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Blog

Reality is a concept you can apply to your cats

Will Schrödinger's catch be hitching a ride on LISA Pathfinder? (Courtesy: ESA)

Will Schrödinger’s cat be hitching a ride on LISA Pathfinder? (Courtesy: ESA)

By Tushna Commissariat in Stockholm, Sweden

“Reality is a concept you can apply to your cats,” says Rainer Kaltenbaek to a room full of journalists and physicists, “so long as you don’t talk to Schrödinger.” Indeed, he warns us to not bother applying reality to anything that exists at the quantum level as we will just end up disappointed.

I am in Stockholm at a workshop for science writers being hosted at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (NORDITA) and the idea of completely forgetting “reality” is one of the many interesting things I have been pondering. Over the past two days we have discussed Bell’s loopholes, using your bathtub as an analogue laboratory to study black (and white) holes and learned about problems that even the best quantum computers (if they could be built) will not be able to solve.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Vacuum Technology is out now

By Matin Durrani

Vacuum technology is big business these days, with companies in the sector producing advanced scientific equipment that is vital not only for academic research, but also for manufacturers in other industrial sectors.
Physics World 2014 Focus on vacuum technology
In fact, one giant of the vacuum industry – Swedish firm Atlas Copco – bought its UK rival Edwards Vacuum for an eye-watering $1.5bn last year.

If you want to find out more about why Atlas Copco forked out so much cash, don’t miss the latest Physics World focus issue on vacuum technology, which includes an interview with Geert Follens, president of Atlas Copco’s newly created vacuum-solutions division. In the interview, Follens discusses the takeover in more detail and explains why he expects further strong growth in the vacuum market.

Elsewhere in the issue, you can read about a European Union project uniting academia and industry to improve vacuum metrology for production environments. Such efforts are vital even in the drinks industry, where the Van Pur brewery in Poland, for example, uses equipment from KHS Plasmax to coat the inside of bottles with an ultrathin layer of glass using plasma impulse chemical vapour deposition under vacuum.

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What can you learn at a quantum ‘boot camp’?

By Tushna Commissariat in Stockholm, Sweden

Google the word “quantum” and take a look at what comes up.
NORDITA logo

In addition to the obvious news articles about the latest developments in the field and the Wikipedia entries on quantum mechanics, you’ll undoubtedly come across a heap of other, seemingly random, stories.

I found, for example, a David Bowie song being compared to a quantum wavefunction (by none other than British science popularizer Brian Cox), as well as a new cruise ship being named Quantum of the Seas. Then there’s the usual jumble of pseudo-scientific “wellness” therapies that misguidedly adopt the word in a strange attempt to give their treatments some sort of credibility.

So while it seems that everyone is talking about quantum something or other, how much do we really understand this notoriously difficult subject? More to the point, how much do science journalists, like me, really know about the subject? I write stories about quantum mechanics from time to time for Physics World and the subject can, I assure you, be fiendish and quite mind-bending.

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What can you learn from Descartes?

Hands with writing showing "I think" and "I am"

Taking Descartes back into the physics classroom. (Courtesy: Shutterstock)

By James Dacey in Córdoba, Argentina

What’s the best way to teach tricky physics concepts to students? Naturally, this was one of the questions underpinning many of the talks here at the International Conference of Physics Education (IPCE) in Córdoba. According to a couple of educationalists in Latin America at least, it seems that one approach is to enlist the help of some of the great scientists and philosophers of the past.

Patricia del V. Repossi, a lecturer at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina in Buenos Aires, spoke about how she uses the history of science as a framework for teaching optics. Repossi explained how she had come to realize that some of the students taking her conventional optics course believed that photons are made of the same stuff as “tennis balls”. So, she and her colleagues set about transforming the way they teach the topic – by combining a physics class with a history lesson.

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Thinking about thinking

Abstract 3D illustration of refraction

Shining a light on teaching physics. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Greyfebruary)

By James Dacey in Córdoba, Argentina

There has been a lot of fancy language flying around here at the International Conference on Physics Education (ICPE), which is taking place in Córdoba. Words such as “pedagogy” and “metacognition” roll off the tongues of education researchers as naturally as a particle physicist at CERN saying the words “Higgs boson”.

At first it seemed a bit like a foreign language to me, but I’ve started to realize that one of the recurring ideas at the conference can be described in more everyday terms: thinking about thinking. Teachers should think about the way they think about learning, and the way their students think about learning.

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Physics World’s futuristic look

Physics World magazine seen through the NPL device

Holographic view: The August 2014 issue of Physics World, seen through the NPL device. (Courtesy: NPL/Richard Stevens)

By Tushna Commissariat

Some of you may remember a news story I wrote last month that looked at a new optical gadget that uses a holographic waveguide to augment reality. The device hopes to transform the wearable-display market – it allows users to overlay full-colour, 3D, high-definition images into their normal line of sight, thereby interacting with their surroundings. The waveguide was developed by UK-based company TruLife Optics, along with researchers from the adaptive-optics group at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) near London.

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Turning a physics class into a video game

Screenshot from Rock of Ages computer game

Could computer games like Rock of Ages, which can be played by several people at once using split screens, help inspire better physics courses? (CC BY-SA Rock of Ages by ACE Team)

By James Dacey in Córdoba, Argentina

“When was the last time you heard a student say they wanted a physics course that was long and difficult?”

That was a rhetorical question that physicist and education researcher Ian Beatty put to us today while delivering his keynote talk at the International Conference on Physics Education (ICPE) 2014 here in Argentina. Beatty’s point is that two of the worst things that people say about computer games is that they are too easy or that they end too quickly. Needless to say, he had never heard such protestations from his physics students!

Beatty, a physicist and educational researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the US, believes that course creators could learn a trick or two from game designers. He has therefore spent the past three years trying to understand what it is about video games that makes them so appealing to gamers, and how to incorporate some of the underlying principles into a physics course.

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Physics education under the microscope in Argentina

Local musicians in Argentina

A warm welcome from Argentina.

By James Dacey in Córdoba, Argentina

I’m writing this blog entry from the heart of Argentina, following a marathon 30-hour journey from my home in Bristol, UK. It was a trip that included two planes, a few buses, a couple of taxis and several long walks, but I’m finally here in Córdoba – Argentina’s second largest city – to attend this year’s International Conference on Physics Education (ICPE).

The meeting’s all about bringing together people to discuss the latest developments in education – including lecturers, teachers, trainers, students and educational researchers. It’s an event with a global outlook, accompanied by a satellite meeting where local high-school teachers will be discussing issues more focused on their day-to-day experiences. At the registration session, things already took a welcome Argentine twist as we were treated to a performance from some local musicians (see picture above).

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Hello Kitty in space, Lord of the Rings physics homework and more

Image of Yi So-yeon

Yi on the day of her launch – 8 April 2008. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, South Korea’s one and only astronaut, 36-year-old Yi So-yeon, has quit her job, thereby signalling the end of the country’s manned space programme for the time being. In 2008 Yi became the first Korean to go into space, when for 11 days she travelled on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, after being chosen through the government-run Korean Astronaut Program. Yi cited personal reasons for quitting, but has been studying for an MBA in the US since 2012. You can read more about her work and reasons for leaving in articles from Australia Network News and abc News.

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Discovering your inner scientist

Chad Orzel

Chad Orzel in action.

By Matin Durrani

Chad Orzel writes one of the most active and longest running science blogs on the net, having posted the first entry on his blog Uncertain Principles back in June 2002. A physicist at Union College in Schenectady, New York, he’s also written two popular-science books, based on the cute premise of trying to teaching first quantum physics and then relativity to his dog.

So, a couple of months back, when we noticed that Orzel was coming to the UK, we decided to invite him to give a talk as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Orzel kindly accepted our offer and last night saw him speak here at the offices of IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World. The talk was entitled Eureka! Discovering Your Inner Scientist, which just happens to be the title of Chad’s next book. (And what’s wrong with a spot of self-publicity?)

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