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‘Physics across Canada’ tour kicks off in Edmonton


By Hamish Johnston

Greetings from Edmonton on the western edge of the Canadian prairies, where I am starting my “Physics across Canada” tour. The nation’s physicists are gathering here for the annual Canadian Association of Physicists Congress at the University of Alberta.

The congress opens today with a session that promises to be out of this world. Exoplanet expert Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is talking about the search for habitable worlds beyond our blue planet. I am really keen to learn more about the latest techniques for studying the atmospheres of exoplanets and I plan to record an interview about that very subject later this week.

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Space Station vacancy, lead balloons on the fly and more


By Michael Banks and Tushna Commissariat

You may remember that the “classical crossover” soprano star Sarah Brightman had been undergoing strenuous training at Moscow’s Star City complex before hitching a ride on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) in September. The singer was set to pay a whopping £30m for a ticket that would have seen her embark on a 10-day journey into space. Brightman even recorded a special song in March that she was planned to perform on the ISS itself – you can watch the 5 News report above. But Brightman has now postponed the trip, putting out a brief statement on her website citing “personal family reasons” for the decision. One beneficiary of Brightman’s no-show will be the Japanese entrepreneur Satoshi Takamatsu, who had been training as Brightman’s back-up. Whether he’ll do his own version of her planned performance isn’t clear.

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Success, failure and women in physics

xkcd comic


By Margaret Harris

Giving out science careers advice is tricky. On the one hand, you want to be encouraging – not least because if you aren’t, there is a chance that your advisee will go on to win a Nobel prize, and you will then look extremely silly. But on the other hand, you also want to prepare the person, mentally, for the possibility of failure. Otherwise, when they do fall short, they may not know how to recover and try again.

The need for balance between encouraging big dreams and preparing for failure was one of the central insights to come out of Sunday’s panel on “Feminism, sexism and bringing up girls” at the Cheltenham Science Festival. After one of the panel members, psychologist Tanya Byron, noted that in clinical practice she sees many bright, successful girls whose fear of failure is “absolutely destroying them”, her fellow panellist Gabriel Weston put her finger on the heart of the problem. How, Weston asked, do we celebrate young women’s achievements and encourage their dreams without also pushing them to be “perfect little glass statues” who shatter under pressure?

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Is dark energy becoming marginalized?

By Tushna Commissariat

Supernovae secrets: Chandra image of G299 -- a Type 1A supernova remnant.  (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/U.Texas)

Supernovae secrets: Chandra image of G299, a type Ia supernova remnant. (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/U Texas)

Here at Physics World, we enjoy a good debate and late last week, a paper appeared on the arXiv server that is bound to kick up quite the storm, once it has been peer-reviewed and published. Titled “Marginal evidence for cosmic acceleration from type Ia supernovae”, the paper was written by Subir Sarkar of the Particle Theory Group at the University of Oxford and the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, together with colleagues Alberto Guffanti and Jeppe Trøst Nielsen. It suggests that the cosmic expansion may not be occurring at an accelerating rate after all, contrary to the findings of previous Nobel prize-winning work and most of our current standard cosmological models, including that of dark energy.

Indeed, the researchers’ work suggests that the evidence for acceleration is nowhere near as strong as previously suggested – it is closer to 3σ rather than 5σ, and allows for expansion at a constant velocity. Nielsen et al. have come to this conclusion after studying a much larger database of type Ia supernovae – 50 of which were studied in the original work, while this study looks at 740 – that are used as “standard candles” to detect cosmic acceleration.

This study is sure to make many cosmologists sit up and take notice, and an interesting discussion is sure to follow. So watch this space and check back in with us, once the paper is published and we catch up with Sarkar and his colleagues.

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Getting into the mind of Maxwell

Malcolm Longair on the beauty of Maxwell's equations
Published 150 years ago, Maxwell's paper on electricity and magnetism remains hugely profound
This text will be replaced

By Matin Durrani

In case you’ve forgotten – and shame on you if you have – 2015 has been designated the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015).  There’s been loads going on all over the globe, which you can follow on the excellent IYL 2015 blog, and we at Physics World have been in on the act too don’t forget. Our March 2015 issue was devoted to light and we also produced a digital-only collection of our 10 best features on light, which you can read free here.

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The landscapes of CERN, 20 years of BECs and the truth about toilet swirl


By Hamish Johnston

Everyone knows that water in a draining sink or toilet swirls in opposite directions on opposite sides of the equator…or does it? For the answer, watch the instructions in the above video and then go to “The truth about toilet swirl”.

Physicists at CERN are a lucky bunch. As well as having the world’s most energetic collider at their disposal, they are also surrounded by the natural beauty of the Alps and the Jura mountains. However, I’ve always felt that the CERN site itself and the flat farmland that overlays the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are rather dull.

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Atomic time was born 60 years ago today


By Hamish Johnston

“The death of the astronomical second and the birth of atomic time” is how the British physicist Louis Essen described 3 June 1955, when the world’s first practical atomic clock ticked for the first time.

The place was Teddington on the outskirts of London, which is home to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Essen’s clock was based on a beam of caesium atoms and was monitored by microwave technology inspired by his wartime work on radar. The clock was more than a metre long and nicknamed the “Flying Bedstead” by engineers at the BBC, who used it as an input for their radio time signal. The clock made atomic time available worldwide for the first time 60 years ago. Then, in 1967, the second was redefined as an SI unit based on an atomic transition in caesium, thereby ending the ancient practice of defining time though astronomical observations.

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Hope for ‘new physics’ as Large Hadron Collider begins 13 TeV run

CERN: physicists in the LHC control room

Celebration at CERN: physicists in the LHC control room applaud the first stable collisions. (Courtesy: M Brice/CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier today the first data of the 13 TeV run of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN were collected by all four of the Geneva-based collider’s main experiments. I was up early this morning (8.00 a.m. Geneva time) and followed all the action live via a webcast from CERN. After losing the beams at about 8.40 a.m. because of a faulty beam monitor, collisions in the CMS, ALICE, ATLAS and LHCb experiments were being reported at 10.40 a.m.

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Physics at 13 TeV should begin today at the Large Hadron Collider

The LHC control room at CERN

In the fishbowl: the world is watching as the LHC begins its 13 TeV run. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this morning physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider began their scientific programme at 13 TeV. Unfortunately, they lost the beam after about 30 minutes and it will probably be another hour or so before things are up and running again.

You can follow all the excitement via a live webcast.

Good luck to all at the LHC and fingers crossed for finding evidence for physics beyond the Standard Model.

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Breathing new life into the Rashba effect

By Tushna Commissariat

Spintronics is often touted to be a field of research that one day soon will revolutionize computing as we know it, helping build the next generation of superfast and energy-efficient computers that we long for. Future spintronic devices will tap into the inherent spin magnetic moment of the electron, rather than just its charge, to store and process information. As an electron’s spin can be flipped much quicker than its charge can be moved, these devices should, in theory, operate faster and at lower temperatures than their current electronic-only counterparts.

Photograph of Rashba from 2008

Father of spin: Rashba at his 80th birthday celebration at Harvard University in 2008. (Courtesy: Matt Craig/Harvard News Office)

The entire basis of this field is built on research done by Soviet-American theoretical physicist Emmanuel Rashba in 1959. Indeed, he was the first to discover the splitting of the spin-up and spin-down states in energy and momentum with an applied electric field instead of a magnetic field. But Rashba’s original article detailing the effect, written together with Valentin Sheka, was published in a supplement of the Soviet-era, Russian-language journal, Fizika Tverdogo Tela, and is nearly impossible to get a hold of today.

New Journal of Physics (which is published by IOP Publishing, which also publishes Physics World) has now produced a focus collection of articles on the Rashba effect. As a part of this collection, guest editors Oliver Rader of the Helmholtz Centre Berlin, Gustav Bihlmayer of the Jülich Research Centre in Germany and Roland Winkler of the Northern Illinois University in the US worked with Rashba to create an English-language version of his original paper.

You can access the entire “Focus on the Rashba Effect” collection here, and the translated original paper here. In some ways, this highlights the importance of other key research articles that may have been published in journals that are no longer available and so may be in danger of being lost forever. Leave us a comment if you can think of any such papers.

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