Category Archives: General

Physics World 2014 Focus on Optics & Lasers is out now

By Matin Durrani

Physics World focus issue on optics and lasers 2014It’s time to tuck into the latest focus issue of Physics World, which explores some of the latest research into optics and lasers.

The focus issue, which can be read here free of charge, kicks off with a report from the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol in the UK, which is driving a new approach to quantum computing based on integrated photonic circuits.

Elsewhere in the issue, you can find out from Joel England, a physicist at Stanford University in the US, about the new photonic research that could see particle accelerators shrunk to the scale of microchips.

Meanwhile, the huge potential of the photonics sector in general is underlined in our keynote interview with the chief executive of Jenoptik, Michael Mertin, who is also president of the European Union’s Photonics21 consortium, which seeks to unify the European photonics community and advises the European Commission on photonics research, development and innovation needs.

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Why did a drop of pitch in Dublin go viral?

 

By Matin Durrani

It’s always surprising to see the kinds of things that go viral – who’d have thought that a blog with amusing animal pictures would prove such a hit or that a chubby Korean pop singer would clock up nearly two billion views on YouTube?

But I doubt anyone could have predicted that a video of a drop falling from an antique funnel of pitch at a lab at Trinity College Dublin would become one of the science stories of 2013. In fact, here at Physics World we didn’t even write about it at the time.

Partly to make amends, the May issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out, includes a fabulous article by Shane D Bergin, Stefan Hutzler and Denis Weaire from the lab in Dublin where the experiment is based. In the article, they explain the science behind the pitch drop, discuss the history of the experiment and reflect on the value of “slow science” to a hyper-connected, social-media world.

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BICEP2′s findings trigger new kind of ‘inflation’

The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole

Sunrise over the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Tushna Commissariat

Scientists and laypeople the world over were intrigued by the announcement made by the BICEP2 collaboration earlier last month, when it claimed to have detected the primordial “B-mode polarization” of the cosmic microwave signal (CMB). Many researchers have hailed it as the first evidence for cosmic inflation – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe our universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang.

Indeed, after a quick search of the arXiv preprint server, I found nearly 172 papers based on the BICEP2 data that have been written since the team’s announcement on 17 March. Some 200 individual citations to the original BICEP2 paper can also be found on the server.

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How Charles Wheatstone got to see polarization

By Matin Durrani

Things seem to have quietened down a bit following last month’s announcement by astronomers in the BICEP2 collaboration that they had obtained the first evidence of cosmic inflation – the period of rapid expansion in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang. As you’ll know if you’ve been keeping up, the evidence was obtained by searching for certain “B-mode” polarizations in the cosmic microwave background, which are related to primordial gravitational waves that are thought to have abounded in the early universe. These polarizations differ from “E-mode” polarization, which describes how the magnitude of polarization varies across the CMB.

But never mind your fancy B-modes and E-modes, how well do you understand the concept of polarization in the first place? Intriguingly, in the late 1840s Sir Charles Wheatstone, who was then professor of experimental philosophy at the University of London, decided to create a mechanical device to explain the principles of the concept – several decades before James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic nature of light.

The video above shows a rare surviving example of one of these “Wheatstone Wave Machines”, which has been restored to working order by Robert Whitworth and colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the UK as part of their collection of historic physics instruments. Wheatstone designed the machine to visualize the wave nature of light and offer what Whitworth calls “a vivid insight into the theoretical concepts of wave motion”. At the time, there were other devices that showed the behaviour of travelling plane waves, but Wheatstone’s was different in that it was the first to demonstrate circularly polarized light.

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Hi-tech giants eschew corporate R&D, says report

IBM's latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

IBM’s latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

By Hamish Johnston

“Think” has been motto of the US-based computer giant IBM since it was coined in the early 20th century by founder Thomas Watson. Many would argue that IBM has succeeded over the past 100 years because physicists and other scientists were given the freedom to think while working at the company’s research labs. And science has benefitted too, with three Nobel prizes won or shared by physicists working at the firm’s labs. Even more impressive is that a whopping seven physics Nobels have been awarded to physicists at Bell Labs – originally Bell Telephone Laboratories.

But the days of these corporate “idea factories” are over according to a new study published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Entitled Physics Entrepreneurship and Innovation (PDF), the 308-page report argues that many large businesses are closing in-house research facilities and instead buying in new expertise and technologies by acquiring hi-tech start-ups.

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Setting the standard for Brazilian materials science

Brazil's standards lab, Inmetro

Long and low – Inmetro, Brazil’s standards lab.

By Michael Banks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As part of my road-trip round Brazil, I visited Inmetro – the Brazilian standards lab. Located around 50 km north of Rio de Janeiro, Inmetro certainly has the feeling of being well away from the hustle and bustle of one of Brazil’s major cities.

The first thing that you notice when you enter Inmetro’s vast campus is that the buildings have a unique architecture (see above). The bunker-like structures are built in such a way that they are protected from the Sun, which can deliver 40 °C temperatures in summer. (Thankfully, I am here in autumn, but the temperature is still a warm 30 °C.)

Inmetro’s campus was built about 40 years ago with the help of the PTB – the German standards lab. The buildings were also specially designed so that the labs are vibrationally separate from the offices. So, any wild jumping around at your desk won’t affect the sensitive measurements in the lab.

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Boosting innovation in Brazil

Evaldo Ferreira Vilela

FAPEMIG boss Evaldo Ferreira Vilela.

By Michael Banks in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

I’m writing this while on a week-long road trip across Brazil to gather information for a new report that IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, is producing for the Brazilian Materials Research Society.

While on my trip, I have visited a number of institutes that focus on materials research. But I also had the chance to talk a bit of policy when visiting FAPEMIG – the main state funder for research in Minas Gerais, which is the second most populous state in Brazil.

In Belo Horizonte, which is the capital of Minas Gerais, I met Evaldo Ferreira Vilela, who is director of science, technology and innovation at FAPEMIG.

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Why axing practicals from science exams is a bad idea

Science practical exams

(iStock/LuVo)

By Matin Durrani

I don’t know about you, but I look back rather nostalgically on the practical exams that I took as an 18 year old as part of my A-levels in physics and chemistry. At the time, I wasn’t looking forward to them at all – they lasted three hours each and there was always the very large possibility of completely mucking up your experiment and/or dropping all your samples on the floor.

Although I’ve forgotten everything about my physics practical exam, the chemistry practical still sticks out in my mind. I remember making some needle-like crystals that, through amazing good fortune, turned out really well – certainly far better than the watery mush I’d created in my mock exams. So when I walked over to the other side of the lab to measure the temperature at which the crystals melted, they did so over a really narrow range – and presumably at the “correct” temperature too.

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Physics World Special Report: Brazil

By Matin Durrani

Physics World 2014 Brazil Report

With this year’s FIFA World Cup drawing ever closer, Physics World turns its attention to Brazil – the nation hosting the planet’s biggest sporting event

We’re not, of course, looking at the country’s footballing prowess or examining the controversial – and staggering – sums being spent on staging the World Cup.

Instead, the latest Physics World Special Report examines the challenges and opportunities for physicists in Brazil – the fifth biggest nation by size and the world’s seventh-largest economy.

Physics in the country is thriving, with the Brazilian government having more than quadrupled the amount of money invested in research and development since the turn of the century.

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How can you give yourself time to think?

By Matin Durrani

Physics World April 2014

If you’re a busy researcher, you’ll know just how precious time can be. But for many physicists, there’s a growing pressure to communicate, collaborate and interact – often at the expense of having time in silence to sit and think.

It’s an issue tackled in the cover story of the April issue of Physics World magazine by Felicity Mellor from Imperial College London, who runs a project called “Silences of Science“. The cover of this month’s issue was specially commissioned by us from artist Dave Cutler.

As Mellor puts it, current research policy – in the UK at least – emphasizes silence’s opposite. “From assessing publications and rewarding collaborations, to requirements for public engagement, policy initiatives urge scientists to speak up,” she writes.

Yet there is a danger, Mellor warns, that in the midst of all this enforced interaction, an important precondition for creativity in physics could be lost. “With all these demands to talk, do scientists still have the chance to think?” she wonders.

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