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Blog

A look back at how the dust fell on BICEP2

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s been five days since the metaphorical dust settled on the apparent “discovery” of the B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background that was reported in March. The claim came from the team behind the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope at the South Pole, and much has been said since about what was then hailed as one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the decade.

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The pin-up of particle physics, an octopus-inspired robot and Witten versus Horgan redux

 

By Hamish Johnston

One of my favourite radio programmes is The Life Scientific, in which the physicist Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their lives and work. Al-Khalili introduces this week’s guest as “the pin-up of particle physics”, whose remarkable career has taken him from playing keyboards in pop bands, to winning a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to do particle physics, to hosting one of the BBC’s most popular science programmes.

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How to give a great TEDx talk

Bob Crease at TEDx, CERN, 24 September 2014

Hitting his stride – Robert P Crease in full flow at yesterday’s TEDx talk at CERN after forgetting about the timer, which is the small object at his feet. (Courtesy: Maya Elhalal)

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

It’s great to go first.

Then you can actually listen to the other performances without fretting about your own. Somewhere near the middle of my TEDxCERN talk yesterday (Wednesday 24 September) I stopped being aware of the timer at my feet, began to have fun and left the stage at the end without even noticing whether I had exceeded my time limit. I made a brief stop backstage to lose my “Madonna” – a microphone that’s not on a neck clip or attached to a headset but extends out from an ear brace – then retook my seat in the front row.

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Behind the scenes at CERN’s TEDx event

Bob Crease (at right) with pals at ATLAS shortly before his TEDx talk in September 2014

All-star line-up – Physics World columnist Robert P Crease (far right) in front of the ATLAS detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider as he and his fellow speakers brace themselves ahead of today’s TEDx talks at CERN.

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

On Tuesday morning I addressed 1300 empty chairs.

I was the first of several presenters yesterday at a dress rehearsal for the TEDxCERN event, which takes place this afternoon, Wednesday 24 September. The rehearsal was held in a huge tent specially constructed for this event, and for CERN’s 60th-anniversary celebrations next week. The programme will be broadcast live today starting at 1.30 p.m. CEST (GMT+2).

It isn’t easy, I discovered, to grab the attention of empty chairs. I stumbled over sentences and forgot to click my slides. Occasionally I felt on automatic pilot, and had the eerie experience of hearing myself speak with a half-second delay, as if I were listening to myself from the back of my head. I went a minute over time and also discovered a typo in a slide that I had viewed approximately a zillion times before. I was relieved to find I wasn’t the only one; some of those who followed, too, tripped over delivery or had trouble with slides.

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The birthday party goes on at CERN

Sorry, you missed this concert by the UN Symphony Orchestra on 19 October, but there is more music coming up (Courtesy: CERN)

Sorry, you missed this concert by the UN Symphony Orchestra on 19 September, but there is more music coming up. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

All this week the people at CERN and in its member states will be celebrating 60 years of particle physics at the world-famous lab in Geneva. There is something for everyone to enjoy and here are a few highlights that we have picked out

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A TEDx train wreck?

Photo of CERN as seen by Robert P Crease from his bedroom windown in September 2014

Calm before the storm – the view of CERN from Robert P Crease’s bedroom window as he tries desperately to shave a final two minutes off his TEDx talk.

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

On Sunday morning I arrived at CERN to find workers putting finishing touches on a huge tent where the lab will host its TEDx event on Wednesday, and its 60th anniversary festivities next week.

“TED”, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a non-profit organization that promotes talks on what it calls “ideas worth spreading”; the “x” denotes an independent event organized in that spirit. This is the second TEDxCERN – the first took place last year – and it’s hosted by Brian Cox. More than 1000 people will watch 14 speakers, three performances and three animations; tens of thousands more viewers are expected online.

James Gillies, CERN’s head of communication, invited me to be a speaker. The subject this year, he said, was how science could better engage with major social challenges. He said that my May Physics World column “Why don’t they listen?” – on why scientists have difficulty getting politicians’ ears – had “hit the nail on the head”, and asked if I’d be interested in discussing the idea.

A week at CERN? A great excuse to implore colleagues take over my classes? Sure! All I had to do, I thought, was talk my way through some extended version of the column.

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A scientific pyramid scheme, symmetry through the ages, why physics students are “standing a little taller” and more

Pyramid power: this lovely pyramid has nothing to do with postdocs. It is model of a much larger  Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

Pyramid power: this lovely object has nothing to do with postdocs. It is a simpler version of a much larger Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

By Hamish Johnston

Just this week six people were convicted in Bristol of crimes related to running a pyramid scheme. This involves taking money from lots of new investors and giving it to a smaller number of investors who signed up earlier – until the pyramid collapses. Is the current model for training scientists a pyramid scheme of sorts? That is the claim in a piece on the US’s National Public Radio (NPR) website written by Richard Harris.

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Scotland’s future

Castle Stalker

Scotland: staying in the UK following the referendum. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jack Torcello)

By Matin Durrani

In the end, it was perhaps not too unexpected when Scotland voted against independence in yesterday’s referendum. Almost all of the polls in the run-up to the vote had signalled a win for the “no” camp – and so it turned out, with 55% of voters wanting Scotland to remain tied to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of the UK. But it was a relatively close-run affair and many will be relieved that the two sides have avoided having tospend the next few years arguing, like a divorcing couple, over how to divide their spoils.

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A day in the life of CERN’s director-general

Rolf-Dieter Heuer

All in a day’s work. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Geneva

There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a CERN director-general (DG), certainly not this one in any case. In my experience, each incumbent has carved out a slightly different role for themself, shaped by the laboratory’s priorities and activities at the time of their mandate. For me, every day goes beyond science, management and administration, and I am particularly fortunate to have been DG through a remarkable period that has seen not only the successful launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and confirmation of the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism, but also an opening of CERN to the world – an area that I have pursued with particular vigour.

As I regularly joke, we have changed the “E” of CERN from “Europe” to “Everywhere”, and that has meant a lot of travel for the CERN DG, as we hold discussions with prospective new members of the CERN family. And when the CERN Council opened up membership to countries from beyond the European region in 2010, it seemed to me that we should also be extending our contacts in other directions as well.

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Proton-beam therapy explained

By James Dacey

The story of young brain-tumour patient Ashya King has gripped the British public over the past few weeks, with every twist and turn covered extensively in the media. In a nutshell, the five year old was removed from a hospital in Southampton at the end of August by his parents, without the authorization of doctors. They wanted their son to receive proton-beam therapy, which was not offered to them through the National Health Service (NHS). The family went to Spain in search of the treatment, triggering an international police hunt that subsequently saw the parents arrested before later being released.

The drama was accompanied by a heavy dose of armchair commentary, with Ashya’s parents, the hospital in Southampton and the police all receiving both criticism and praise. Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, got caught up in the affair, as he offered his personal support to the parents. To cut a long story short, Ashya’s parents finally got their wish and they have ended up at a proton-therapy centre in the Czech Republic where their son’s treatment begins today.

But what is proton therapy? It is a relatively new medical innovation that shows great promise in the treatment of cancer, though it is only currently available in certain countries. Beams of protons can be directed with precision at tumours in the body – allowing the energy to destroy cancer cells, while causing less damage to the surrounding tissue than is possible with conventional radiation therapies. The treatment, however, is only really useful in specific cases of cancer, such as where is vitally important that surrounding structures are not damaged. And because it is relatively new, there is less information available about how effective it is compared with more established treatments.

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