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Ancient eclipse art, asteroid finds early fame, unwitting face of graphene underwear

A Chaco Canyon petroglyph that may depict the 1097 total solar eclipse

Ancient eclipse: a Chaco Canyon petroglyph (Courtesy: University of Colorado)

By Sarah Tesh, Matin Durrani and Michael Banks

The approaching total solar eclipse on 21 August is the subject of much interest and excitement — but the Earth has of course been in and out of the Moon’s shadow since it formed. While we have the technology to take spectacular photos of the corona framing the Moon, our ancestors were limited to much cruder means of recording such events. For example, the ancient petroglyph (a carving in rock) shown above may represent a total eclipse that occurred in 1097.  The carving is on a free standing rock known Piedra del Sol  in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon.  “I think it is quite possible that the Chacoan people may have congregated around Piedra del Sol at certain times of the year and were watching the sun move away from the summer solstice when the eclipse occurred,” says solar physicist J. McKim Malville from the University of Colorado, Boulder in the US, who focuses on archaeoastronomy. Other nearby carvings may be related to the 1054 supernova and the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1066. “The appearance of the spectacular supernova and comet may have alerted the residents of the canyon to pay attention to powerful and meaningful events in the sky,” says Malville. Hopefully our records of astronomical events will be as long lasting as those of the Chacoan people.

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America counts down to the big eclipse

Section of NASA's 2017 Earth Day poster depicting the solar eclipse

Night in day: the Sun will be temporarily blocked from view. (Courtesy: NASA)

By David Appell in Salem, Oregon, US

On Monday 21 August tens of millions of people will view one of the most remarkable phenomena available on Earth – a total solar eclipse. The shadow created as the Moon blocks out the Sun will sweep across the US in the middle of the day and I’ve been looking forward to it since I learned of it six years ago.

I’m one of the lucky ones – I live in Salem, Oregon, which lies within the eclipse’s 10 km-wide path of totality. Along this path, day will turn dark for about two minutes and the flare of the Sun’s corona will become visible. Birds will roost, crickets will begin to chirp, the temperature will fall about 5 °C, and people will likely gape in awe as humans have no doubt done since our species first began.

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Happy birthday Curiosity, overpaid footballers, cheeky Einstein photo sells

By Sarah Tesh, Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks

It’s Mars Curiosity’s 5th birthday tomorrow! The NASA rover touched down on 5 August 2012 and has been exploring the red planet ever since. It has travelled more than 10 miles, studied more than 600 vertical feet of rock and even proved that Mars was once habitable. While a Mars birthday party for Curiosity would be a lonely affair, researchers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have programmed the rover to sing “Happy birthday” to itself using its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. To introduce ground samples into the rover, SAM resonates through a range of frequencies, so the researchers programmed the instrument to run through the frequencies of the celebratory song.

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The August 2017 issue of Physics World is now out

PWAug17cover-200By Matin Durrani

Who inspired you to study physics? Perhaps you had a great teacher or a supportive parent. But how might it feel if you’ve got a sibling who’s also into the subject? Would they be your rival or would the two of you support and nurture each other?

These issues facing “sibling scientists” are the cover feature of the August issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out. Turns out that sibling scientists are generally a force for good, especially with the elder child acting as a mentor and guide – often providing information, support and advice to the younger sister or brother.

I wonder in fact if we should do more to encourage boys and girls who are already in thrall with physics to persuade their siblings into the subject too. Of course, our feature isn’t an exhaustive scientific study, so do tell us if you know of other examples of sibling science.

Remember that if you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, you can read Physics World magazine every month via our digital apps for iOS, Android and Web browsers.

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“A week in which good practice and frustrations could be shared honestly”

ICWiP conference chair Nicola Wilkin

Warm welcome: Nicola Wilkin welcomed an international audience.

By Sarah Tesh 

The International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP) was everything I hoped it would be – a fascinating event full of interesting discussions, talks and workshops, and inspiring women. Held at the University of Birmingham in the UK from 16 to 20 July, the conference was organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).

Over a series of blogs, Jess Wade from Imperial College London and myself have endeavoured to give you an insight into the conference – the international stories, the iconic women and the important hurdles still to overcome. To round this up and reflect upon the inspirational event, I spoke to conference chair Nicola Wilkin from the University of Birmingham.

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Bias, stereotyping and harassment: what women battle

The words associated with girls and boys influence their futures

Word association: “Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of”. (Courtesy: Jessica Rowson, IOP)

By Sarah Tesh about the International Conference on Women in Physics in Birmingham, UK

Have you ever thought about why, when asked to indicate your gender on a form, “male” comes above “female”? It’s not alphabetically first, so why is it listed first? I had never questioned this myself until Jocelyn Bell Burnell pointed it out in her Institute of Physics (IOP) President’s Medal lecture. This is an excellent example of bias in our day-to-day lives – while each one of us may believe we are fair and unprejudiced, we cannot always control what our brains do and many of us are unconsciously biased without meaning to be. Unfortunately, this is one of the factors holding back women in physics.

Bias, stereotyping and harassment were major topics during the International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP) last week at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Many delegates at the conference have experienced these issues to varying degrees and several of the talks focused on ways to combat them.

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Ravens at LIGO, stained-glass physics, fake space pics

Stained glass physics plots

Grand designs: Los Alamos physicist Hubert van Hecke combines his hobby of stained-glass windows with physics. (Courtesy: Hubert van Hecke)

By Michael Banks and Sarah Tesh

Researchers working on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory might be answering some of the biggest questions in astrophysics, but last week they had a rather more down-to-Earth problem to solve. When spurious glitches were picked up by the detector characterization group at the LIGO detector based in Hanford, Washington, they went on an investigation to find the culprit. The team suspected that ravens were to blame as they had been seen causing mischief on tubes that vent nitrogen gas. These pipes are connected to the vacuum enclosure and any vibration could change the optical path length of light that is scattered from the test mass and reflected back. Upon closer inspection, LIGO researchers found peck marks that were “consistent with the size of a raven’s beak”. Not content with just watching the birds at play, the team even performed “simulated pecking” to see how this affected the machine’s performance. With the culprit now identified, you will be pleased to hear that the lines are set to be insulated to fend off the birds. “I guess we can’t blame [the ravens] for desiring ice on a hot desert afternoon,” writes Robert Schofield in a LIGO logbook post.

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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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