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More data needed on the STEM ‘shortage’

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

(Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

“Science has always been the Cinderella amongst the subjects taught in schools…not for the first time our educational conscience has been stung by the thought that we are as a nation neglecting science.”

Sounds like something David Cameron or Barack Obama might have said last week, right? Wrong. In fact, it comes from a report by the grandly named Committee to Enquire into the Position of Natural Sciences in the Educational System of Great Britain, which presented its findings clear back in…1918.

I came across this quotation thanks to Emma Smith and Patrick White, a pair of education researchers at the University of Leicester who have spent the past few years studying the long-term career paths of people with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Smith and White presented the preliminary findings of their study at a seminar in Leicester yesterday, and one of the themes of their presentation – reflected in the above quote – was the longevity of concerns about a shortage of STEM-trained people, especially university graduates. As Smith pointed out, worries about the number and quality of STEM graduates are not new and, historically, reports of a “STEM crisis” have been as much about politics as they have economic supply and demand.

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Scientists officially ground Spider-Man

Image of gecko and ant

Stick together: both ants and geckos have adhesive pads that let them scale vertical surfaces. (Courtesy: A Hackmann/D Labonte)

By Tushna Commissariat

Don’t tell the kids just yet, but becoming Spider-Man, even after being bitten by a radioactive spider, is looking less and less likely for us humans – we are just too big. The latest work, done by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK, has shown that gecko-sized is pretty much the largest you can be if you realistically want to scale up walls with adhesive pads. Any bigger, and most of your surface area would need to be covered in large sticky pads to pull off the gravity-defying walk. Indeed, the team estimates that roughly 40% of an average human being’s total body surface would need to be sticky – this means a whopping 80% of your front would be covered in adhesive pads.

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Physicists’ pets, seven stars for Bowie, ping-pong in space and more

Brahe and his pet elk. (

Prancer and the astronomer: Brahe and his pet elk. (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute)

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Sparks of inspiration come from many sources, but for some of the 20th century’s most well known scientists, their four-legged pets played a key role. From Tesla’s cat “Macak” – his interest in electricity was lit as a child when he noticed sparks generated while he stroked Macak –  to Schrödinger’s (real live) dog “Burshie”, these intellectual giants sought the company of pets just as we do and over at the Perimeter Institute’s website, you can learn all about “Great physicists and the pets who inspired them”. My favourite “pet” is of course Tycho Brahe’s infamous elk (you can read about it in the image above). With all of these pets about, its a miracle that a paper wasn’t eaten by a naughty dog or cat!

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Is the solar system’s planetary count back up to nine?

 

By Tushna Commissariat

In August 2006 the distant world that is Pluto was “downgraded” from planet to “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union. Now, 10 years on, it seems that a new planet may be joining the ranks of the other more familiar eight, thanks to two researchers from the California Institute of Technology in the US, who have uncovered evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system.

Although it has not been observed directly just yet, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown discovered the planet’s existence via mathematical modelling and computer simulations. The newly found “Planet 9” is about 10 times as massive as Earth and its orbit is nearly 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune, placing it firmly within the Kuiper belt. If the duo’s calculations are correct, it means that it takes Planet 9 anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete one orbit, making it a long year indeed. The research is presented in The Astronomical Journal (which is published by IOP Publishing, which also publishes Physics World).

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Female astronomers through the ages, science-inspired phone cases and the return of the incandescent light bulb

Portraits of 21 leading female astronomers

Women and the RAS: portraits of 21 leading astronomers. (Courtesy: Maria Platt-Evans)

By Hamish Johnston

The first documented female astronomer in Britain was Margaret Flamsteed (1670–1739), who worked with her husband John at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. That’s according to astronomer Mandy Bailey of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society, who has written an article entitled “Women and the RAS: 100 years of Fellowship”. As the title suggests, this year is the centenary of the first women becoming fellows of the RAS.

To celebrate the centenary, the RAS commissioned Maria Platt-Evans to photograph 21 leading female fellows. The portraits appear above and are also presented in the slide show “Women of the Royal Astronomical Society”, which includes short biographies.

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Has Advanced LIGO found gravitational waves?

Optics for Advanced LIGO undergoing testing

Rumours of a discovery at Advanced LIGO have resurfaced. (Courtesy: LIGO)

By Hamish Johnston

For the past few days, rumours have been swirling that the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO) has detected gravitiational waves. Advanced LIGO comprises two huge (kilometre-sized) interferometers in the US, which began taking data in September 2015. The source of the rumours seems to be the physicist and author Lawrence Krauss, who wrote on Twitter yesterday that “My earlier rumour about LIGO has been confirmed by independent sources. Stay tuned! Gravitational waves may have been discovered!! Exciting.”

And it would be very exciting, except for the fact that LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González of Louisiana State University has since told the Guardian newspaper that “The LIGO instruments are still taking data today, and it takes us time to analyse, interpret and review results, so we don’t have any results to share yet.”

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Soft hair on black holes, making concrete on Mars and exploring the cosmos in 2016

By Hamish Johnston

 

This week’s Red Folder looks to the cosmos, starting with a spiffy new video from the European Space Agency. The slick presentation is a preview of some of the extra-terrestrial exploits that the agency has planned for 2016. This includes the landing of the Schiaparelli probe on the surface of Mars. This stationery lander will survey its Martian environs to find a suitable location to drop the ExoMars rover in 2018. The mission’s namesake is the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who mapped the surface of Mars and was the first to use the term canali to describe the straight lines that were thought to exist on the surface of the planet.

It’s possible that someday humans will colonize Mars and this will involve building dwellings and other structures on the Red Planet. In preparation, Lin Wan, Roman Wendner and Gianluca Cusatis at Northwestern University in the US have come up with a recipe for making concrete on Mars. The trio reckon that any successful colonization of the Red Planet will have to rely on local building materials because shipping stuff from Earth would be horrendously expensive.

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Name the element, continued

(Courtesy: Shutterstock/Nerthuz)

(Courtesy: Shutterstock/Nerthuz)

By Michael Banks

It will soon be time to get the Tipp-Ex out on your copy of the periodic table.

That is because the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) have announced the discovery of four new elements: 113, 115, 117 and 118 – completing the table’s seventh row.

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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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