Category Archives: General

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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Seismic study digs into volcanic plumbing

Map of the seisemic velocity of Mount Fuji

What lies beneath?: Mapping Mount Fuji. (Courtesy: Florent Brenguier)

By Tushna Commissariat

Plumbing problems do not get any bigger and more complicated than a backed-up volcano. But geophysicists looking at the responses of ground waves below Japanese volcanoes have now come up with a technique for identifying where pressurized volcanic fluids build up, allowing them to better anticipate when a volcano may erupt. Scientists already knew that seismic waves from large earthquakes agitate volcanic systems and that large eruptions generally follow a build-up of pressurized fluids at some depth. But they had been unable to pin down the specific physical changes that seismic waves cause. Now though, Florent Brenguier of the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in Grenoble, France, and colleagues at the University of Tokyo have used recordings of seismic-wave velocity from the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake to create a map of seismic-velocity changes in its aftermath. Surprisingly, the largest changes were not observed in the area closest to the earthquake epicentre near the Pacific coast but farther inland, immediately below volcanic regions. The image above highlights an anomalously low seismic velocity below the Mount Fuji volcano after the earthquake, despite it being some 500 km from the epicentre. The drop in velocity is because the regions are susceptible to earthquake shaking – cracks in the crust open so that fluids at high pressures can escape, and could be seen as proxies for the high-pressure fluid build-up (Science 345 80).

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Rebuilding Tesla Tower

Tesla tower

Artist’s impression of the revamped Tesla Tower. (Global Energy Transmission)

By Michael Banks

Two Russian physicists have turned to the fundraising website Indiegogo in the hope of raising a cool $800,000 to build a Tesla Tower.

Leonid and Sergey Plekhanov – graduates of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology but now working in industry – want to reconstruct the famous Wardenclyffe Tower that was built by the inventor and engineer Nicola Tesla to find a commercial application for long-distance wireless energy transmission.

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Physics World tackles the valley of death

By James Dacey

Many academics believe that they have an idea in them that could lead to a nifty new technology – and make them some cash in the process. But there is a world of difference between discussing an idea in the departmental common room and actually launching a new product to fit into an unexploited niche in the market. One of the biggest challenges that start-up companies face is known as the valley of death, which we have illustrated for you here with this quirky animation.

 

The voice you hear is that of Stan Reiss, who works for the international venture capitalist firm Matrix Partners. He explains how the valley of death is a metaphor for the financial challenges faced by a spin-off company in the early stages of its development. In this phase, the firm may have a prototype for a product but it might not have the income or the capital to comfortably survive and grow. Often, the company simply runs out of money and falls by the wayside. “There’s a lot of dead bones and skeletons at the end of that valley,” says Reiss.

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Choosing physics, or not

By Margaret Harris

I’ve been mulling over this topic for a while, but a pair of blog posts this week has finally prompted me to write about it. One of them, entitled “Why I won’t be studying physics at A-level” appeared yesterday in the education section of the Guardian newspaper. In it, the anonymous female author lists a number of reasons why she is leaving physics, including a lack of female teachers and an “uninspiring” GCSE physics syllabus that “seemed out of touch compared with the stem cells and glucoregulation we were studying in biology”. There’s plenty to debate there already, but to me, the following paragraph was the most striking:

“I don’t dislike physics; neither do I find it boring or particularly difficult. But I do enjoy my other subjects more, so when it came to choosing between physics and geography for my fourth AS-level I opted for the latter. I thought it would be good to take a humanities subject to balance out the sciences.”

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