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Science, scepticism and fear at the theatre

Olivia Williams (left) and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood

Sceptical siblings: Olivia Williams (left) and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood. (Courtesy: National Theatre/Brinkhoff & Mogenburg)

By Tushna Commissariat

Working at Physics World for the last six years has taken me to some pretty cool labs – everywhere from CERN to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). My job has allowed me to meet some quite famous people too…at least in the world of physics, that is. But getting to spend a morning at the National Theatre in London watching Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams rehearse for a play is not usual even for me. That is precisely why I jumped at the chance, when I found out that the pair star as sisters in the recently opened play Mosquitoes.

You may be wondering what a play with that moniker has to do with physics. Mosquitoes tells the story of rational and lucid Alice (played by Williams), a particle physicist at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and her often-illogical sister Jenny (played by Colman) “who spends a lot of time Googling” and is easily swayed by the bad science she chances upon. Written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Rufus Norris – the National Theatre’s current artistic director, the play follows the siblings through a family tragedy, as well as the fairly disastrous switching on of the LHC in 2008, and takes a hard look at our relationships with science, facts, belief and so much more. Kirkwood, whose previous successes include Chimerica and The Children, was commissioned to write the play by the Manhattan Theatre Club as part of its Alfred P Sloan Foundation initiative, which aims to “stimulate artists to create credible and compelling work exploring the worlds of science and technology and to challenge the existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination”.

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Great dames: a tribute to the game changers at ICWiP

Science friends: Jess Wade chats about the iconic women at ICWiP. (Courtesy: Jess Wade)

Science friends: Jess Wade chats about the iconic women at ICWiP. (Courtesy: Jess Wade)

By Jess Wade at the International Conference on Women in Physics in Birmingham, UK

On accepting the Institute of Physics (IOP) President’s Medal at the International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP), Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell closed with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s infamous quote – “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” And what does she say is the least well-behaved thing she’s done during her scientific career? Become a working mother. Jocelyn battled with stereotyping and bias because she was a woman in a male-dominated field who also dared to have a family and career. She persevered and refused to back down, going on to become an award-winning scientist, Fellow of the Royal Academy and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (keep an eye out for a feature on Jocelyn Bell Burnell in Physics World later this year). Bell Burnell’s story was one of many awe-inspiring tales of ground-breaking women at ICWiP last week, which was held at the University of Birmingham in the UK – and here are some whose stories were too good to keep to myself.

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The Doomsday Clock ticks over 70 years, an exoplanet Westeros

Circa 1988: the Doomsday Clock during safer times (Courtesy: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Circa 1988: the Doomsday Clock during safer times. (Courtesy: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

By Hamish Johnston

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock that is produced by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Currently at two and a half minutes to midnight, the clock represents the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe. Originally, it focused exclusively on a nuclear Armageddon, but in 2007 climate change and other technologically-driven processes were added to the mix. The clock was initially set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947 and the Bulletin has produced a video that charts the ups and downs over the past seven decades. Is there any good news? In the image above you can see that South Africa was a nuclear power in 1988, and it has since disarmed.

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“One woman can change a lot if she is determined”

Photographs from around the conference

International collaboration: women from around the world gathered to discuss and tackle how to improve the situation for women in physics. (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

By Sarah Tesh at the International Conference on Women in Physics in Birmingham

A couple of weeks ago, Physics World received an e-mail that made my blood boil. The sender requested for his comments not to be published, so he shall remain nameless but here’s the jist of his message:

The latest issue of Physics World contained too many articles on women in physics (it had five small pieces on the topic). He finds the subject tedious and thinks it no longer needs covering – but it’s OK for him to say this because his daughter is doing physics at university.

In my opinion, this is an excellent example of exactly why it is important to talk about equality in physics. Some members of the community just don’t see that there is still a problem.

In an excellent coincidence, I signed up for the International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP) that very week. The conference is run by the Institute of Physics (IOP) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and has been taking place this week at the University of Birmingham in the UK. ICWiP gives people from around the world, and at all stages of their careers, a chance to discuss and tackle the many topics surrounding women in physics. These include under-representation, stereotypes, conscious and unconscious bias, inequality in pay, the drop-off as you progress through academia…the list could go on.

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Snapping the Milky Way, art inspired by SLAC blueprints, doppelganger magazine covers

Top tip: use a remote shutter control (Courtesy: Clifton Cameras)

Top tip: use a remote shutter control. (Courtesy: Clifton Cameras)

By Hamish Johnston

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with dark skies, you know that the Milky Way is a truly majestic sight. But how exactly would you go about capturing its magnificence with a camera? UK-based Clifton Cameras has put together an infographic with a few helpful hints. The image above is an excerpt and you can view the entire infographic here.

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Physics World’s latest special report on China is out now

By Michael Banks

The pace of change in China can be bewildering – and science is no exception. With every year that goes by, the country publishes more papers, spends more cash on research and opens up yet more world-class facilities.

PWChina17cover-200This is the third Physics World special report on physics in China – following publications last year and in 2011.

Most of this year’s report was based on an action-packed schedule of visits and interviews earlier this year at institutes and labs in Shanghai and Beijing.

Speaking to researchers during my travels, it became clear that China is reaping particular benefits from its 1000 Talents programme, which seeks to persuade top Chinese  researchers who have spent time abroad to return home. Such scientists are bringing huge experience back and using it to put China at the forefront of many fields of research.

China is also showing a growing appetite to attract foreign scientists who have not worked there before. Getting overseas researchers to move to China is not always easy, so one solution has been for China to encourage Western institutions to branch out into the country. The Kavli Foundation, for example, has just opened a new Kavli Institute for Theoretical Sciences in Beijing, which aims to have about a third of its faculty from outside China.

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A temporary lack of neutrons

Photo of the instrument hall

The guide hall at the HANARO research reactor in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.

By Margaret Harris in Daejeon, Republic of Korea

For almost three years, the HANARO research reactor has been idle. Built in 1995 as a hub for neutron-scattering experiments, radioisotope production and other scientific work, HANARO (High Flux Advanced Neutron Application Reactor) is the only facility of its kind in the Republic of Korea, and it underwent a major upgrade in 2009. Then, in 2014, the facility became a delayed casualty of the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station, as enhanced regulatory scrutiny led to the discovery that the reactor hall’s outer wall was not up to the latest standards. An enforced shutdown followed while the wall was reinforced, and although the works were supposed to take just 18 months, opposition from local citizens’ groups has led to further delays.

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Aldrin’s faces for Trump, tunnels to the underworld, physics collides with art

 

By Sarah Tesh

Buzz Aldrin pulled some spectacular facial expressions during a speech by Donald Trump this week. The President of the United States was announcing his executive order to revive the US National Space Council. During points of Trump’s rather rambling speech, the Apollo 11 astronaut looked a combination of unimpressed, confused and bored. But while he may be bemused by the president’s chatter (as many are), he posted a positive Tweet about the executive order, saying, “I’m happy that space is getting the attention it needs to move us forward to committing to plans to get back to the Moon & on to Mars #GYATM.”

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Exploring Bristol’s physics heritage

Sir John Enderby and Felix James

Meeting of minds: Sir John Enderby (right) was Felix James’ perfect physics tour guide.  (Courtesy: Felix James)

By Felix James, a student on a work-experience placement with IOP Publishing

If you live in the UK, you are probably aware that at this time of year many school students are asked to do some kind of work experience. Teenagers like me find a placement we are interested in and then go there for a week – rather than school – to get a taste for what work is really like. For me this meant a week at IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, but it included an excellent tour of the physics department at the nearby University of Bristol.

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A trip to Diamond Light Source – experiments, swords and treasure

Academic researcher Claire Corkhill and bealmine scientist Sarah Day

Super team: academic researcher Claire Corkhill and beamline scientist Sarah Day. (Courtesy: Sean Dillow)

By Sarah Tesh

When I was teenager, we often drove past a massive metal “doughnut” that was taking shape in the Oxfordshire countryside – a doughnut more commonly known as Diamond Light Source. After years of passing by but never visiting, last Thursday I finally got to go inside the silver building housing the UK’s synchrotron.

I was there to find out about the longest ever experiment to take place at a synchrotron, which hit the 1000-day milestone on 2 July. The experiment was the first to be set up on the world’s only long duration synchrotron beamline and investigates the hydration of cements used in nuclear waste storage and disposal. My guides for the day were beamline scientist Sarah Day, experiment leader Claire Corkhill from the University of Sheffield and Diamond press officer Steve Pritchard.

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