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Blog

Physics in the fast lane

By Matin Durrani

Most of us want everything in life right here, right now. From fast food to fast cars, none of us can be bothered to hang about any longer than absolutely necessary. Where’s your reply to my e-mail I sent five minutes ago? Why haven’t you responded to my Tweet? Do you really expect me to read that 500-page novel for fun?

It was perhaps as an antidote to the ever-faster pace of life that so much has been made of two physics experiments that recently produced new data for the first time in years. I’m talking, of course, about the “pitch-drop” experiments at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and the University of Queensland, Australia, which both consist of a glass funnel of sticky tar-like substance. A drop from the Trinity experiment finally fell last July, with a video of the event quickly going viral, while the Queensland set-up dripped this April for the first time in 13 years. (For more on why both experiments proved so popular, check out our great feature by Shane D Bergin, Stefan Hutzler and Denis Weaire from Trinity.)

But if you can’t be bothered to hang around for 10 years or more, you’ll be pleased to hear that physicists at Queen Mary University of London – led by Kostya Trachenko – have now set up a new pitch-drop experiment to explore the difference between solid and liquids on the much shorter timescale of just a few months.

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How the banjo got its twang, love in the time of science, award-winning astro images and more

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the head. (Courtesy: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the round head. (CC BY-SA 3.0 / DMacks)

By Tushna Commissariat and Hamish Johnston

Folk and country music often blends the sharp twang of a banjo with the mellow and sustained tone of a guitar.  While the two instruments appear to be very similar – at least at first glance – they have very different sounds. This has long puzzled some physicists, including Nobel laureate David Politzer, who may have just solved this acoustical mystery.

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Art, physics and performance painting

Photo of artwork created by Adrian Pritchard

Artist Adrian Pritchard is a “performance painter” who here has created a public artwork by allowing coloured streams of viscoelastic fluids to mix. (Courtesy: Adrian Pritchard)

By Matin Durrani

I was in London at the end of last week to attend a meeting on “Communicating physics through the arts” (PDF), which had been organized by the Physics Communicators Group of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World.

Held at the IOP’s headquarters in London, the idea of the meeting was to “ask artists to explore how they use their knowledge of physics during the development of their work” and to see “how physics could be communicated to the public through their work”.

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Extraterrestrial espressos, quantum card-games, misunderstood science and more

Cartoon photo of astronaut enjoying espresso in space

Mmm…ISSpresso in space. (Courtesy: Lavazza)

 By Tushna Commissariat

Most of us can’t get our day started without a fortifying cup of coffee and astronauts are just the same. To help those on the International Space Station meet their caffeine cravings, Italian coffee king Lavazza has designed and built an espresso machine that will work in space! Called “ISSpresso” the machine will be blasted off into space in the possession of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who will also be the first Italian woman in space. You can read all about the ISSpresso and its supreme blends on the Wired website.

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A network analysis of the FIFA World Cup

(Courtesy: Paolo Cintia and Luca Pappalardo)

(Courtesy: Paolo Cintia and Luca Pappalardo)

By James Dacey

The FIFA World Cup is under way in Brazil as the national teams from 32 nations battle it out on the pitch for the most prestigious prize in football. It is also an exciting month for football fans across the world as everyone suddenly becomes an expert on the game. Offices, bars and cafes around the world echo with the sound of post-match analysis.

This post-match dissection has now been taken to another level by a pair of computer scientists at the University of Pisa in Italy. At the request of Physics World, Paolo Cintia and Luca Pappalardo have carried out a network analysis of the opening match of the tournament, which saw the hosts Brazil defeat Croatia by three goals to one. Cintia and Pappalardo have viewed the match as if it were an evolving network where players represent nodes that interact by passing the ball to each other along “edges”.

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Women Rock Science author bags new student-science award

Hadiza Mohammed

Hadiza Mohammed being presented with the inaugural IOP Student Science Publication Award last night.

The photo above shows me presenting the inaugural Student Science Publication Award, sponsored by the Institute of Physics and IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, to Hadiza Mohammed of the online magazine Women Rock Science. She is a working civil engineer currently doing a Master’s in advanced environmental and energy studies.

The award, which was launched this year, recognizes student journalists who produce a regular science publication and seeks in part to nurture the next generation of science writers. It forms part of the annual awards given by the Association of British Science Writers and was presented at a reception held at the Royal Society in London as the culmination of this year’s UK Conference of Science Journalists.

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Extra dimensions, other-worldly football, the ISS at night and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, we came across the above video on “extra dimensions”, in which physicist Don Lincoln talks about the possible physical reality of such dimensions and why we need them. The video begins with Lincoln pointing out just how weak a force gravity is, especially when compared with, say, magnetism. He then goes on to talk about how gravity may exist in more than the three dimensions we experience, making sure to point out that these “extra dimensions” are not of the Hollywood variety in which a different reality may exist. This video is part of Fermilab’s “Big Mysteries” video series – be sure to take a look at the rest.

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The cure is success

Photograph of Jim Gates

Jim Gates. (Courtesy: John T Consoli, Cheltenham Science Festival)

By Margaret Harris

Last Sunday I went up to Cheltenham for the final day of the town’s annual Science Festival. My plan was to meet the University of Maryland theorist Jim Gates before lunch and then stay to hear his lecture on science and policy.

I was already somewhat familiar with Gates’ research thanks to a feature he wrote for Physics World in June 2010. I could also have made an educated guess about his activities as a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). However, I knew very little about his personal history before his evening lecture, when he was interviewed by the physicist and science presenter Jim Al-Khalili.

Gates was born in 1950 and grew up during a period when African-Americans faced severe institutionalized discrimination across the US. However, being from a military family helped insulate him from some of the worst effects, and he told the audience that he didn’t feel the full impact until his family moved to Florida after he turned 11. For the first time, he attended a racially segregated school, and there, he said, he had “the very curious experience of having to learn how to be black”.

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A mixed bag of science books

By Margaret Harris

The longlist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books has been announced today, and, with a few exceptions, I’m not impressed.
Logo for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

I’ll begin with the exceptions. Of the six books on the 12-strong longlist that have come across my desk as Physics World’s reviews editor, two of them – Philip Ball’s Serving the Reich and Pedro Ferreira’s The Perfect Theory – fully deserve to be in contention for the £25,000 prize. I reviewed Ball’s book myself and found it fascinating, and although Physics World’s review of Ferreira’s book won’t be published until July, I can reveal that the reviewer found it “timely, expert and highly readable”. I also gave a pass mark to Brian Clegg’s Dice World, which is a good, serviceable treatment of a topic – quantum randomness – that deserves more love than it gets. Congratulations to all three authors.

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Proton therapy is for the masses

Drawing of the proposed proton-therapy facility

Drawing of the proposed proton-therapy facility. (Courtesy: Umar Masood)

By Hamish Johnston

In the 25th anniversary issue of Physics World, I made the bold assertion that laser acceleration will bring particle therapy to the masses by removing the need for treatment centres to have large and expensive accelerators. Instead, therapeutic beams of protons and other charged particles will be made using compact and relatively inexpensive lasers.

Now, medical physicist Umar Masood and colleagues at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and the University of Dresden have published plans for a laser-driven proton-therapy facility.

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