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Physics reveals the mysteries behind art

Artists' secrets: Charles Falco describes how artists used lenses (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Artists’ secrets: Charles Falco describes how artists used optical lenses. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Sarah Tesh in New Orleans, Louisiana, US

As a physicist who likes to sketch and paint, I love it when art and physics come together. I was therefore excited to see that the APS March Meeting had a variety of talks on the subject. Charles Falco from the University of Arizona in the US told us about his work with the famous artist David Hockney. On a trip to see the 15th century painting The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck, Hockney decided that the chandelier was too detailed to have been done freehand. So Falco and Hockney began looking at the intricate parts of paintings by artists through the ages and found that they essentially cheated.

Through focal length and depth-of-field calculations, Falco showed that artists had used optical lenses to project the complicated parts onto the canvas before painting them. They suggest that this has been happening since the 1400s and is a technique used by artists such as Hans Holbein (who painted the iconic portraits of Henry VIII) and Johannes Vermeer (whose work includes Girl with a Pearl Earring). Obviously, they still possessed huge amounts of skill, but it definitely makes me feel a bit better about my own skill level.

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John Ellis on physics after the Higgs boson, calculating the loudness of the Big Bang, the chemistry of ironing

Looking ahead: John Ellis on the future of particle physics (Courtesy: IAI TV)

Looking ahead: John Ellis on the future of particle physics. (Courtesy: IAI TV)

By Hamish Johnston

In 2012 particle physicists gave themselves a giant pat on the back when the Higgs boson was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – nearly 50 years after it was first predicted to exist. But what have particle physicists done since, and what does the future hold for the field? In a video called “After the Higgs boson: what’s next for 21st century physics?” from the Institute of Art and Ideas, the theoretical physicist John Ellis charts the future course of particle physics. Pay attention for a joke about the UK’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

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China bound

Evening image of Shanghai

Courtesy: Shutterstock/ArtisticPhoto

By Michael Banks

I am heading to China tomorrow for a five-day trip in what promises to be a fascinating update on some of the physics that is being carried out in the country.

The purpose of my journey is to gather material for an upcoming special report on China, which will be published later this year.

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Using pottery to communicate science

one of the ceramic items created by Nadav Drukker on show at the new "Quantum ceramics" exhibition in London

Showcasing science – one of the ceramic items created by Nadav Drukker on show at the new Quantum Ceramics exhibition in London. (Courtesy: Nadav Drukker)

By Matin Durrani

You might not think theoretical physics and pottery have much in common. But they do now, thanks to a new exhibition being staged at the Knight Webb Gallery in Brixton, south-east London, which opens today.

Entitled Quantum Ceramics, the exhibition is the first solo display of ceramic works by theoretical physicist Nadav Drukker. Based at King’s College London, Drukker makes traditional studio pottery as a new way to communicate his scientific research.

Drukker, who is a string theorist, has six different projects – entitled “Circle”, “Cusp”, “Index”, “Polygons”, “Cut” and “Defect” – with each inspired by one of his research papers. His works are all traditional glazed stoneware and porcelain vessels, but decorated with mathematical symbols.

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Invisible robots overshadowed by metallic hydrogen

Metallic debate: Silvera, Ceperley and McMahon discuss metallic hydrogen (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

Metallic debate: Silvera, Ceperley and McMahon discuss metallic hydrogen. (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

By Sarah Tesh in New Orleans, Louisiana, US

After much coffee and a lot of crispy bacon, the second day of the APS March Meeting began. The hot topic of the day – metallic hydrogen. Even though we arrived 15 minutes early to Isaac Silvera‘s talk, the crowd was overflowing from the room, but despite all the pushing and shoving (my foot has not recovered from being stood on), we did manage to get seats. Silvera began by saying that he had been working on the problem for “probably longer than [most of us] were born” before taking us through the nearly 45 years of research on the subject. He also gave a press conference that included talks by theoretical physicists David Ceperley from the University of Illinois and Jeffrey McMahon from Washington State University. My colleague Tushna Commissariat caught up with Silvera later on, so be on the lookout for a more detailed update from her.

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APS sees friction as fracture, cat pictures and brain implants

Cats and DFT: Thomas Baker chats about machine learning and DFT (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

Cats and DFT: Thomas Baker chats about machine learning and density functional theory. (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

By Sarah Tesh in New Orleans, Louisiana, US

So the first day of the APS March Meeting has been and gone and the second is nearly at an end. Being my first conference as a journalist not a scientist, I was definitely as nervous as some of the speakers looked. The conference centre is huge, there are thousands of people and almost as many talks – a rather daunting prospect for a newbie. Thankfully there were some very interesting press talks, covering a variety of topics.

The first session began with Jay Fineberg from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel talking about “friction as fracture”. While we all learn about friction at school, the fundamental physics behind it remains shrouded in mystery. So Fineberg looks at the problem as the fracture of contact points. This approach makes it particularly useful for studying the motion of tectonic plates and, so, earthquakes. As Fineberg points out, seismologists have no idea about conditions deep in the ground at a fault. He and his team therefore hope to work out “what makes earthquakes tick”.

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Physicists take over the Big Easy

New Orleans: city with a view

New Orleans: city with a view. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Sarah Tesh and Tushna Commissariat in New Orleans, Louisiana, US

It is that time of the year again when around 10,000 physicists gather for the American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting and this year we’re in the Big Easy. While yesterday was a jetlag-recovery day, it’s all kicking off today at the sprawling Ernest Morial Convention Center, where more than 9600 papers will be presented during the week.

Despite our sleep-deprived state yesterday, we played the traditional game of “spot the physicist” during our wanderings in the French Quarter. This was made particularly interesting with the simultaneous game of “spot the spring-breakers”. Relaxed, youthful students chatting loudly about their late-night escapades were a stark contrast to academics looking anxious and lost while over-burdened with poster tubes, suitcases and laptop bags.

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Hidden Figures behind NASA’s success, LEGO’s famous five women of space, seismic goal in Barcelona

Flight planner: NASA's Katherine Johnson now has a NASA computational facility named after her (Courtesy: NASA)

Flight planner: NASA’s Katherine Johnson now has a NASA computational facility named after her. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

International Women’s Day was this week and to celebrate, we have published K Renee Horton’s review of the film Hidden Figures and the book by Margot Lee Shetterly that the film is based on. The book and film tell the true stories of African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA and played a crucial role in America’s race into space during the Cold War. Indeed, they calculated the flight paths that would send Neil Armstrong to the Moon.

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Penguin spotting

Photograph of King penguins

A waddle of King penguins. (Courtesy: F Jones)

By Louise Mayor

Those of you who enjoyed Peter Barham’s Physics World feature “Penguin physics” might have – like me – come away enamoured of these little creatures, but not imagining that you could contribute to penguin research yourself.

Imagine my delight then when I discovered that the team behind British Science Week (BSW), which starts today, has teamed up with Penguin Watch, a citizen-science Zooniverse project that is calling for volunteers. The volunteer activity involves looking at photographs and, in each one, marking penguins, chicks, eggs and other animals such as humans. These crowd-sourced data will then then help the University of Oxford project Penguin Lifelines to better understand how threats to the ecosystem disrupt the dynamics of resident wildlife.

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Proton therapy: the benefits and the challenges

By Tami FreemanPWebook-cover

Proton therapy is an increasingly popular treatment technique that uses beams of protons to accurately target and destroy cancerous tumours. A new Physics World Discovery ebook, Proton Beam Therapy, takes a close look at the physics of this cancer treatment, its benefits and the challenges associated with bringing this approach into the clinical mainstream.

The ebook is written by Harald Paganetti, director of physics research at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School. He is a pioneer in advanced Monte Carlo dose calculations for proton therapy, and is considered the world expert on the relative biological effectiveness of proton beams.

In the last few decades, proton therapy has transitioned from research laboratories into the clinical setting – making this publication particularly timely. There are currently around 60 proton therapy facilities worldwide, and this number is increasing rapidly. “Proton therapy is becoming a standard treatment option but there are still many challenges in terms of the physics, biology and clinical use of protons, which are summarized in this ebook,” Paganetti explains.

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