Category Archives: General

Celtic god of thunder gets an attosecond makeover

Gods of thunder: Gagik Nersisyan (left) and Matt Zepf at the TARANIS laser facility

Gods of thunder: Gagik Nersisyan (left) and Matt Zepf at the TARANIS laser facility.

By Hamish Johnston

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Matt Zepf, who directs the Centre for Plasma Physics at Queen’s University Belfast. Zepf and his colleague Gagik Nersisyan showed me around the TARANIS laser facility, which creates extremely bright flashes of light just like its namesake the Celtic god of thunder.

TARANIS is about to upgraded to TARANIS-X, which will deliver ultrashort pulses of extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) that are just a few attoseconds (10–18 s) in duration. Each attosecond pulse will deliver more than 10 µJ, which Zepf says will make TARANIS-X the most powerful laser of its kind by a comfortable margin.

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Progress update in Chinese physics

Photo of Wenlong Zhan, president of Chinese Physical Society, at meeting with Paul Hardaker and Matin Durrani, 23 February 2016

Wenlong Zhan, president of the Chinese Physical Society (second from left on right-hand side) and colleagues, in discussion with Paul Hardaker, chief executive of the Institute of Physics (far left), and colleagues.

By Matin Durrani

China continues to make great progress in physics, with new facilities and projects starting up all the time. Just this week we’ve reported on plans to build a new neutrino experiment at the China Jinping Underground Laboratory (CJPL). The world’s deepest lab, it’s located under a mountain – with about 2400 m of rock cover – in China’s south-western Sichuan province.

Physics World has long kept a close eye on the progress of the physics community in China and in fact we published our first ever special report on the country in 2011. Since then, however, so much more has been going on that we felt it’s time to make a return trip and will be producing another special report in September this year to give you further insights into physics in China.

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A big Lidl telescope in Belfast

Alan Fitzsimmons and his telescope

Not so Lidl: Alan Fitzsimmons and his bargain telescope.

By Hamish Johnston

There is an old joke in the UK about going to the discount supermarket Lidl for a pint of milk and coming home with a new set of power tools or ski-wear for the entire family. That’s because the retailer is famous for its seemingly random special offers. One week it could be car accessories and the following week the same shelves could be stocked with pyjamas or camping gear.

But Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University Belfast deserves an award for best physics-related Lidl bargain with this huge telescope that he bought at the supermarket. It makes perfect sense to me – both Lidl and the telescope’s maker Bresser are German companies and, of course, Germany is famous for its optics.

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Mary Somerville to appear on new Scottish banknote

Portrait of Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville lived to the age of 91.

By James Dacey

Alice Prochaska, the principal of Somerville College, Oxford, told me yesterday that she is “absolutely thrilled” that Mary Somerville (1780–1872) will appear on a new £10 Scottish banknote. Prochaska believes the decision will help to give the Scottish polymath, whose work led to the discovery of Neptune, the wide recognition she has not yet received. Somerville will be the first woman other than a royal to appear on a Scottish banknote.

The decision had been announced earlier this week by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), following a somewhat bungled public vote. On 1 February, RBS launched a week-long Facebook poll to determine whether Somerville, the engineer Thomas Telford or the physicist James Clerk Maxwell should adorn the new note, which will be issued in the second half of 2017. Having led comfortably throughout, Somerville was overtaken at the eleventh hour by Telford, following a suspicious flurry of votes mainly from outside of the UK. This triggered a three-day stewards’ inquiry before the bank declared Somerville the winner on Wednesday.

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Perimeter Institute discuss LIGO findings

 

By Michael Banks

Following the exciting news that the US-based Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory has discovered gravitational waves, the folks at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada are hosting a live webcast panel discussion at 13:00 EST (18:00 GMT) today.

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Who is your favourite female scientist?

Poster for IOP campaign

By James Dacey

Tomorrow is the inaugural International Day of Women and Girls in Science as declared by the United Nations (UN). It’s a chance to celebrate women’s achievements in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to address the under-representation and inequality that women and girls face in many STEM fields.

One way you can take part on the day is to write the name of your favourite female scientist on this printable poster. Take a photo of yourself holding the poster and share it on Twitter including #WomenInSTEM. This social-media initiative is the idea of our colleagues at the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, who have lots of information about their ongoing diversity programmes on their website. I’ll be sharing the name of Mary Somerville, the Scottish polymath who predicted the existence of Neptune.

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What it’s like collaborating with physicists in China

 

By Matin Durrani

Barry Sanders – director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology at the University of Calgary, Canada – last week visited the headquarters of IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World.

Sanders has just taken over from Eberhard Bodenschatz as editor-in-chief of New Journal of Physics, and it’s a coup to have him in the role, not least because he’s an incredibly busy physicist, making – by his reckoning – at least 150 international flights a year.

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The February 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

 

By Matin Durrani

Welcome to the February 2016 issue of Physics World magazine.

As I explain in the video above, this month we have a package of articles looking at some of the issues surrounding peer review, including a news-analysis piece by Physics World news editor Michael Banks, who talks to a range of figures in physics and publishing with views on this subject.

Our cover feature this month is on the new interdisciplinary science of “network physiology”. Elsewhere in the issue, John Campbell from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand looks at Rutherford’s secret work in the First World War using sonar to spot submarines, while science writer Matthew Francis looks at efforts to rewrite the rules of gravity.

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More data needed on the STEM ‘shortage’

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

(Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

“Science has always been the Cinderella amongst the subjects taught in schools…not for the first time our educational conscience has been stung by the thought that we are as a nation neglecting science.”

Sounds like something David Cameron or Barack Obama might have said last week, right? Wrong. In fact, it comes from a report by the grandly named Committee to Enquire into the Position of Natural Sciences in the Educational System of Great Britain, which presented its findings clear back in…1918.

I came across this quotation thanks to Emma Smith and Patrick White, a pair of education researchers at the University of Leicester who have spent the past few years studying the long-term career paths of people with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Smith and White presented the preliminary findings of their study at a seminar in Leicester yesterday, and one of the themes of their presentation – reflected in the above quote – was the longevity of concerns about a shortage of STEM-trained people, especially university graduates. As Smith pointed out, worries about the number and quality of STEM graduates are not new and, historically, reports of a “STEM crisis” have been as much about politics as they have economic supply and demand.

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Scientists officially ground Spider-Man

Image of gecko and ant

Stick together: both ants and geckos have adhesive pads that let them scale vertical surfaces. (Courtesy: A Hackmann/D Labonte)

By Tushna Commissariat

Don’t tell the kids just yet, but becoming Spider-Man, even after being bitten by a radioactive spider, is looking less and less likely for us humans – we are just too big. The latest work, done by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK, has shown that gecko-sized is pretty much the largest you can be if you realistically want to scale up walls with adhesive pads. Any bigger, and most of your surface area would need to be covered in large sticky pads to pull off the gravity-defying walk. Indeed, the team estimates that roughly 40% of an average human being’s total body surface would need to be sticky – this means a whopping 80% of your front would be covered in adhesive pads.

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