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Blog

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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Web bill-of-rights, cosmic popular culture, origami microscopes and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, the Web celebrated its silver anniversary. In March 1989 CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee proposed a rather contemporary way of linking and sharing information and so the Web was born. There have been numerous stories on the subject this week, but most interesting of all was a Guardian article where Berners-Lee called for the development of an “online Magna Carta” – a bill of rights to enshrine and protect the independence of the Web. “We need a global constitution – a bill of rights,” he said. You can read more about the 25th anniversary at the “World Wide Web Consortium”.

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Cracking the earthquake lights mystery and out-of-this-world technology

Old photo of earthquake ights taken in Romania

A photograph of streams of lights taken in 1977 near Brasov, Romania, about 100 km from the epicentre of a M 7.2 earthquake. (Courtesy: Seismological Society of America)

By Tushna Commissariat

In case you missed it, I was at the APS March meeting in Denver, Colorado last week and I was blogging about a whole host of interesting talks and sessions that I attended. Although I am back in Bristol now, there were one or two other talks that I thought covered some very interesting physics, so here’s a catch-up.

Slip slidin’ away
Seasoned physicsworld.com readers will remember that earlier this year, we featured a rather intriguing story on the phenomenon of earthquake lights – the mysterious and unpredictable glowing lights that seem to appear before some earthquakes. First documented in the 1600s and seen as recently as the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, the “unidentified glowing objects” add to the long list of possible earthquake precursors, and so are of interest. The study that we wrote about in January looked at 65 well-documented events of such lights and concluded that they may occur thanks to a particular type of geological fault – a subvertical fault – causing the earthquake.

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Five celebrities who are quantum physicists in disguise

 By James Dacey

Charlotte Church

(CC-BY Keven Law)

This week the Welsh pop star Charlotte Church (right) has released her latest EP entitled Four. In a conversation with New Scientist, Church explained that the EP’s opening track “Entanglement” was in fact named after the quantum-mechanical phenomenon known affectionately to physicists as “spooky action at a distance”. She has since told BBC Wales that she may well take her interest in science to the next level by studying for a physics degree.

There are of course several really famous people who are more directly connected with physics, having studied the subject in some form before going on to become luminaries in other fields. Examples include the Queen guitar-god Brian May, and arguably the most powerful woman in the world the German chancellor Angela Merkel. But Church is one of a new brigade of celebrities who are discovering the joys of physics after having already reached stardom for other abilities. The armchair psychologist might suggest that learning about the mechanics of the cosmos offers a refreshing alternative to the shallow nature of life that often comes with the celebrity lifestyle, or at least our view of it as presented by the media.

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The cost of stereotypes

By Margaret Harris

When a 2012 study showed that scientists subconsciously favour male students over females when assessing their employability as early-career researchers, it generated plenty of debate – not least among women, who were, according to the study, just as likely to be biased as the men were.

Some of these discussions got rather overheated, but one cogent criticism of the study did emerge.  Roughly, it was this: might the scientists’ preference for men over equally well-qualified women be a rational response to the fact that, because of various barriers, women in science often need to be better than their male counterparts in order to have an equal chance of success?

The question was an awkward one, since it implied that women in science could be caught in a vicious circle, with the negative effects of bias in the workplace making it “rational” to be biased in hiring (and, in turn, making such workplace bias more likely to persist).  However, a new study appears to rule out this argument by finding similar patterns of hiring bias against women even when the “job” is an arithmetical task that, on average, women and men perform equally well.

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New ways to teach and learn physics

By Matin Durrani

If there’s one thing that unites pretty much all of us who like physics, it’s that we’ve all sat through physics classes at some point in our lives. We all know teachers and lecturers who’ve been brilliant and inspired us, but equally we’ve all sat through classes that have quite frankly bored us out of our pants.
PWMar14-cover-200

In the March 2014 issue of Physics World a PDF copy of which you can download free of charge – we offer a snapshot of just some of the many innovative ideas that exist for learning and teaching physics. It’s not an exhaustive selection, but includes topics that we felt were interesting or novel.

So, download the issue to find out about the huge growth of “massive open online courses”, or MOOCs, in which universities make their lectures freely available in video form on the Internet, and discover Philip Moriarty’s behind-the-scenes experiences as one of the stars of the Sixty Symbols series of YouTube science videos.

Elsewhere, check out the great feature by BBC science presenter Fran Scott, who reveals her four golden rules for engaging children with science, and discover the importance of helping children develop computer-programming skills from an early age. Don’t miss out either on Eugenia Etkina and Gorazd Planinšič’s article on the implications for teachers of the fact that learning involves physical changes in the brain.

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Getting a measure of Brazilian research

Photo of llama at São Carlos zoo

A llama at São Carlos zoo yesterday.

By Matin Durrani

If you’ve been keeping an eye on this blog, you’ll remember that I spent a week in Brazil last November gathering material for an upcoming Physics World Special Report, which will examine the challenges and opportunities facing physicists in the world’s fifth largest country. I travelled to São Paulo, São José dos Campos and Rio de Janeiro, visiting everywhere from the first overseas offshoot of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics to the Brazilian National Observatory, where Brazilian research pretty much began.

I’ve just been putting the finishing touches to that report, which includes news, features and an exclusive interview with the Brazilian science minister Marco Antonio Raupp, who is a physicist by training. Brazil’s investment in science has more than quadrupled over the last decade and in the interview Raupp outlines his priorities for the Brazilian research community. Stay tuned for the Physics World Special Report, which we’ll make available via this website from next month. (One rather flippant question we asked Raupp is who he thinks will win this year’s FIFA World Cup taking place across Brazil this summer – we didn’t have room to fit his answer into the report, but I can exclusively reveal on this blog that the Brazilian science minister has got his money on the home nation. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

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Bananaman, fusion boy, an astronaut and more

By James Dacey

The Red Folder is bulging this week with some weird and wonderful physics stories from around the Web. Here is a round-up of some of the best we have stumbled across.

One of the more eye-catching articles this week included the surreal image of Stephen Hawking posing for a picture with a bunch of men all dressed as Bananaman. In case you’re not familiar with this brilliant character, Bananaman is a comedy super hero created in the 1980s by British cartoonists who valued the importance of nutrition. When Eric Wimp – an ordinary British schoolboy – eats a banana he turns into our hero, a fully grown man in a blue and yellow suit with special powers to rival both Batman and Superman. Anyway, I digress. According to the Telegraph, the 10 besuited chaps in question were on a stag do in Cambridge. They were lost (perhaps a few too many banana liqueurs?) when they turned a corner and spotted the world-famous cosmologist getting out of a car. The result was a group shot with far more a-peel than any of those self-indulgent Oscars selfies that have been doing the rounds this week. Please accept my apologies for that bad pun.

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New prize targets student science journalism

Student interviewing fellow students

Courtesy: iStock/Jay Lazarin.

By James Dacey

There are many routes into science journalism, and my own journey was certainly not carved into a stone tablet when I was a child. In short, I was always fascinated by the ideas and concepts of science but my real passion was the communication of those ideas to others. (I was also fairly useless at the practical aspects of my BSc in natural sciences.) It was only later on, during my Master’s degree when I started writing for the student newspaper, that I started to seriously think about making a career out of this journalism game. I vividly remember the excitement of seeing my name in print those first few times. The idea that someone might actually pay me to include my name in their publication was too much to resist.

I knew of course that I was not alone in this career choice. The crucial next step for any budding journo is to build a strong portfolio of work and achievements to mark you out from the crowd. This helps you to grab the attention of those potential employers, who will quite likely be hurling you straight onto the front line of their operation as a junior reporter.

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Snip and tuck

Silverberg's presentation on origiami at the APS March meeting

A rapt audience watches Silverberg’s presentation on origami.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

Origami – the traditional Japanese art of paper folding – has long intrigued mathematicians and physicists alike. In addition to understanding the mechanics of it, its principles have been applied to the folding of DNA and other nanoscale structural designing, as well as in the folding of rigid sheets using hinges. Indeed, the latter is used for a variety of purposes: from the simple folds of a paper bag with a flat bottom to the folding of airbags and telescopes, and even to simulating the folding of large solar panels for space satellites (known as the Miura fold, named after its inventor the Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura).

This morning, I went along to an APS session that looked at “extreme mechanics”, where researchers were talking about the origami and kirigami – a version of origami that involves folding and making small cuts to a single sheet of paper – of structural metamaterials.

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