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Laser show lights up Institute of Physics awards dinner

Dancer at 2015 Institute of Physics awards dinner

Light me up – the 2015 Institute of Physics awards dinner got off to a spectacular start last night. (Courtesy: Institute of Physics)

By Matin Durrani

And so to London last night to attend the annual awards dinner of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World.

It’s a time when the Institute recognizes physicists who are making a “remarkable contribution” to physics, with awards going to teachers, researchers and businesses – as well as those who’ve served the Institute, shown best practice in professional development, and the university departments that have tackled the under-representation of women in physics. International awards are given too.

It being the International Year of Light, guests were also treated to two spectacular stage shows. Having just settled into our seats, we first watched as three dancers performed in front of lasers, dry ice and strobe lighting (see photo above) – certainly a first for an Institute awards dinner – while after the meal we were treated to a troupe called Feeding the Fish.

Their dancers carry laser batons to create “one-of-a-kind performances that fuse tight choreography with…specialized lighting effects”, with the batons being used to show everything from triangles and butterflies to even the logo of the Institute of Physics. Quite how it all worked certainly had physicists in the audience scratching their heads.

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CMS on canvas

Collage of the CMS detector at CERN

Collage of the CMS detector at CERN created by Genevieve Lovegrove.

By Michael Banks

We’ve already had a LEGO model of the giant CMS detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) but now University of Leicester modern literature student Genevieve Lovegrove has attempted to go one better by creating a collage of the LHC detector made from everyday objects.

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Leaping across the innovation divide

Glasgow's Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of G)

Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of Strathclyde)

By Margaret Harris in Glasgow

If you’re the first speaker after lunch at a conference, how do you make sure your audience stays awake and engaged?

For Oliver Ambacher – who occupied the dreaded post-prandial slot during Wednesday’s applied photonics conference at Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC) – the answer is simple. You pretend to jump off a cliff.

Ambacher, the director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics in Freiburg, Germany, made his leap (actually, several leaps of varying lengths) to illustrate one of the toughest challenges in applied physics: the yawning gap between what academic researchers can provide, and what industry scientists need to turn that research into innovative products. This gap is sometimes called the “valley of death”, and Ambacher’s point was that the risks of leaping across it are generally higher on the industry side. “If I, whose heart is still in physics, jump into the valley of death, I lose funding, maybe a project,” Ambacher explained. “But somebody from industry, they may lose their job. So they cannot jump so far.”

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Using pictures to describe light

"Bullseye sky" by Michael Berry.

“Bullseye sky” by Michael Berry.

By Kate Gardner

“Pictures convey abstract concepts to each other and to ourselves,” explained Michael Berry last night in his talk “Optica Fantastica: Nature’s optics and our understanding of light” here at IOP Publishing in Bristol as part of the city’s Festival of Ideas. Berry, who is the Melville Wills emeritus professor of physics at the University of Bristol, began by declaring that he was going to take the “opposite approach to Einstein”. Whereas Einstein said, “I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest is just detail”, Berry is interested in those details.

Sponsored by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, the talk was held to celebrate the International Year of Light 2015 and in it Berry ran the audience through the four levels of understanding light: rays, waves, polarization and quantum. He showed beautiful pictures from his own research but also included some artworks related to the phenomena he was explaining and even quoted passages from novels.

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X-ray visions of the past, undead physics, stargazing cruises and more


By Tushna Commissariat

Peering into a small 17th century metallic box, without damaging its contents, is no mean feat. But thanks to the use of synchrotron radiation, scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble were able to “see” inside one, using a technique known as synchrotron X-ray phase contrast micro-tomography. They were also able to create a 3D reconstruction of clay medals concealed within the very fragile and badly oxidized box, which was discovered on the archaeological site of the Saint-Laurent church, and is now at the archaeological museum of Grenoble (MAG). Take a look at the video above to see what the box held. You can also learn more about the researcher’s tomography technique in an article of ours.

Tomorrow is Halloween, so we hope you have your physics-themed pumpkins carved and out on your doorsteps. For some spooky reading this week, take a look at Davide Castelvecchi‘s “Zombie physics: 6 baffling results that just won’t die” story over on the Nature News website. In it, he lists six “undead” results – things that physicists just can’t seem to prove or disprove – including long-running disagreements over certain dark-matter results, hemispheric inconsistencies and spinning protons. Let us know what you think are some of the most undead physics results that should be laid to rest, in the comments below. And while you are at it, make sure to look at today’s creepy edition of Fermilab Today to read about the rise of the zombie accelerator and the “The cult of the Tev.”

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The November 2015 issue of Physics World is out now


By Matin Durrani

Whether it’s the shortest wavelength, the lightest particle, the highest pressure or the brightest beam, there’s something intrinsically appealing about pushing boundaries to break records and establish new limits of what’s physically possible. Reaching new extremes is healthy for science too, spurring researchers to outperform rivals in the quest for grants, kudos or new jobs.

The November 2015 issue of Physics World, which is now out, covers three frontier-busting research endeavours. We kick off by looking at a human-made extreme: the search for the blackest materials ever produced – a tale that’s had a dark side of its very own. Next, we examine how physics techniques are unravelling the secrets of tough lifeforms that exist in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. Finally, we go beyond Earth to a cosmic extreme: magnetars – a special kind of rotating neutron star that are the strongest magnets in the universe.

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Horsing around with some innovative physics

Photograph of three physicists, Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater, holding their IOP Innovation Award

(Left to right) Physicists Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater of Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging celebrate their success in the IOP Innovation Awards.

By Margaret Harris

Imagine you’re a veterinarian and a trainer asks you to take a look at a horse. The animal, a champion showjumper, is limping slightly but there is no obvious injury. Exploratory surgery would probably do more harm than good, and the alternative – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – isn’t risk-free either. You’d need to put the horse under a general anaesthetic, and you know horses don’t react well to that; in fact, around 0.5% suffer serious injuries while coming round afterwards. And that’s assuming you can even find a scanner big enough to fit a horse. What do you do?

This might sound like a fairly niche dilemma, but for Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging it has become the basis for a thriving business – a business, moreover, that has just won an IOP Innovation Award for the successful application of physics in a commercial product.

At the awards ceremony – which took place last night in the Palace of Westminster, London, just down the hall from the House of Commons chamber – I caught up with Hallmarq’s operations and technical director, Steve Roberts. After sketching out the scenario of the veterinarian and the injured horse, Roberts, a physicist, explained that Hallmarq’s MRI scanner fits around the horse’s leg. This means that equine patients can simply be led into it, sedated but conscious. Sophisticated error-correction and image-processing software helps the scanner compensate for the horse’s movement, and in 15 years of operation, Roberts estimates that veterinarians have used Hallmarq’s machines to scan more than 60,000 horses.

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Can physics reveal the secrets of Egypt’s pyramids?

By James Dacey

“Just because a mystery is 4500 years old doesn’t mean it can’t be solved.” That is the tagline of a major new project to uncover the secrets of Egypt’s pyramids without damaging a single stone.

Map of locations of the pyramids in the Scan Pyramids project

Study locations. (Courtesy: Scan Pyramids)

Scan Pyramids – launched by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities – will deploy an arsenal of non-invasive technologies to probe the structure of four pyramids from Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty (from 2575 BC to 2465 BC). On the Giza plateau, about 20 km south-west of Cairo, it will study the Pyramid of Khafre, along with the Pyramid of Khufu, aka the “Great Pyramid of Giza”, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Meanwhile, on the site of Dahshur, around 40 km south of the Egyptian capital, it will investigate the North and South pyramids. (Click to expand the map.)

Despite their global fame and familiarity, these ancient monuments still hold many mysteries. Chief among them is the question of how the ancient Egyptians managed to build these huge edifices. The Great Pyramid of Giza was originally 150 m tall and weighed 5 million tonnes, yet it was constructed in just 25 years. Egyptologists also believe that these pyramids could be concealing hidden chambers, which could house tombs and secret treasures.

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Immersive art, physics pumpkins, personalizing Thor’s hammer and more


By Matin Durrani

If you’ve ever been to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, you’ll know that blackboards are everywhere. You can find them in handy little alcoves, in the cafe and even in the institute’s lifts – the idea being that brain-box theorists who have a great idea in their heads can crack off the underlying maths before their thought fizzles into the aether. (Not that there is an aether, of course, but you know what I mean.) Anyway, the institute’s new California-based artist-in-residence Alexa Meade, has taken the idea to a new level, creating a huge 3D living chalkboard to create the “perception-bending art for which she is internationally renowned”.  As you can see from the video above, it brings a whole new dimension to the idea of getting “immersed” into science. You can see more images of Meade’s living installation at Perimeter on Flickr.

This week, China’s president, Xi Jinping, is on a state visit to the UK, and today he toured the new National Graphene Institute (NGI) at the University of Manchester. We reported on the planned tour yesterday, with our story including a special behind-the-scenes video that Physics World recorded on our own recent visit to the NGI in the company of its architect and desinger Tony Ling. But an interesting nugget about the Chinese visit has since emerged: it appears that Kostya Novoselov, the Nobel-prize-winning Manchester physicist who helped to isolate graphene for the first time, has presented President Xi “with a gift of traditional Chinese-style artwork, which Kostya himself had painted using graphene paint”. We’ve yet to see what this objet d’art looks like, but I’m sure it’s lovely.

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Quantifying the success of public engagement

Dancers performing Constant Speed

Measuring up – how does one evaluate the success of outreach projects such as the dance Constant Speed? (Courtesy: Anthony Crickway)

By Matin Durrani

Here in the Physics World office our attention was caught last week by a story in the Times Higher Education. It reported on a lecture given by Simon Singh at the 2:AM conference in Amsterdam, in which the broadcaster, author and former particle physicist criticized some projects that are designed to boost the public’s interest in science, but which, he feels, are not value for money.

The story mentioned several projects facing Singh’s ire, one of which was the 2005 dance Constant Speed that was created to mark the centenary of Einstein’s annus mirabilis. It was commissioned by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, so naturally Singh’s comments piqued my interest.

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