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Blog

We are ill-prepared for climate-change risks

By Hamish Johnston

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Working Group II (WGII) report entitled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability“. Over on our sister website environmentalresearchweb.org, editor Liz Kalaugher has written a news-analysis piece about the report that looks at the major risks facing different regions of the globe; who is most vulnerable to change; and why we must build on early efforts to adapt to climate change.

Earth from space: adaptation to climate change is a clobal challenge

Earth from space: adaptation to climate change is a global challenge. (Courtesy: NASA)

Kalaugher’s piece includes commentary from leading IPCC members, including Vicente Barros, co-chair of working group II. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future,” says Barros.

Chris Field, WGII co-chair, adds “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.”

However, the report also warns that adaptation will be very difficult with high levels of warming. In that case, Field says that “even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits”.

You can read Kalaugher’s piece here:  “IPCC: world is ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate”.

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Lateral Thoughts: Voices from history

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War. (Courtesy: US Army)

By Margaret Harris

This is the third in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. Click to read the first and second posts.

As part of Physics World’s 25th anniversary celebrations, I’ve been reading through the archive of “Lateral Thoughts”, the magazine’s column of humorous or otherwise off-beat essays about physics. My goal is to get a better feel for the topics that have amused and preoccupied Physics World readers over the past quarter-century, and to understand how the community has changed.

While most Lateral Thoughts have focused on the world of physics, the archive shows that every now and then, the wider world intrudes. The results can be fascinating, sobering and sometimes even disturbing. Consider the essay “Soft zlotys for western hardware”, in which the metallurgist Jack Harris describes taking a research trip behind the Iron Curtain to Poland. “In science, as in other areas, I was struck by how little real contact there was with Russia,” Harris wrote. His Lateral Thought was published in July 1989. Two months later, Poland defied its puppet-masters in Moscow by electing its first non-communist government since the Second World War.

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In praise of rocket scientists, ironworkers, superheroes and more

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics.

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics. (Courtesy: Brittney Williams/Symmetry magazine)

By Hamish Johnston

Q: What do you call physicists studying the electrical properties of salad greens?
A: Rocket scientists!

But that’s old news, so lettuce move on to this week’s highlights from the Red Folder…

The rocket scientists referred to in the headline are econophysicists, who got a bad rap from Warren Buffet and others during the financial crisis of 2008. Now that the great depression is nearly over, physicist and author Mark Buchanan has a much more upbeat assessment of those who have made the transition from physics to economics in his blog entry “What’s the use of ‘econo-physics’?”.

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Student behaviour in the MOOCosphere

Students in a lecture hall

Does student behaviour online mirror the traditional classroom? (Courtesy: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia)

By James Dacey

I’ve written a few times recently about the rise of massive open online courses, or “MOOCs” for short. If this trend in education has so far passed you by, MOOCs are online courses generally offered free of charge by some of the leading universities in the world. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers courses in classical mechanics and electricity & magnetism, and the University of Edinburgh has recently launched a course about the discovery of the Higgs boson.

MOOCs tend to combine video lectures with assignments such as problem sets and extended projects. In many ways, the course formats mirror or complement traditional classroom-based education, incorporating features such as forums where students can discuss the course content amongst themselves. Some of the science courses even include online “practicals” by way of virtual laboratories. But despite the proliferation of MOOCs in the past few years, very little research has been carried out on the way that students are actually engaging with the courses.

Now, a group of researchers in the US has done the first relatively detailed study of student behaviour in the MOOCosphere. The study is described in a paper published on the arXiv preprint server with lead author Ashton Anderson, a computer scientist at Stanford University. Anderson and his team examined the behaviour of the student population in courses offered by Stanford through Coursera, one of the major MOOC providers. The courses were on the topics of machine learning and probabilistic graphical models. After reading the study, it seems to me that the “take away” message is that MOOC students have many different motivations for taking these courses and as a result they behave in an assortment of ways, distinct from classrooms in the real world.

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Fran Scott’s four golden rules for getting kids hooked on science

Fran Scott with CBBC puppet Hacker T Dog

Science presenter Fran Scott with CBBC puppet Hacker T Dog. (Courtesy: CBBC)

By Matin Durrani

“Ever heard a child say ‘Yeah, I get it!’? Well, if you do, they’re lying. They’re only saying those words because you’re boring them and they don’t want to listen any more.”

That’s not me telling you – it’s Fran Scott, a BBC science presenter who has spent the last nine years involved in informal children’s science education, most recently working for Children’s BBC and BBC Learning.

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Personal reflections on Plutopia

By Margaret Harris

As Physics World’s reviews editor, I come across a lot of books that interest me intellectually. But with Kate Brown’s book Plutopia – the subject of this month’s Physics World podcast – my interest is personal, too.
The human side of plutopia

Brown’s book tells the story of two cities, Richland in the US and Ozersk in the former Soviet Union, that were built to house workers at the nearby Hanford and Maiak plutonium plants. Brown calls these cities “plutopias” because high wages and subsidies meant that residents enjoyed a better standard of living than their neighbours outside the secure zones. Such benefits, in turn, fostered an atmosphere of loyalty and solidarity that helped keep the plants’ horrendous environmental records under wraps.

This sounded familiar to me because my childhood had a decidedly “plutopian” flavour.  Although I didn’t grow up in an “atomic city” like Richland or Ozersk, my father worked for a defence contractor for 39 years, and his plant’s generous vacation allowance meant that we took longer holidays than most American families. We had good health insurance, too, which may have saved my life as a teenager. But after reading Plutopia and speaking to Brown for the podcast, I found myself wondering whether such benefits were a fair trade for working, as my father and thousands of others did, in a mostly windowless building that was surrounded by razor wire and contaminated with beryllium dust.

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BICEP2 surprise visit, a bizarre rant, credible science fiction and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

The big story this week is that astronomers working on the BICEP2 telescope may have spotted the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation.  This is very good news for the physicist Andrei Linde, who along with Alan Guth and others did much of the early work on inflation. In the above YouTube video Linde, who is certainly in the running for a Nobel prize, receives a surprise visit from BICEP2 team member Chao-Lin Kuo. Kuo is the first to tell Linde and his wife, the physicist Renata Kallosh, the news that the theory that Linde developed more than 30 years earlier had finally been backed up by direct observational evidence. Not surprisingly, champagne glasses are clinking!

Here at physicsworld.com we have tried to tell both sides of the story: the thrill of seeing the first hints of cosmic inflation, tempered with calls for caution that more data are needed before inflation is victorious over other theories describing the early universe.

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Could a canned UK-led telescope have discovered B-modes before BICEP2?

The BICEP2 telescope

Researchers working on the BICEP2 telescope announced on Monday that they had detected the first evidence for the primordial B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Michael Banks

This week has seen physics news hit the mainstream in a way not seen since the Higgs boson was discovered at the CERN particle-physics lab in 2012.

On Monday, researchers working on the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope at the South Pole revealed that they have detected the first evidence for the primordial B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). You can read our news stories about the finding here and here.

Yet could scientists in the UK have got there first if a telescope they had been planning to build – dubbed Clover – hadn’t been axed in 2009?

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Medical scanning demystified

Diffusion MRI scan of the brain

Diffusion MRI scan reveals the connections in the brain. (Courtesy: NIH/The Human Connectome Project)

By James Dacey

Many of you reading this will have experienced (or at least known somebody else who has experienced) a medical scan of some type. Even if you have a background in physics, these procedures can seem mysterious and even slightly menacing, not helped by the clinical designs of the equipment and some of the sounds they make. A new series of online courses offered by an academic collaboration in Scotland has been designed to demystify the world of medical-imaging techniques by presenting the science and technology in non-technical ways.

The courses include introductions to ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and computerized tomography (CT). “The material was designed for non-specialists with an interest in science who might want to understand a bit more about medical imaging: school teachers, pupils, patients, relatives of patients,” says Dave Wyper, director of the Scottish Imaging Network: A Platform for Scientific Excellence (SINAPSE).

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Making brain-busting ideas easier to grasp

Maths doodle by Tracey

Maths-inspired doodle; click to enlarge. (Courtesy: Tracey)

By Matin Durrani

With all the talk yesterday of evidence for inflation and signs of primoridal gravitational waves imprinted on the cosmic microwave background, many non-physicists (and probably quite a few physicists too) might have been left scratching their heads at the implications of the findings obtained by the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from the fact that many concepts in physics are hard and that cutting-edge experiments are incredible feats of technical endeavour. We can, though, all take solace from the fact that physicists at the frontiers of research have often spent decades living and breathing their subjects, which means they know the basics of their own field far better than anyone else.

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