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Prizewinning book gives materials science a chance to shine

By Margaret Harris

Mark Miodownik

Mark Miodownik last night.

Materials scientist and first-time popular-science author Mark Miodownik was all smiles last night as his book Stuff Matters scooped one of the UK’s top non-fiction awards, the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. The book, an engaging and often highly personal look at some of the everyday materials that make modern civilization possible, was the unanimous choice of the five-member judging panel, coming top in a strong shortlist that also included a history of general relativity, a memoir about cancer and an analysis of the role played by physicists in Nazi Germany.

Miodownik picked up his award – a rectangular prism that looked like glass but was, he informed us, actually made of acrylic – at the end of a ceremony in which he and four of the other shortlisted authors appeared on stage at the Royal Society’s London headquarters to read passages from their books. Earlier in the evening, there had been an audible buzz in the room as Miodownik read from the introduction of Stuff Matters, in which he describes how, as a teenager, he was slashed with a razor blade during an attempted mugging, and how he became obsessed with materials and their properties afterwards. (He is now a materials engineer at University College London.)

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Blockbuster physics, bowling balls and feathers in a vacuum, and more


By Tushna Commissariat

The results of a successful scientific experiment can make scientists very happy. Indeed, in the clip above, taken from the BBC TV series Human Universe, one scientist exclaims “holy mackarel!” when he sees the outcome he was hoping for. In the video, everybody’s favourite physicist Brian Cox carries out an experiment similar to Galileo’s Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, where he tested that no matter the mass of objects, they fall at the same rate under gravity. In the video above, Cox drops a bunch of feathers and a bowling ball in the world’s biggest vacuum chamber – the Space Simulation Vacuum Chamber at NASA’s Space Power Facility in Ohio, US. In the slow-motion video, you can see with exquisite clarity just how accurate Galileo’s prediction was, as the feathers and ball land at precisely the same time. We came across this video on the Dot Physics blog on the Wired Science network, written by physicist Rhett Allain, where he has worked out some of the maths and pointed out some of the nuances of the above experiment, so make sure you take a look.

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A 21st-century discourse on quantum mechanics and space–time

Image of Nima Arkani-Hamed

Revealing the secrets of space–time? (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics)

By Tushna Commissariat

If you fancy a bit of late-night quantum mechanics, make sure that tonight you tune into the live webcast of “Quantum Mechanics and Spacetime in the 21st Century” – a lecture that by physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed as part of the Perimeter Institute’s Public Lecture Series. Arkani-Hamed, who won the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize in 2012, says that he hasn’t “been this excited about physics in a very long time”. He will talk about how the most recent advances in quantum mechanics shed new light on our understanding of the universe’s fabric of time and space. In the past, Arkani-Hamed has shown how the weakness of gravity, compared with the other fundamental forces of nature, might be explained by the existence of extra dimensions of space. He has also recently been involved in the 2013 documentary Particle Fever, about the search for the Higgs boson.

The webcast will begin at 11.45 p.m. GMT (7 p.m. EST) and you can send questions to Arkani-Hamed by tweeting @Perimeter and using the hashtag #piLIVE. Take a look at a short teaser video for his talk below and tell us what you think about it in the comments section.

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Celebrating the life and work of John Bell

By Matin Durrani

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a now-famous paper in the journal Physics by the Northern Irish physicist John Bell, in which he proved that making a measurement on one particle could instantaneously affect another particle – even if it’s a long way off.

Photo of John Bell with apple.

Food for thought: John Bell’s theorem is 50 years old. (Courtesy: Peter Menzer)

As our regular columnist Robert P Crease writes in the November issue of Physics World magazine, that kind of instantaneous effect, which proved the concept of entanglement, was not something that Bell was originally keen on. In fact, Bell had actually set out to prove the opposite – that it was possible, using “hidden variables”, to have a theory of physics that could keep things nice and “local”, and so avoid what Einstein had dubbed “spooky action at a distance”.

But Bell reversed his thinking. “I made a phase transition in my mind,” he told Crease shortly before his death in 1990 aged 62.

Yesterday (4 November) marked the 50th anniversary of the day that Bell’s paper arrived at the journal’s offices and today (5 November) sees the opening of an exhibtion at the Naughton Gallery on the campus of Queen’s University Belfast, from which Bell graduated with a first-class degree in mathematical physics in 1949.

Entitled “Action at a distance”, the exhibition runs until 30 November and promises to “explore Bell’s life and the artistic response to his legacy by artists from across the world”. There is also an accompanying series of lectures from Andrew Whitaker, Maire O’Neill, Mauro Paternostro, Artur Ekert and Anton Zeilinger.

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Watch Deborah Jin’s Newton lecture on ultracold gases


By Hamish Johnston

A few weeks ago Deborah Jin was in London to accept the 2014 Isaac Newton Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics. As is the custom, Jin also delivered the Institute’s Newton Lecture for 2014, which was called “Ultracold gases”. This is an apt title because Jin is an undisputed master in the control and study of gases that have been cooled to temperatures within a whisker of absolute zero.

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Cthulhu cosmology, Halloween outfits with a physics twist and more


By Tushna Commissariat

It’s not often that classical physics and Post-Impressionist painters collide, but when they do the results can be enchanting and intriguing. In one of the latest TEDEd videos, Natalya St Clair has created a short lesson that looks at “The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night.” The video above looks at the enduring mystery that is the turbulence we see in any kind of flows in the natural world and how the human brain can recognize and actually make some kind of sense of the chaotic random patterns turbulence describes.

As pointed out in the video, famous physicists such as Richard Feynman and Werner Heisenberg have noted the complexity of turbulence, with Feynman describing it as “the most important unsolved problem of classical physics” and Heisenberg saying that “when I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first”. But is it possible that the undoubted genius and troubled painter that was Van Gogh perceived something more about turbulence in nature and is this most clearly represented in his most famous masterpiece – the evocative painting known as Starry Night? Watch the video to find out.

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Commercializing physics: how to translate ideas into business

By  Matin Durrani

Some physicists can get a bit grumpy if talk turns to the supposedly dirty business of commercialization. They go into physics out of curiosity alone and have an innate dislike of ever having to justify their resarch in terms of potential spin-off benefits. But they can be thankful for the overall health and vitality of physics that some brave souls do risk their money and careers by setting up businesses to commercialize their findings.

The November 2014 issue of Physics World magazine gives a taste of some of the challenges in commercializing physics, as I describe with my colleague Margaret Harris in the video above. We kick off with one common problem for hi-tech start-ups, which is how to bridge the “valley of death” – in other words, what to do when your research funding has dried up but you’re not yet making any money from your product. Jesko von Windheim then examines why physics-based firms have a harder job than ordinary businesses, where succeeding is simply about finding a market and meeting its need, before we look back at some promising technologies tackled in Physics World’s Innovation column to see how they’ve fared. There are also some real-life lessons from Floor van de Pavert — a physicist who’s been at the business coal face — and we see how crowdfunding websites can help researchers get their ideas off the ground.

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Can the electron wave function be trapped and divided?

Divide and conquer: the Brown bubble experiment (Courtesy: Mike Cohea/Brown University)

Divide and conquer: the Brown bubble experiment. (Courtesy: Mike Cohea/Brown University)

By Hamish Johnston

Every once in a while we come across a physics story that seems very interesting – but we just don’t know what to make of it. The latest comes in the form of a press release from Brown University in the US and concerns “electron bubbles” in liquid helium.

These bubbles are about 4 nm in diameter and are formed when a free electron moves through liquid helium and repels surrounding atoms. Physicists have been studying these bubbles for decades and in the 1960s they discovered something very strange when firing electrons across a tank of liquid helium and measuring the time it takes the bubbles to reach a detector on the other side.

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Strange goings on at CERN, string theory with cats, Isaac Asimov on generating new ideas and more

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D (Courtesy: CERN)

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” is probably the only famous sentence written by the English novelist L P Hartley. It also sums up nicely a collection of photographs of CERN in the 1960s and early 1970s showing among other things a jolly worker wearing a beret, scientists wearing white lab coats and ties, and a strange religious-like procession. There are also lots of photos of vintage kit, including one of those huge vacuum-valve-powered oscilloscopes (probably from Tektronix) that would be familiar to physicists of a certain age. My favourite photo is shown above. It was taken in 1965, when 3D data visualization was actually done in 3D! I believe that the collection was put together by CERN’s Alex Brown and you can enjoy looking at all 55 images in the collection here.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Big Science is out now

By Michael Banks

This year has been a special one for the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva as it turns 60 years old. It was back in 1954 when the CERN convention was ratified by its first 12 member states and the European Organization for Nuclear Research was officially established.

Cover of Physics World 2014 Focus on Big ScienceThe past few months have seen CERN celebrate in style with a whole host of symposia, meetings, plays, films, concerts and other events being held at the lab and at member states across Europe.

Indeed, researchers at CERN have had a lot to celebrate recently, following the discovery of the Higgs boson at the lab in 2012, and they will be hoping for yet more success when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) switches on next year following a two-year upgrade and maintenance programme.

In the latest Physics World focus issue on “big science” we look at what has been going on at CERN during the shutdown as the lab gears up to hunt new particles beyond the Higgs boson. Once back online, the LHC will be generating even more data than in its previous run and this focus issue also investigates how researchers are going to deal with the huge volumes of information that will be generated at many upcoming facilities, as well the need to train the next generation of researchers to use them.

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