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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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Pushing the frontiers of precision

High Precision Laboratory

The €25m Precision Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany. (Courtesy: MPI-FKF)

By Michael Banks in Stuttgart, Germany

“There is nothing like this in Germany,” states Klaus Kern, a director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany, as we walk around the institute’s Precision Laboratory, which opened in 2012 at a cost of €25m.

Kern took me on a guided tour of the the centre, which he has been involved with since its conception in 2008, during a break from attending a symposium celebrating the life of Manuel Cardona, a former institute director who passed away earlier this year.

The building is unique, not only in Germany but worldwide, as it offers researchers a space in which to do experiments that are seismically, acoustically and electrically isolated from the environment.

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The secret life of hairdryers, the crackpot conundrum and mesmerizing animations

By Hamish Johnston

Secret lives will be revealed at the Science Museum in London (Courtesy: Batholith)

Its secret life will be revealed at the Science Museum in London. (Courtesy: Batholith)

If you happen to be in London next Saturday (20 September), the Science Museum is running a workshop called “The field life of electronic objects”. Participants will measure the electromagnetic fields surrounding everyday objects such as hairdryers and hard drives “to produce astonishing light images of these objects’ secret life”. Space is limited, the cost is £10 and you can register online.

One thing that we really struggle with here at physicsworld.com is comments from crackpots. My colleagues and I put a lot of effort into writing and editing articles that we believe will be of general interest to the physics community. There is nothing more soul-destroying than spending hours trying to understand and then explain a tricky piece of research only to see the comments on your article hijacked by someone promoting their own bizarre theory.

The American Physical Society (APS) takes a brave and novel way of dealing with crackpots – it gives them their own sessions at APS conferences. In “The Crackpot Conundrum”, blogger Henry Brown describes the mood at such sessions as depressing, something that I understand based on a session that I sat through. Brown then reviews some of the various ways that physics bloggers deal with crackpots and in a moment of deep introspection suspects that he might be seen by some as a crackpot!

Finally, if you are winding down on a Friday afternoon, you can put yourself in a trance by watching these mesmerizing animations by the Irish physicist David Whyte.

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Once upon a time…the art of telling a good quantum tale

 

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s been nearly two weeks since I spent three intense and interesting days in Sweden bundled into a classroom with other journalists and scientists to polish up our knowledge of all things quantum. Since attending the NORDITA science-writing workshop, I have spent a lot of time thinking about one of the main themes of the meeting: “What is the best way to communicate quantum physics to the public?”

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Sweet-talking physics

By Louise Mayor

We’re always up for trying new formats and approaches to journalism here at Physics World. You’ve probably seen our documentary-type films, podcasts and 100 Second Science video series, but the latest addition to our repertoire is a short monthly video in which one of our editorial team highlights something in the upcoming or current issue as a kind of taster.

So this month, I decided to take the plunge and get in front of the camera myself to present the third edition of what we have started jokingly referring to in the office as our “fireside chats”. (Here are the July and August versions.)

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