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Cthulhu cosmology, Halloween outfits with a physics twist and more


By Tushna Commissariat

It’s not often that classical physics and Post-Impressionist painters collide, but when they do the results can be enchanting and intriguing. In one of the latest TEDEd videos, Natalya St Clair has created a short lesson that looks at “The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night.” The video above looks at the enduring mystery that is the turbulence we see in any kind of flows in the natural world and how the human brain can recognize and actually make some kind of sense of the chaotic random patterns turbulence describes.

As pointed out in the video, famous physicists such as Richard Feynman and Werner Heisenberg have noted the complexity of turbulence, with Feynman describing it as “the most important unsolved problem of classical physics” and Heisenberg saying that “when I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first”. But is it possible that the undoubted genius and troubled painter that was Van Gogh perceived something more about turbulence in nature and is this most clearly represented in his most famous masterpiece – the evocative painting known as Starry Night? Watch the video to find out.

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Commercializing physics: how to translate ideas into business

By  Matin Durrani

Some physicists can get a bit grumpy if talk turns to the supposedly dirty business of commercialization. They go into physics out of curiosity alone and have an innate dislike of ever having to justify their resarch in terms of potential spin-off benefits. But they can be thankful for the overall health and vitality of physics that some brave souls do risk their money and careers by setting up businesses to commercialize their findings.

The November 2014 issue of Physics World magazine gives a taste of some of the challenges in commercializing physics, as I describe with my colleague Margaret Harris in the video above. We kick off with one common problem for hi-tech start-ups, which is how to bridge the “valley of death” – in other words, what to do when your research funding has dried up but you’re not yet making any money from your product. Jesko von Windheim then examines why physics-based firms have a harder job than ordinary businesses, where succeeding is simply about finding a market and meeting its need, before we look back at some promising technologies tackled in Physics World’s Innovation column to see how they’ve fared. There are also some real-life lessons from Floor van de Pavert — a physicist who’s been at the business coal face — and we see how crowdfunding websites can help researchers get their ideas off the ground.

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Can the electron wave function be trapped and divided?

Divide and conquer: the Brown bubble experiment (Courtesy: Mike Cohea/Brown University)

Divide and conquer: the Brown bubble experiment. (Courtesy: Mike Cohea/Brown University)

By Hamish Johnston

Every once in a while we come across a physics story that seems very interesting – but we just don’t know what to make of it. The latest comes in the form of a press release from Brown University in the US and concerns “electron bubbles” in liquid helium.

These bubbles are about 4 nm in diameter and are formed when a free electron moves through liquid helium and repels surrounding atoms. Physicists have been studying these bubbles for decades and in the 1960s they discovered something very strange when firing electrons across a tank of liquid helium and measuring the time it takes the bubbles to reach a detector on the other side.

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Strange goings on at CERN, string theory with cats, Isaac Asimov on generating new ideas and more

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D (Courtesy: CERN)

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” is probably the only famous sentence written by the English novelist L P Hartley. It also sums up nicely a collection of photographs of CERN in the 1960s and early 1970s showing among other things a jolly worker wearing a beret, scientists wearing white lab coats and ties, and a strange religious-like procession. There are also lots of photos of vintage kit, including one of those huge vacuum-valve-powered oscilloscopes (probably from Tektronix) that would be familiar to physicists of a certain age. My favourite photo is shown above. It was taken in 1965, when 3D data visualization was actually done in 3D! I believe that the collection was put together by CERN’s Alex Brown and you can enjoy looking at all 55 images in the collection here.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Big Science is out now

By Michael Banks

This year has been a special one for the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva as it turns 60 years old. It was back in 1954 when the CERN convention was ratified by its first 12 member states and the European Organization for Nuclear Research was officially established.

Cover of Physics World 2014 Focus on Big ScienceThe past few months have seen CERN celebrate in style with a whole host of symposia, meetings, plays, films, concerts and other events being held at the lab and at member states across Europe.

Indeed, researchers at CERN have had a lot to celebrate recently, following the discovery of the Higgs boson at the lab in 2012, and they will be hoping for yet more success when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) switches on next year following a two-year upgrade and maintenance programme.

In the latest Physics World focus issue on “big science” we look at what has been going on at CERN during the shutdown as the lab gears up to hunt new particles beyond the Higgs boson. Once back online, the LHC will be generating even more data than in its previous run and this focus issue also investigates how researchers are going to deal with the huge volumes of information that will be generated at many upcoming facilities, as well the need to train the next generation of researchers to use them.

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Candy corn in space, compact fusion reactors and physics in Palestine


By Hamish Johnston

Besides the great views of the Earth, one of the best things about being on the International Space Station (ISS) must be messing around in near-zero gravity. In the above video on Science Friday the American astronaut Don Pettit describes an “experiment” that he did on the ISS using candy corn, which are kernel-like sweets. He begins with a blob of floating water into which he inserts the candy corn pointy-end first. The points are hydrophilic so they tend to stay in the water, and eventually Pettit has a sphere of candy corn packed around the water. The flat ends of the candy corn have been soaked in oil to make them hydrophobic so the candy corn layer acts like a detergent film or one half of a cell membrane. It’s a fun video and I wonder how he got the idea in the first place?

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The STEM employment paradox, revisited

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

Unemployment rates among new STEM graduates are higher than average. (Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

Why, at a time when we hear so much about the UK’s shortage of scientific and technical skills, do unemployment rates among new science graduates remain stubbornly higher than average? This question has been bugging me for some time. Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post about it, suggesting that the answer might be a mismatch between what universities teach and what employers need. But that answer never really satisfied me, so for the graduate careers section in this month’s Physics World, I’ve examined the subject more carefully.

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Working at the interface of physics and biology

Face to face at the interface between physics and biology

Face to face at the interface between physics and biology.

By Michael Bishop

In the 60 years since James Watson and Francis Crick brought physics and biology together to unveil the molecular structure of DNA, the boundary between the two disciplines has continued to become increasingly blurred.

In this post-genomic era, ever more principles from physics have been applied to living systems in an attempt to understand complexity at all levels.

Yet cultural differences still exist between physicists and biologists, as is made clear in a set of excellent perspectives in the journal Physical Biology, published by IOP Publishing, which also publishes Physics World.

In “Perspectives on working at the physics–biology interface”, a group of eminent scientists give their accounts of working at the interface of physics and biology, describing the opportunities that have presented themselves and outlining some of the problems that they continue to face when working across two fields with quite different traditions.

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Blood Moons, teachers who moulded the minds of great physicists and more

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her high-school physics teacher

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her high-school physics teacher. (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week has been an exciting and busy one at Physics World HQ, what with two Nobel prizes that included physics – the actual Nobel prize for physics, of course, as well as this year’s chemistry Nobel, which was given to three physicists. Since last week’s Red Folder was full of Nobel trivia and facts, I will only point you to two more interesting Nobel-related articles. The first is an excellent article on the Slate website, by one of our regular freelance authors Gabriel Popkin, where he looks at female physicists who deserve a Nobel. His list is in no way exhaustive, but does well to highlight some excellent work done by women that deserves recognition, so do take a look at “These women should win a Nobel prize in physics”. Also, Ethan Siegel from the Starts With a Bang! blog has written an excellent essay to silence any would-be naysayers about the worthiness of giving the Nobel to the researchers who developed blue LEDs. In “Why blue LEDs are worth a Nobel Prize”, he outlines the history of LEDs and talks about just how many applications they have in today’s times.

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How to inspire scientists in developing nations


By Matin Durrani

I’ve now returned to the UK from my visit to the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, which has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding. As part of those celebrations, the ICTP has created a special half-hour video documentary (above), which shows how scientists in various parts of the globe have not only furthered their own careers through visits to the ICTP, but have also used that experience to improve science back in their home countries

The video, which I watched in Trieste, features scientists from everywhere from Nepal to Cuba, from Ethiopa to Peru, and from Cameroon to China – and, of course, Pakistan itself where the ICTP’s founder Abdus Salam was from. Entitled From Theory to Reality: ICTP at 50, it was made by Italian film-maker Nicole Leghissa, who spent two months travelling around the world to the locations seen in the film.

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