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Physics versus superheroes, a cosmic landscape and a dress inspired by LIGO

A photograph of the Cosmic Multiverse

Galactic views: the Scottish countryside stretches out beyond the Milky Way. (Courtesy: Crawick Multiverse)

By Hamish Johnston

What to do with an abandoned mine? “Turn it into a neutrino and dark-matter detector” is probably what most physicists would say. But we have lots of those already, so how about “A cosmic landscape worthy of the ancients”? That’s how the artist Charles Jencks describes the Crawick Multiverse, which is located in a former open-cast coal mine in the Scottish countryside about 50 miles south of Glasgow. The “striking landscape of distinctive landforms” includes two mounds representing the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies and a Comet Walk that uses standing stones to emulate a comet’s tail. If the photograh above is any indication, it looks like a lovely day out.

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Can a concert hall have a perfect acoustic?

Photo of Lesley Garrett

Sound engineer Paul Waton and soprano Lesley Garrett discussing theatre acoustics at the Royal Opera House. (Courtesy: Brian Slater)

 

By James Dacey

Concert hall acoustics was the theme of a fascinating panel debate last night at the Royal Opera House (ROH) in London. Among the speakers was British soprano and presenter Lesley Garrett who shared her views on the acoustics of some of the great concert halls in which she has performed. She was joined by acoustics engineer Trevor Cox, acoustics consultant Helen Butcher and sound engineer Paul Waton, who has recorded a range of classical concerts for the BBC. Insight: the Art and Science of Acoustics was co-hosted by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World.

Cox – who featured in our 2014 podcast about sonic wonders – set the scene by describing some of the fundamental acoustic considerations in designing a concert hall. We heard clips of Cox playing a saxophone in an “anechoic” chamber, followed by the same sax lick performed in an oil tanker – the place with officially the longest echo in the world. Cox’s point was to show the difference between high clarity at the one extreme and intense reverberation at the other. The sound wasn’t quite “right” in both cases. “Concert hall design is about finding a pleasing balance between these two extremes,” he said.

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Sounding off about valleytronics

Photograph of a valley in Glacier National Park in the US

Valley state: real-life landscapes can be as beautiful as their condensed-matter counterparts. (CC BY-SA BorisFromStockdale)

By Hamish Johnston

Condensed matter is a physicist’s paradise because of the seemingly endless number of ways that atoms can be rearranged to create systems with new and exciting behaviours. A great example of this is the emerging field of “valleytronics”, which is concerned with a property of electrons that emerges in some semiconductors and 2D materials such as graphene.

The eponymous valley is a local minimum in the conduction band of a solid that “traps” electrons into a specific momentum state. Things get interesting when a material has two valleys that result in two distinct momentum states. In some materials these states resemble the quantum-mechanical property of spin: an electron can be in one of two spin states (up or down) and it can also be in one of two momentum states. As a result, this property is sometimes referred to as valley pseudospin.

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Physics for all: the March 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

 

By Matin Durrani

Welcome to the March 2016 issue of Physics World magazine, which is ready and waiting for you to access via our app for mobile and desktop.

The new issue looks at ways to make physics a more inclusive discipline, including spotting your unconscious bias, tuning in to talent and tackling “microaggressions” – small acts of injustice that make people uncomfortable because of who they are, not what they do.

We also look at what life’s like for gender and/or sexual minorities at CERN – one of the most international physics labs on the planet – and explore how to find an employer who understands the value of a diverse workforce. There are plenty of practical tips for how you can make a difference.

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Primates and paradoxical twins in the ISS, cosmic musicals, alien advertising and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

The International Space Station (ISS) usually has only the human variety of primate on board, but earlier this week a gorilla seemed to have joined the crew. If you thought that this was part of one of the hundreds of planned experiments on the ISS you would be wrong. Instead, it was crew member Scott Kelly’s birthday hijinks after his twin brother sent him the suit for his birthday as the astronaut celebrated a year in space. Kelly will return to Earth in six days’ time.

Interestingly, this is the first time NASA has sent up one half of a pair of twins into space and is studying just how life on the ISS will change Scott’s physiology from that of his twin Mark. Apart from looking at how life in space will alter everything from Scott’s DNA to his gut microbes, this is also a real-life variation of the “twin paradox” experiment where Scott will return to the planet a bit “younger” than his twin in that Scott’s clock runs a bit slower than Mark’s, thanks to the ISS’s orbital speed of 17,000 mph. After reading this, if you feel like you would like a go on the ISS, NASA is currently hiring.

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Celtic god of thunder gets an attosecond makeover

Gods of thunder: Gagik Nersisyan (left) and Matt Zepf at the TARANIS laser facility

Gods of thunder: Gagik Nersisyan (left) and Matt Zepf at the TARANIS laser facility.

By Hamish Johnston

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Matt Zepf, who directs the Centre for Plasma Physics at Queen’s University Belfast. Zepf and his colleague Gagik Nersisyan showed me around the TARANIS laser facility, which creates extremely bright flashes of light just like its namesake the Celtic god of thunder.

TARANIS is about to upgraded to TARANIS-X, which will deliver ultrashort pulses of extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) that are just a few attoseconds (10–18 s) in duration. Each attosecond pulse will deliver more than 10 µJ, which Zepf says will make TARANIS-X the most powerful laser of its kind by a comfortable margin.

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Progress update in Chinese physics

Photo of Wenlong Zhan, president of Chinese Physical Society, at meeting with Paul Hardaker and Matin Durrani, 23 February 2016

Wenlong Zhan, president of the Chinese Physical Society (second from left on right-hand side) and colleagues, in discussion with Paul Hardaker, chief executive of the Institute of Physics (far left), and colleagues.

By Matin Durrani

China continues to make great progress in physics, with new facilities and projects starting up all the time. Just this week we’ve reported on plans to build a new neutrino experiment at the China Jinping Underground Laboratory (CJPL). The world’s deepest lab, it’s located under a mountain – with about 2400 m of rock cover – in China’s south-western Sichuan province.

Physics World has long kept a close eye on the progress of the physics community in China and in fact we published our first ever special report on the country in 2011. Since then, however, so much more has been going on that we felt it’s time to make a return trip and will be producing another special report in September this year to give you further insights into physics in China.

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Waves of soup, spying on gravity and touring the solar system

Nathan Myrvold's gravity-inspired soup bowl (Courtesy: Modernist Cuisine).

Nathan Myhrvold’s gravity-inspired soup bowl. (Courtesy: Modernist Cuisine)

By Hamish Johnston

Nathan Myhrvold knows a lot about gravity (he worked with Stephen Hawking) and a lot about food (he wrote Modernist Cuisine) so it’s not really surprising that he has designed a soup bowl inspired by the collision of two black holes. Created in 2014, the bowl was made to hold two different types of soup in swirls of space–time. Now that the LIGO observatory has spotted a gravitational wave from the collision of two such black holes, I’m guessing sales of the bowl will be out of this world.

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A big Lidl telescope in Belfast

Alan Fitzsimmons and his telescope

Not so Lidl: Alan Fitzsimmons and his bargain telescope.

By Hamish Johnston

There is an old joke in the UK about going to the discount supermarket Lidl for a pint of milk and coming home with a new set of power tools or ski-wear for the entire family. That’s because the retailer is famous for its seemingly random special offers. One week it could be car accessories and the following week the same shelves could be stocked with pyjamas or camping gear.

But Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University Belfast deserves an award for best physics-related Lidl bargain with this huge telescope that he bought at the supermarket. It makes perfect sense to me – both Lidl and the telescope’s maker Bresser are German companies and, of course, Germany is famous for its optics.

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Something more concrete

A sample of asphalt to which steel-wool fibres have been added, making the material magnetic

A sample of asphalt to which steel-wool fibres have been added, making the material magnetic.

By Margaret Harris at the AAAS Meeting in Washington, DC

Although Thursday’s LIGO result was extremely exciting, I’m afraid I can only spend so much time pondering ripples in the fabric of space–time before I start yearning for something a little more…concrete. Like, well, concrete. And asphalt. And cement. These decidedly ordinary materials were the stars of two of the most fascinating talks I’ve seen at the AAAS meeting here in Washington DC over the past two days.

First up was Erik Schlangen, a civil engineer at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who develops “self-healing” materials. One of his projects (which you can watch him demonstrate in a TED talk) involves mixing porous asphalt with fibres of steel wool. The resulting conglomerate is magnetic (that’s a magnet sticking to it in the photo), which means that microscopic cracks in it can be repaired using induction heating. The heat melts the bitumen in the asphalt, allowing it to re-fuse, but the surrounding aggregate remains relatively cool – meaning that cars can be driven over asphalt road surfaces almost as soon as the repair is complete.

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