Category Archives: General

The January 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

Planck mission polarization map of the cosmic microwave background

Polarized patterns: the cosmic microwave background as you’ve never seen it before. (Courtesy: Planck Collaboration)

By Matin Durrani

Happy new year and welcome back to Physics World after the Christmas break.

It’s always great to get a new year off to good start, so why not tuck into the first issue of Physics World magazine of 2016, which is now out online and through the Physics World app.

Our cover feature this month lets you find out all about the Planck mission’s new map of the cosmic microwave background. Written by members of the Planck collaboration, the feature explains how it provides information on not just the intensity of the radiation, but also by how much – and in which direction – it’s polarized.

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A folding challenge

FinishedBy Louise Mayor

Here at Physics World HQ we have seen a lot of origami cropping up in physics over the last few years, be it curved-crease origami, origami robots or even sheets of graphene oxide going for a stroll.

It seems that a growing number of physicists have cottoned on to the fact that origami – and the related art of kirigami, where cuts are allowed – can be very interesting from a physics point of view, with properties that can lead to novel applications over a range of length scales. If you are a member of the Institute of Physics, you can read all about it in “Flat-pack physics”, a feature by science writer Simon Perks published in this month’s edition of Physics World.

As part of some background research for this feature I came across some great origami designs. One in particular – a snowflake – caught my eye and I got in touch with its designer Dennis Walker, who has been a paper folder for about 35 years. Walker very kindly agreed to update his instructions for making the snowflake especially for Physics World. They are now nice and clear and you can find Walker’s updated pattern here (PDF).

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Solving your scientific identity crisis

By Margaret Harris

What kind of scientist are you? In a world where astronomers are getting into (exo)biology, geologists file their programming manuals next to their rock hammers and three physicists shared a chemistry Nobel prize for work with medical implications, it can be hard to keep track. But fear not. For behold, in the midst of this glorious interdisciplinary muddle (and, for many readers, the holiday season), we bring you tidings of great clarity. As it turns out, your scientific identity crisis can be solved with a simple flowchart.

The idea for the flowchart came last summer, when physicist Eugene Hickey submitted his ideas on sorting the geoscientists from the cosmologists to Lateral Thoughts, Physics World’s column of humorous and otherwise off-beat essays about physics and physicists. Hickey began his essay by observing that in his university (the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, near Dublin, Ireland) the interdisciplinary spirit has even trickled down to undergraduate level. For example, to create a materials-science degree, “the right physicist met up with the right chemist [and] decided to bolt together the best elements of both disciplines into a coherent bundle”. Students taking this degree, he added, “spent half their time in each department, like some sort of joint custody arrangement”.

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Commercial quantum computer works, sort of

Is it or isn't it? The D-Wave 2X quantum processor (Courtesy: D-Wave Systems)

Is it or isn’t it? The D-Wave 2X quantum processor. (Courtesy: D-Wave Systems)

By Hamish Johnston

This morning I was speaking to quantum-entanglement expert Jian-Wei Pan, who shares the Physics World Breakthrough of the Year 2015 award for his work on quantum teleportation. Pan briefly mentioned research reported earlier this week by John Martinis, Hartmut Neven and colleagues at Google Research whereby a D-Wave 2X quantum computer was used to perform a computational task 100 million times faster than a classical algorithm.

This is a remarkable result, but does it mean that D-Wave’s controversial processors actually work as quantum computers? Some quantum-computing experts are urging caution in how the research is interpreted.

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Physics World 2015 Focus on Astronomy and Space is out now

By Louise Mayor

PWASTRODec15cover-500Woolly hats are being donned and there’s a nip in the air as the longest night of the year in the Northern hemisphere approaches. All this darkness makes it the perfect season to gaze up at the stars, planets and puffy nebulae above. But binoculars and amateur telescopes can only enhance the view by so much. To really push the boundaries of how far and how fine we can see, we must turn to international telescope projects both on the ground and in space.

To update you on what we think are the most exciting current and future projects we bring you the Physics World Focus on Astronomy and Space, which you can read free of charge in its entirety.

One particularly ambitious imaging effort is described in the article “Portrait of a black hole“, in which Physics World reporter Tushna Commissariat reports on how a group of astronomers plans to take the first-ever image of a black hole. Despite their name, black holes are apparently not black and the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration has already begun pointing a network of ground-based telescopes at its target: Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

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The life and times of Einstein – ‘A vagabond and a wanderer’

Falling in: Sir Roger's sketch of a black hole collapse, at his talk (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Falling in: Sir Roger Penrose’s sketch of a black-hole collapse. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat

So much has been said about Einstein and his general theory of relativity (GR) that one would assume there isn’t two entire days worth of talks and lectures that could shed new light on both the man and his work. But that is precisely what happened last weekend at Queen Mary University London’s “Einstein’s Legacy: Celebrating 100 years of General Relativity” conference, where a mix of scientists, writers and journalists talked about everything from the “physiology of GR” to light cones and black holes, to M-theory and even GR’s “sociological spin-offs”.

The opening talk, “Not so sudden genius”, was given by journalist and author of “Einstein: A hundred years of relativity“, Andrew Robinson. The talk was very fascinating and early on Robinson outlined that Einstein stood on the shoulders of many scientists and not just “giants” such as Newton and Mach. But he also acknowledged that the scientist was always a bit of a loner and he preferred it this way. Robinson rightly pointed out that until 1907, Einstein was “working in brilliant obscurity” and later, even once fame found him, rootlessness really suited Einstein’s personality – he described himself as “a vagabond and a wanderer”.

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Top physics books of 2015

By Margaret Harris

PW book logo 2015Well written, scientifically interesting to physicists, and novel: these are the criteria used to select Physics World’s annual list of the year’s top physics books. We’ve done this every year since 2009, and over the past few weeks, we’ve been at it again, sifting through the 52 books reviewed in the magazine in 2015 and separating the best from the rest (most of which, I should add, are also very good – we try not to review bad books).

This is never an easy task, and as usual, the selections in our shortlist have been influenced by the views of external experts: the physicists, science writers and science historians who read and reviewed books for Physics World magazine throughout 2015. Their reviews (and, in a few cases, their private opinions) helped us decide which books deserved a closer look, and we thank them all for their contributions.

Deciding on a winner, however, is a privilege we reserve for ourselves, and with so many great books to choose from, it has been both a privilege and a challenge this year. We’ll be announcing our “Book of the Year” in a special edition of the Physics World podcast later this month, but in the meantime, here are the candidates:

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Who will win the Physics World 2015 Breakthrough of the Year?

Glittering gong: who will be taking home this year's Breakthrough of the Year award?

Glittering gong: who will be taking home this year’s Breakthrough of the Year award?

By Hamish Johnston

This week marks the beginning of awards season here at Physics World and we have been polishing the 2015 Breakthrough of the Year trophy in anticipation of presenting it to the winner on Friday 11 December.

The winning research must have been published in 2015 and also has to meet four criteria:
• fundamental importance of research;
• significant advance in knowledge;
• strong connection between theory and experiment; and
• general interest to all physicists.

Last year’s ESA’s Rosetta mission was our winner for the remarkable feat of landing a spacecraft on a comet while acquiring a wealth of scientific data. In 2013 the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory won for making the first observations of high-energy cosmic neutrinos. But please don’t think that all the winning research is done by large collaborations. Aephraim Steinberg and colleagues from the University of Toronto were winners in 2011 for their bench-top experimental work on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, while the inaugural prize in 2009 went to Jonathan Home and colleagues at NIST for creating the first small-scale device that could be described as a quantum computer.

We also commend nine runners-up each year who we believe deserve recognition for their contributions to physics.

So who do you think should win this year?

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The December 2015 issue of Physics World is out now

 

By Matin Durrani

As the festive season approaches, many of you will be looking forward to popping open a bottle of champagne. But before you treat yourself to a bottle, do check out the December 2015 issue of Physics World magazine, in which fizzy-wine physicist Gérard Liger-Belair from the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne reveals his top six champagne secrets.

In the article, Liger-Belair explains why a fog appears when you pop open a bottle, the angle at which you should pour the wine into a glass, and how many bubbles there are in a typical glass of fizz. He also wades into that age-old question among sparkling-wine aficionados: flute or coupe?

The new issue also contains a fabulous flow chart, in which you can find out what sort of scientist you are. Don’t miss either our look back at the International Year of Light, a fantastic selection of Christmas books and a feature all about how origami is moving from art to application.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can get immediate access to this article in the award-winning digital edition of the magazine on your desktop via MyIOP.org or on any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet via the Physics World app, available from the App Store and Google Play. If you’re not yet in the IOP, you can join as an IOPiMember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year to get full digital access to Physics World. You can also read Liger-Belair’s article online here.

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Dipping into the physics of a chocolate fountain

Picture of Adam Townsend with a chocolate fountain

Dark flow: Adam Townsend ponders the dynamics of a chocolate fountain. (Courtesy: London Mathematical Society)

By Tushna Commissariat

When most people look at a chocolate fountain in a restaurant or maybe at a party, they are mostly thinking about all the yummy treats they can dunk into the liquid-chocolate curtain. But when a physicist or a mathematician looks at one, they can’t help but notice some of the interesting fluid dynamics at play – most visible is how the curtain of chocolate does not fall straight down, rather it pulls inwards, and that melted chocolate is a non-Newtonian fluid.

University College London (UCL) student Adam Townsend decided to work on this topic for his MSci project and has now published a paper on his findings in the European Journal of Physics. To study the inflow effect, he looked into some classic research on “water bells”, where the same flow shape is seen. “You can build a water bell really easily in your kitchen,” says UCL physicist Helen Wilson, who was Townsend’s MSci project supervisor and the paper’s co-author. “Just fix a pen vertically under a tap with a 10p coin flat on top and you’ll see a beautiful bell-shaped fountain of water.”

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