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Blog

Scientists face discrimination when choosing a PhD

By Hamish Johnston

One of the most important decisions any aspiring scientist must make is what they should study for their PhD. Therefore, any advice that they receive from established academic researchers is of great value – and many academics are very generous with their time when it comes to mentoring up-and-coming researchers.

But do academics tend to reach out to some groups of people while ignoring others? That’s the subject of a study by three business-school professors – Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola and Dolly Chugh – who wanted to know if a person’s gender or ethnic origin affects their chances of booking an appointment with an academic to discuss their future.

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When waiting for 10 years is just too long

silly putty experiment

Fed up with waiting 10 years for a drip of pitch to fall? Try Silly Putty instead.

By Matin Durrani

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I do encourage you to read our feature article from the May issue of Physics World about the now-famous pitch-drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin. This simple funnel of pitch shot to fame last year after a drop from it was finally observed falling for the first time – with a video of the dripping drop having so far been viewed more than two million times on YouTube.

Although it was the first time that a drop had been seen to drip from the Dublin funnel, it’s thought that other drops would have fallen about once a decade since the apparatus was set up in 1944. Be that as it may, Trevor Cawthorne from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, UK, e-mailed me this morning, pointing out – quite rightly – that “10 years is a long time to wait for the results of an experiment”.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Optics & Lasers is out now

By Matin Durrani

Physics World focus issue on optics and lasers 2014It’s time to tuck into the latest focus issue of Physics World, which explores some of the latest research into optics and lasers.

The focus issue, which can be read here free of charge, kicks off with a report from the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol in the UK, which is driving a new approach to quantum computing based on integrated photonic circuits.

Elsewhere in the issue, you can find out from Joel England, a physicist at Stanford University in the US, about the new photonic research that could see particle accelerators shrunk to the scale of microchips.

Meanwhile, the huge potential of the photonics sector in general is underlined in our keynote interview with the chief executive of Jenoptik, Michael Mertin, who is also president of the European Union’s Photonics21 consortium, which seeks to unify the European photonics community and advises the European Commission on photonics research, development and innovation needs.

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Winning rock-paper-scissors, meeting a future Nobel laureate, hot new batteries and more

By Hamish Johnston

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries. (Courtesy: MIT/M Scott Brauer)

When I was a PhD student, there was a group of retired professors that shared a tiny office in the physics department. It was whispered that one of them was extremely wealthy thanks to a successful commercial spin-out and we marvelled at the fact that he came in to work every day rather than enjoying the fruits of his labours. However, it wasn’t the wealthy professor who was destined for international fame. In 1994 his officemate Bertram Brockhouse shared the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Brockhouse’s quiet life changed dramatically. Indeed, he got his own office!

I was reminded of this little group when I read ZapperZ’s blog entry about his encounter with Ray Davis before Davis bagged the 2002 Nobel for his work on neutrinos. Sitting next to Davis on a two-hour flight, ZapperZ had an inkling that he was beside an interesting character after their brief chat about physics. But it wasn’t until the Nobel was announced several years later that he realized the opportunity he had missed.

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Why did a drop of pitch in Dublin go viral?

 

By Matin Durrani

It’s always surprising to see the kinds of things that go viral – who’d have thought that a blog with amusing animal pictures would prove such a hit or that a chubby Korean pop singer would clock up nearly two billion views on YouTube?

But I doubt anyone could have predicted that a video of a drop falling from an antique funnel of pitch at a lab at Trinity College Dublin would become one of the science stories of 2013. In fact, here at Physics World we didn’t even write about it at the time.

Partly to make amends, the May issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out, includes a fabulous article by Shane D Bergin, Stefan Hutzler and Denis Weaire from the lab in Dublin where the experiment is based. In the article, they explain the science behind the pitch drop, discuss the history of the experiment and reflect on the value of “slow science” to a hyper-connected, social-media world.

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BICEP2′s findings trigger new kind of ‘inflation’

The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole

Sunrise over the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Tushna Commissariat

Scientists and laypeople the world over were intrigued by the announcement made by the BICEP2 collaboration earlier last month, when it claimed to have detected the primordial “B-mode polarization” of the cosmic microwave signal (CMB). Many researchers have hailed it as the first evidence for cosmic inflation – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe our universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang.

Indeed, after a quick search of the arXiv preprint server, I found nearly 172 papers based on the BICEP2 data that have been written since the team’s announcement on 17 March. Some 200 individual citations to the original BICEP2 paper can also be found on the server.

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Earth’s cousin, alien intelligence, Galileo’s game and more

Illustration of Kepler-186f

Artist’s illustration of Kepler-186f. (Courtesy: NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early last week, astronomers announced that they had found the first Earth-sized exoplanet that is comfortably within the habitable zone of its parent star, using NASA’s Kepler telescope. The new planet, dubbed Kepler-186f, is a close cousin of the Earth as it has a radius that is only 10% larger than that of the Earth, meaning that it could have liquid water on its surface, allowing for the tantalizing possibility of some form of life to exist upon it. At last count, Kepler has now discovered and confirmed 1706 exoplanets.

So it was rather interesting to come across two stories that looked at the implications of life beyond our planetary neighbourhood. Paul Gilster, who writes the Centauri Dreams blog had a rather interesting post on how artists and illustrators need to work with scientists to depict each new exoplanet, to make the images look visually stunning, while still being scientifically accurate. Gilster also talks specifically about the image (see above) that illustrates the newly found Kepler-186f.

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How Charles Wheatstone got to see polarization

By Matin Durrani

Things seem to have quietened down a bit following last month’s announcement by astronomers in the BICEP2 collaboration that they had obtained the first evidence of cosmic inflation – the period of rapid expansion in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang. As you’ll know if you’ve been keeping up, the evidence was obtained by searching for certain “B-mode” polarizations in the cosmic microwave background, which are related to primordial gravitational waves that are thought to have abounded in the early universe. These polarizations differ from “E-mode” polarization, which describes how the magnitude of polarization varies across the CMB.

But never mind your fancy B-modes and E-modes, how well do you understand the concept of polarization in the first place? Intriguingly, in the late 1840s Sir Charles Wheatstone, who was then professor of experimental philosophy at the University of London, decided to create a mechanical device to explain the principles of the concept – several decades before James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic nature of light.

The video above shows a rare surviving example of one of these “Wheatstone Wave Machines”, which has been restored to working order by Robert Whitworth and colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the UK as part of their collection of historic physics instruments. Wheatstone designed the machine to visualize the wave nature of light and offer what Whitworth calls “a vivid insight into the theoretical concepts of wave motion”. At the time, there were other devices that showed the behaviour of travelling plane waves, but Wheatstone’s was different in that it was the first to demonstrate circularly polarized light.

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Hi-tech giants eschew corporate R&D, says report

IBM's latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

IBM’s latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

By Hamish Johnston

“Think” has been motto of the US-based computer giant IBM since it was coined in the early 20th century by founder Thomas Watson. Many would argue that IBM has succeeded over the past 100 years because physicists and other scientists were given the freedom to think while working at the company’s research labs. And science has benefitted too, with three Nobel prizes won or shared by physicists working at the firm’s labs. Even more impressive is that a whopping seven physics Nobels have been awarded to physicists at Bell Labs – originally Bell Telephone Laboratories.

But the days of these corporate “idea factories” are over according to a new study published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Entitled Physics Entrepreneurship and Innovation (PDF), the 308-page report argues that many large businesses are closing in-house research facilities and instead buying in new expertise and technologies by acquiring hi-tech start-ups.

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3D printing food, ‘Top 10′ lists, teenage nuclear physicists and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Over the past few years, 3D printing has captured the imagination and interest of scientists and the public alike. Now, a €3 million EU-funded project known as “PERFORMANCE – PERsonalised FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs” is adapting 3D printing technology to food in order to create easily digestible sustenance that is not only nutritious but also looks and tastes like the real thing. The proposed printer would work like its conventional inkjet counterpart – except the cartridges would be filled with liquefied food instead of ink! While that may not sound like the most appetising way of eating your five-a-day, it might come as a relief for those who suffer from a condition known as “dysphagia” that makes swallowing food difficult. You can read more about the proposed scheme on the EU’s Horizon magazine website and take a look at the video above.

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