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Blog

Adventures in Antarctica

By Matin Durrani

It’s the depths of winter in Antarctica right now, but in the new issue of Physics World magazine, there’s a chance to feast your eyes on some stunning images of scientific research in the White Continent, taken a few months ago by photojournalist Enrico Sacchetti.

Sacchetti’s photographs are amazing and in the article he explains his experiences of travelling to Antarctica and taking pictures in what is one of the world’s harshest environments.

“As soon as I stepped off the C-130 [plane], the alien nature of Antarctica was truly jolting…Almost completely absent of atmospheric pollution, the air was crystal clear,” Sacchetti writes.

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Particle man meets universe man

By Margaret Harris

When particle physicist Jon Butterworth and cosmologist Pedro Ferreira took the stage last night at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, they did so as representatives of the two pillars of modern physics. Butterworth, a leading member of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, spoke about the discovery of the Higgs boson and the effort to understand the nature of matter on the quantum level. Ferreira, a theorist at the University of Oxford, focused on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which describes the behaviour of colossal objects such as galaxies and black holes.

The equations of quantum mechanics and general relativity are famously incompatible, but far from starting a Harry Hill-style confrontation (“FIIIIGHT!”), the advocates of the two theories shared the stage amiably, fielding questions from audience members and talking about their respective new books (Smashing Physics for Butterworth, The Perfect Theory for Ferreira). You can hear Ferreira and Butterworth’s responses to some common (and not-so-common) questions in the clips below.

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A day in the life of an astronaut, Hawking’s football conclusions, politics and science and more

Image from Tim Dodd's Everydat Astronaut photo series

“Good morning world” (Courtesy: Tim Dodd)

By Tushna Commissariat

For most of us, the life of an astronaut is one of excitement and adventure. Indeed, the mere thought of being a “real live astronaut” brings out the gleeful inner child in many, and photographer Tim Dodd is much the same. After purchasing a Russian high-altitude space suit from an online auction website, Dodd put together a series of photographs titled “A day in the life of Everyday Astronaut”, my favourite of which you can see above. Do take a look at the rest of the excellent series on Dodd’s website and follow him on Instagram for even more of the same.

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British scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds share their life stories

By James Dacey

What does it mean to be a scientist from an ethnic minority background? Is it harder to get career breaks and to reach the top of a field? Can your background actually be a source of inspiration? Is it even useful to anyone to be discussing these questions?

These are among the issues touched upon in a new series of video interviews with 10 British scientists with minority ethnic heritage. The interviews were conducted by researchers at the British Library as part of a larger audio history project commissioned by the Royal Society called Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science. You can watch all 10 interviews on the Royal Society website.

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A new Longitude Prize, global cooling in the 1970s, inspirational creatures and more

A red kite and a drone swoop down on their prey (Courtesy: Vijay Kumar)

A red kite and a drone swoop down on their prey. (Courtesy: Vijay Kumar)

By Hamish Johnston

A bird of prey swoops out of the sky, grabs its victim from the ground and flies off into the distance. It’s what a bird does instinctively, but how could we get a drone aircraft to do the same thing? That’s the subject of one of the papers in a special issue of the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics that focuses on “Bioinspired flight control”.

The above sequence of images is from a paper entitled “Toward autonomous avian-inspired grasping for micro aerial vehicles” by Vijay Kumar and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. The special issue also includes work on aircraft inspired by flying snakes, flocking birds and incredibly stable moths.

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Microwave pockets, space station strife and dreaming of Mars

Russia has the toilets on the ISS (Courtesy: NASA)

Russia has the toilets on the ISS. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

The physics of how the contents of a microwaved pastry can become “hotter than the Sun” is the subject of an entertaining and informative blog entry by Ethan Siegel. He looks at the physics of heating “microwave pockets”, those roof-of-your-mouth-scalding savoury treats that appeared on shelves in the 1980s. He explains why the outer portion of a pocket can be extremely hot, while the interior remains frozen – and why pockets often explode when heated through.

Siegel’s been a bit cheeky and republished this entry from 2009, but I suppose it’s timeless and I’m sure you can still buy microwave pockets somewhere! His blog is called Starts With a Bang and the entry is entitled “Throwback Thursday: The physics of hot pockets”.

As the crisis in the Ukraine drags on, scientists are beginning to worry about the effect it could have on scientific collaborations involving Russia and the West. Several websites are reporting that Russia is threatening to ban US astronauts from the shuttles that travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Indeed, the Independent quotes Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying that it would be possible for Russia to independently operate its portion of the ISS, while the US would not be able to do so. Indeed both toilets on the ISS are Russian, so it could get very messy up there!

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So, do you fancy winning $3m?

Money talks – $3m is the proze. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/solvod)

Money talks – $3m is up for grabs in the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation’s  Breakthrough Prize. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/solvod)

By Matin Durrani

An e-mail arrived in my inbox this morning from Rob Meyer, who names himself “administrator” of the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, seeking nominations for the Breakthrough Prize, which is worth a tasty $3m, and for the $100,000 New Horizons Prize, which is aimed at “young researchers”.

In case you’ve forgotten, the foundation was funded by the Russian investor Yuri Milner, who did a degree in physics at Moscow State University before making squillions investing in start-up companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

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What makes an equation beautiful?

By James Dacey

Earlier this year I wrote about a psychology experiment that revealed that mathematicians appreciate beautiful equations in the same way that people experience great works of art. In the experiment, which conjures up a slightly comical scene, mathematicians were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to view a series of equations. When the subjects looked at equations they had previously rated as beautiful, it triggered activity in a part of the emotional brain associated with the experience of visual and musical beauty. The formula most commonly rated as beautiful in the study, in both the initial survey and the brain scan, was Euler’s equation, eiπ+ 1 = 0.

Inspired by this study, we have put together this infographic to dissect the Euler identity and try to understand why so many mathematicians are enamoured with this little equation. Let us know what you think of the infographic and what you think are the most beautiful equations. Either post a comment below this article, or let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #BeautifulEquations.

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The biophysics of Godzilla, skipping stones, Schrödinger in the morning and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

I’m a bit of a connoisseur of the art of stone skipping. That’s because I grew up a stone’s throw from the western end of Lake Ontario, which thanks to its shale shoreline has the best skipping stones in the world. As a result, I was fascinated to read a piece on the Figure One blog about entitled “Frisbee meets fluid: Skipping stones takes spin and skill”.

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CERN gets set for LHC restart

An engineer working on the CMS detector at CERN

Taking it lying down: an engineer working on the CMS detector at CERN.

By Michael Bishop in CERN, Geneva

As CERN ramps up its preparations for “Run 2″ of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the start of 2015, many are wondering where the next big discovery will come from and whether it will emulate the success, and popularity, of the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

There appears to be no hangover from that landmark event and a genuine excitement among the scientists at CERN, which I witnessed first-hand earlier this week during a two-day tour of CERN’s facilities organized by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Many of the UK-based scientists that I spoke to during the tour showed a remarkable enthusiasm for the experiments they were working on and confessed to expecting similar, if not bigger, discoveries when the particle collider starts smashing protons together at higher energies.

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