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Browsing the Milky Way at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu


Artist's impression showing the Milky Way over Hawaii

Kai‘aleleiaka: artist’s impression showing the Milky Way over Hawaii. (Courtesy: IAU)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week the triennial XXIX General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) kicked off in Honolulu, Hawaii. Founded in 1919, the IUA has about 10,000 members based in 96 countries worldwide. About 3500 astronomers are attending this year’s meeting, which runs until 14 August and is hosted by the American Astronomical Society.

A long-standing tradition of the congress is the production of a daily newspaper for delegates and 2015 is the first year that an electronic version is available to the general public. You can catch up with all the daily news by downloading a copy of Kai‘aleleiaka, which is pronounced “kah EE ah lay-lay-ee AH kah” and means “the Milky Way” in Hawaiian.

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Re-examining the decision to bomb Hiroshima

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Not forgotten: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is dedicated to the 140,000 people killed in the city. (Courtesty: iStockphoto/Colin13362)

By Hamish Johnston

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima – the first time that a nuclear weapon was used in war. Many argue that the bombing of Hiroshima, and three days later Nagasaki, was a necessary evil that saved hundreds of thousands of lives by ending the war and avoiding an allied invasion of Japan.

Over on The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, the science historian Alex Wellerstein asks “Were there alternatives to the atomic bombings?”. Wellerstein argues that the choice facing the US in 1945 was not as simple as whether to bomb or to invade. He points out that some physicists working on the Manhattan Project – which built the bombs – argued for a “technical demonstration” of the weapons.

In June 1945 the Nobel laureate James Franck and some colleagues wrote a report that argued that the bomb should first be demonstrated to the world by detonating it over a barren island. Wellerstein surmised that “If the Japanese still refused to surrender, then the further use of the weapon, and its further responsibility, could be considered by an informed world community”. Another idea being circulated at the time was a detonation high over Tokyo Bay that would be visible from the Imperial Palace but would result in far fewer casualties than at Hiroshima, where about 140,000 people were killed.

On the other hand, Wellerstein points out that Robert Oppenheimer and three Nobel laureates wrote a report that concluded “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use”. This report was written for a US government committee, which decided to use the weapon against a “dual target” of military and civilian use.

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Faraday explodes in court, NIST is entangled in dance, and Oliver Sacks’ periodic table


By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks

You may remember back in 2013 when researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US entangled the motion of a tiny mechanical drum with a microwave field for the first time ever. Not content with that feat, NIST physicist Ray Simmonds, who was involved in the work, has now made a dance about it (but no song, yet). Teaming up with choreographer Sam Mitchell, the duo has created a modern dance piece entitled Dunamis Novem (“The chance happening of nine things”). Featuring four dancers, their movements are based on nine quantized energy levels of a harmonic oscillator – like the microscopic drum in the NIST work. For each level, Mitchell created corresponding dance actions, while Simmonds created a random-number generator – to add some “quantum randomness” – for the sequence of levels that the dancers perform at. If the dancers happen to touch each other, their actions become synchronized, which can then only be broken by a beam of light – demonstrating that a measurement collapses the entanglement.

NIST has published a Q&A with Mitchell and Simmonds with links to videos of the dance and the animations of the corresponding energy levels of the harmonic oscillator. A video of the first half of Dunamis Novem is shown above and a video of the entire dance is also available.

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The August 2015 issue of Physics World is now out


By Matin Durrani

Mention the two words “science policy” and most physicists’ eyes will probably glaze over. Most of us dream of discovering a new planet or finding the Higgs boson – not poring over budget spreadsheets, championing science to politicians or commenting on legislation.

But science policy is vital in today’s world, which depends hugely on scientific research and in the cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out, Len Fisher and John Tesh offer 12 practical tips for scientists who want their ideas incorporated into science policy. You’ll be intrigued by what the two authors have to say.

Elsewhere in the issue, as my colleague Tushna Commissariat explains in the video above, there’s a great feature based on an interview with the French physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot – the granddaughter of Marie Curie. In the article, Langevin-Joliot explains what’s known as the “Curie complex” and gives her own tips for scientific success. Langevin-Joliot didn’t suffer from the complex herself, but she acknowledges that it is a big problem for others and, these days, spends her time actively promoting careers for women in science

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Former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam was a ‘scientist and a statesman’

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

Missile Man: APJ Abdul Kalam delivering a speech in 2010.
(CC BY 3.0/Pushrakv)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, India is mourning the loss of an esteemed leader – the country’s 11th president APJ Abdul Kalam, who died on Monday. Kalam was in office from 2002 to 2007 and enjoyed country-wide popularity, even post his presidency. Described by US president Barack Obama as a “scientist and a statesman” in his eulogy, Kalam was a physicist and an aeronautical engineer before he turned to politics, first acting as a science administrator and adviser for nearly four decades before his office run. Indeed, he was heavily involved in India’s nuclear tests and its military missile programme, earning him the moniker of “Missile Man”. In 2007 he was awarded the Royal Society’s King Charles II Medal, which is “awarded to foreign heads of state or government who have made an outstanding contribution to furthering scientific research in their country”.

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The Magnus effect in action, destroying the world, an astrophysicist camps out in Manchester and more


By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks

This week’s Red Folder opens with a fantastic video (above) from the folks at Veritasium. It involves dropping a spinning basketball from the top of a very tall dam in Tasmania and watching as the ball accelerates away from the face of the dam before bouncing across the surface of the water below. In comparison, a non-spinning ball simply falls straight down. This happens because of the Magnus effect, which has also been used to create flying machines and sail-free wind-powered boats. The effect also plays an important role in ball sports such as tennis and is explained in much more detail in our article “The physics of football”.

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The search for alien life gathers pace

Alien hunters: Yuri Milner (left) and the great and the good of astronomy announce the Breakthrough Initiatives (Courtesy: Breakthrough Initiatives)

Alien hunters: Yuri Milner (left) and friends announce the Breakthrough Initiatives. (Courtesy: Breakthrough Initiatives)


By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week in London the billionaire physics enthusiast Yuri Milner joined forces with some of the biggest names in astronomy and astrophysics to announce a $100m initiative to search for signs of intelligent life on planets other than Earth. The money will be used to buy time on a number of telescopes to search for radio and optical signals created by alien civilizations.

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Balancing bicycles, looking back on Trinity, pricing up Pluto and more


By Tushna Commissariat

Mechanics was never my favourite topic when I was studying physics for my BSc, but I think I might have been more interested if we had looked at real-world situations rather than square blocks sliding down an incline plane. A bicycle that carries on, sans rider, without toppling over for quite a long time, for example, would have got my attention. This is a rather well-known quirk of mechanics though and it isn’t even the first time we have discussed it on the blog. Indeed, Physics World‘s James Dacey, a keen cyclist, delved into the topic in 2011. This week, we spotted a a new Minute Physics video on the subject, over at ZapperZ’s Physics and Physicists blog. Watch the video to get a good, if a tiny bit rushed, explanation of the three forces that come into play to allow a bicycle at a certain speed to zip along without its human companion. As the video suggests, all is not known about the secrets of free-wheeling bicycles just yet though, and I have a feeling that we will blog about it again in the years to come.

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The STEM jobs paradox rumbles on

Illustrations of jobs versus candidates

On balance: STEM shortages and surveys.

By Hamish Johnston and Margaret Harris

Are countries such as the UK, the US and Canada suffering from a shortage of scientists and engineers, or are scientists and engineers struggling to find jobs there? Our US correspondent Peter Gwynne reports that, according to a recent survey, physicists in that country can expect to be rewarded with handsome salaries if they work in industry – which suggests that their skills are in great demand. However, over in the New York Review of Books, an article on “The frenzy about high-tech talent” claims that “by 2022 the [US] economy will have 22,700 non-academic openings for physicists. Yet during the preceding decade 49,700 people will have graduated with physics degrees.”

In the past few years, Physics World has published several articles on the “STEM shortage paradox”, where reports of severe skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) coexist with lukewarm – and sometimes borderline alarming – data on employment in these fields. Hence, conflicting reports on career prospects for physicists don’t really surprise us anymore (although this is actually slightly different to what we’ve seen before, in that rosy employment data are going up against a downbeat statement about demand, rather than vice versa). But even so, when two reports point in such different directions, it’s tempting to conclude that one of them must be wrong, or at least missing something important.

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Solarquest, Pluto and the importance of New Horizons

A photo of the board game Solarquest, which contains images of all nine planets, several of their moons, and a path between them

The Solarquest board, complete with planets, moons and artificial satellites.

By Margaret Harris

Last night, in honour of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, I pulled out my copy of Solarquest. This classic board game was a childhood favourite of mine, and it’s basically Monopoly in space: instead of buying properties named after streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey (or London, if you’re British), you buy planets, moons and artificial satellites. Then, when your fellow players land on an object you own, you charge them rent.

Such nostalgia is all well and good, I hear you say, but what’s it got to do with New Horizons or Pluto? Well, Solarquest’s inventors clearly took their science seriously. By board game standards, there’s quite a lot of physics in it. For example, you can’t leave a planet unless you roll a number high enough to overcome its gravitational pull, and its Monopoly-like property deed cards include facts about each planet and moon as well as their prices.

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