screenings at a range of academic institutions, cultural and scholarly societies and embassies throughout China. Now, you can watch the film on the Physics World YouTube channel (with English subtitles).

“The Ancient Chinese believed that Heaven was a power, or a deity, which judged humans. Heaven was responsible for weather and for natural disasters. It was not a realm accessible to humans,” explains Ying Da, the documentary’s presenter. Ying is a media personality who shot to fame in China for directing the family sitcom I Love My Family (1993–1994).

Of course, in recent times Chinese scientists and engineers have taken a much more proactive approach to understanding the cosmos. Since the People’s Republic of China launched its first satellite in 1970 (Dong Fang Hong I), the nation has been ramping up its space programmes. The documentary takes viewers to observatories and the final construction phase of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the largest single-dish radio telescope on Earth. It also joins Chinese scientists in Antarctica and explores the leading role China is playing in the construction and operation of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.

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America counts down to the big eclipse

Section of NASA's 2017 Earth Day poster depicting the solar eclipse

Night in day: the Sun will be temporarily blocked from view. (Courtesy: NASA)

By David Appell in Salem, Oregon, US

On Monday 21 August tens of millions of people will view one of the most remarkable phenomena available on Earth – a total solar eclipse. The shadow created as the Moon blocks out the Sun will sweep across the US in the middle of the day and I’ve been looking forward to it since I learned of it six years ago.

I’m one of the lucky ones – I live in Salem, Oregon, which lies within the eclipse’s 10 km-wide path of totality. Along this path, day will turn dark for about two minutes and the flare of the Sun’s corona will become visible. Birds will roost, crickets will begin to chirp, the temperature will fall about 5 °C, and people will likely gape in awe as humans have no doubt done since our species first began.

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The August 2017 issue of Physics World is now out

PWAug17cover-200By Matin Durrani

Who inspired you to study physics? Perhaps you had a great teacher or a supportive parent. But how might it feel if you’ve got a sibling who’s also into the subject? Would they be your rival or would the two of you support and nurture each other?

These issues facing “sibling scientists” are the cover feature of the August issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out. Turns out that sibling scientists are generally a force for good, especially with the elder child acting as a mentor and guide – often providing information, support and advice to the younger sister or brother.

I wonder in fact if we should do more to encourage boys and girls who are already in thrall with physics to persuade their siblings into the subject too. Of course, our feature isn’t an exhaustive scientific study, so do tell us if you know of other examples of sibling science.

Remember that if you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, you can read Physics World magazine every month via our digital apps for iOS, Android and Web browsers.

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“A week in which good practice and frustrations could be shared honestly”

ICWiP conference chair Nicola Wilkin

Warm welcome: Nicola Wilkin welcomed an international audience.

By Sarah Tesh 

The International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP) was everything I hoped it would be – a fascinating event full of interesting discussions, talks and workshops, and inspiring women. Held at the University of Birmingham in the UK from 16 to 20 July, the conference was organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).

Over a series of blogs, Jess Wade from Imperial College London and myself have endeavoured to give you an insight into the conference – the international stories, the iconic women and the important hurdles still to overcome. To round this up and reflect upon the inspirational event, I spoke to conference chair Nicola Wilkin from the University of Birmingham.

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Bias, stereotyping and harassment: what women battle

The words associated with girls and boys influence their futures

Word association: “Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of”. (Courtesy: Jessica Rowson, IOP)

By Sarah Tesh about the International Conference on Women in Physics in Birmingham, UK

Have you ever thought about why, when asked to indicate your gender on a form, “male” comes above “female”? It’s not alphabetically first, so why is it listed first? I had never questioned this myself until Jocelyn Bell Burnell pointed it out in her Institute of Physics (IOP) President’s Medal lecture. This is an excellent example of bias in our day-to-day lives – while each one of us may believe we are fair and unprejudiced, we cannot always control what our brains do and many of us are unconsciously biased without meaning to be. Unfortunately, this is one of the factors holding back women in physics.

Bias, stereotyping and harassment were major topics during the International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP) last week at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Many delegates at the conference have experienced these issues to varying degrees and several of the talks focused on ways to combat them.

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Science, scepticism and fear at the theatre

Olivia Williams (left) and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood

Sceptical siblings: Olivia Williams (left) and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood. (Courtesy: National Theatre/Brinkhoff & Mogenburg)

By Tushna Commissariat

Working at Physics World for the last six years has taken me to some pretty cool labs – everywhere from CERN to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). My job has allowed me to meet some quite famous people too…at least in the world of physics, that is. But getting to spend a morning at the National Theatre in London watching Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams rehearse for a play is not usual even for me. That is precisely why I jumped at the chance, when I found out that the pair star as sisters in the recently opened play Mosquitoes.

You may be wondering what a play with that moniker has to do with physics. Mosquitoes tells the story of rational and lucid Alice (played by Williams), a particle physicist at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and her often-illogical sister Jenny (played by Colman) “who spends a lot of time Googling” and is easily swayed by the bad science she chances upon. Written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Rufus Norris – the National Theatre’s current artistic director, the play follows the siblings through a family tragedy, as well as the fairly disastrous switching on of the LHC in 2008, and takes a hard look at our relationships with science, facts, belief and so much more. Kirkwood, whose previous successes include Chimerica and The Children, was commissioned to write the play by the Manhattan Theatre Club as part of its Alfred P Sloan Foundation initiative, which aims to “stimulate artists to create credible and compelling work exploring the worlds of science and technology and to challenge the existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination”.

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Great dames: a tribute to the game changers at ICWiP

Science friends: Jess Wade chats about the iconic women at ICWiP. (Courtesy: Jess Wade)

Science friends: Jess Wade chats about the iconic women at ICWiP. (Courtesy: Jess Wade)

By Jess Wade at the International Conference on Women in Physics in Birmingham, UK

On accepting the Institute of Physics (IOP) President’s Medal at the International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP), Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell closed with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s infamous quote – “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” And what does she say is the least well-behaved thing she’s done during her scientific career? Become a working mother. Jocelyn battled with stereotyping and bias because she was a woman in a male-dominated field who also dared to have a family and career. She persevered and refused to back down, going on to become an award-winning scientist, Fellow of the Royal Academy and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (keep an eye out for a feature on Jocelyn Bell Burnell in Physics World later this year). Bell Burnell’s story was one of many awe-inspiring tales of ground-breaking women at ICWiP last week, which was held at the University of Birmingham in the UK – and here are some whose stories were too good to keep to myself.

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