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Busting dust deep underground in SNOLAB

SNOLAB's Nigel Smith (left), Ian Lawson (centre) and Chris Jillings

Squeaky clean: SNOLAB’s Nigel Smith (left), Ian Lawson (centre) and Chris Jillings.

By Hamish Johnston at the CAP Congress in Edmonton, Alberta

I’m a bit of a DIY enthusiast and one thing that I know about drilling into a masonry wall is that you should hold a vacuum-cleaner hose to the hole or you will end up with dust all over the wall and the floor below. Believe it or not, that is exactly what workers at SNOLAB in Canada do in order to keep background levels of radiation from affecting their dark-matter and neutrino detectors.

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The physics of Alzheimer’s disease

Jennifer Tang and Maikel Rheinstadter

Jennifer Tang and Maikel Rheinstadter.

By Hamish Johnston at the CAP Congress in Edmonton, Alberta

One promising route to understanding the causes of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) –  and hopefully finding a cure – is the study of how and why proteins in the brain sometimes form neurotoxic plaques. These plaques are disc-like structures that are about 50 µm in diameter and made from polypeptides. Their presence in the grey matter of the brain is strongly associated with AD and some other neurological conditions, but why they form and why they cause dementia are both not understood.

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Muzzling scientists leads to mistrust of government says physicist MP

Canadian MP Ted Hsu believes in free speech for government scientists

Canadian MP Ted Hsu believes in free speech for government scientists.

By Hamish Johnston at the CAP Congress in Edmonton, Canada

Yesterday I caught up with Ted Hsu, who is member of the Canadian parliament for Kingston and the Islands – and a former physicist. Hsu is a member of the Liberal party, which means he sits on the opposition benches. There he has been an outspoken critic of the current Conservative government over its apparent “muzzling” of scientists on the federal payroll. He believes that when governments seek to silence their experts it leads to more public mistrust of government.

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Physics World 2015 Focus on Optics & Photonics is out now

PWoptics2015-cover-500By Matin Durrani

With the 2015 International Year of Light now in full swing, it’s time to tuck into the latest focus issue of Physics World, which explores some of the latest research into optics and photonics.

The focus issue, which can be read here free of charge, kicks off by looking at the giant laser interferometers underpinning the latest searches for gravitational waves. We also report on recent efforts to use optical instead of radio waves for satellite communication and have an interview with Ian Walmsley from the University of Oxford about the vital role that optics and photonics play in the UK’s new £270m Quantum Technologies Programme.

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Debating warp bubbles and quark novae over beer and samosas

Photograph of Miguel Alcubierre lecturing in Edmonton

Time traveller: Miguel Alcubierre works the crowd in Edmonton.

By Hamish Johnston at the CAP Congress in Edmonton, Canada

The first day of the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Congress at the University of Edmonton closed yesterday on the theme of time travel. Surely that is science fiction, you are thinking? But Miguel Alcubierre of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) wasn’t joking when he delivered the Herzberg Memorial Lecture yesterday evening (although he did giggle a lot during his talk, which was very endearing). The session was called “Faster than the speed of light” and it was a fascinating romp through some of the more bizarre implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (GR) – which is 100 years old this year.

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Lament for ‘the reactor that can do everything’

Photograph of inside the NRU

Inside the NRU. (Courtesy: Atomic Energy of Canada)

By Hamish Johnston at the CAP Congress in Edmonton

In 1957 Atomic Energy of Canada built “a reactor that can do everything” at Chalk River, Ontario. Dubbed the National Reactor Universal – or NRU – that facility will shut down for good in 2018 and Canada’s neutron-science community is now pondering its future.

In the short term, physicists will have to travel abroad to use neutron sources, such as those at Oak Ridge in the US and Grenoble in France. The challenge during this 10–15 year period will be to keep the research community together and make sure that vital skills and expertise built up over decades at the NRU will be retained. In the longer term, there are calls for Canada to build a new neutron facility, but it is by no means clear whether that will happen.

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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

Courtesy: xkcd.com

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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