While it may seem as if we Physics World journalists spend our evenings leafing through Newton’s Principia Mathematica or deriving the Dirac equation from first principles, on Wednesday night this week, a few of us visited Dismaland – the pop-up “bemusement park” curated by the elusive British street artist Banksy. Located in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare – a few miles south-west of the Physics World Bristol HQ – Dismaland offers a darker and more politically motivated alternative to Mickey Mouse and his friends. While our visit was not work-related, there were a few unexpected physics references that we couldn’t help but spot. First we stumbled across “The Astronauts’ Caravan”, a humorous take on the flight simulators used by NASA (see video above).
Created in 2011 by artists and engineers Tim Hunkin and Andy Plant, the outwardly unimpressive-looking theme-park ride is a compact version of the Victorian “haunted swing” illusion. We won’t spoil the magic by explaining the mechanics of the ride here, but you can read this blog by Hunkin where he explains exactly how he and Plant built their spinning caravan and if you can’t visit Dismaland, then watch the video to see what it looks like from the inside.
Physics helps to explain why it is so hard to pull apart two interleaved phone directories. (CC BY SA Mark Longair)
By Michael Banks
Ever tried – and duly failed – to pull apart two interleaved phone books? Well, a team of researchers from France and Canada, led by Héctor Alarcón of the University Paris-Sud, has now studied why this is such an impossible task.
Fancy a wee dram while you are orbiting the Earth? With the growing interest in space tourism, travellers could soon be enjoying a sip or two of whisky in space. To make such tipples as enjoyable as possible, the Scotch whisky maker Ballantine’s has developed a special “space glass” that works in the free-fall conditions of Earth orbit. The firm is also developing a special blend of whisky to be enjoyed in space.
Created by Ballantine’s master whisky blender Sandy Hyslop and James Parr from the Open Space Agency, the new glass was filled with Scotch and tested in free-fall at the ZARM drop tower in Bremen, Germany. You can find out more about how one’s palate changes in space and the challenges facing the glass designers in the above video. And if you want to know if the glass passed the free-fall test, there is a second video called “Space Glass Project: the microgravity test”.
Researchers at CERN are renowned for their musical side-projects. Notable examples include the album released by scientists at the ATLAS detector in 2010, and the “Large hadron rap“, which currently has almost 8 million hits on YouTube. And of course don’t forget the pop-star-turned-physicist Brian Cox who had the UK chart-topping hit “Things can only get better” in the 1990s with his band D:Ream.
Following in this musical tradition, a duo of Mexican researchers has invented a “Cosmic Piano” inspired by the technologies used at the ALICE particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The instrument’s inventors Arturo Fernández Téllez and Guillermo Tejeda Muñoz hold positions at CERN and the University of Puebla in Mexico. They hope the device can demonstrate both the science and the art of the work being carried out at particle-physics facilities.
How and where do new ideas in physics emerge? We often think they arise serendipitously, which is why we love stories like Newton discovering gravity after seeing an apple fall. The reality, though, is often very different.
Writing in the September 2015 issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out, theoretical physicist Vitor Cardoso from the University of Lisbon explains his efforts to find out how breakthroughs – both big and small – really emerge. As he discovered through his project The Birth of an Idea, it turns out that how new thoughts arise is often much more of a communal activity than we might think.
Cocoa conch: a chocolate’s distinctive flavour and texture comes from “conching”. (Courtesy: iStock/deyangeorgiev)
By Michael Banks, Tushna Commissariat and Matin Durrani
Chocolate, the food of the gods, is more popular now as a sweet treat than ever before. And while more and more people know their 70% cocoa from their truffles, “lecithin” still isn’t a word that pops up often. It is an ingredient that plays a key role in chocolate-making and other foods. But this fatty substance has long confounded food-scientists and confectioners alike – we don’t know how this ingredient works on a molecular level and confectioners have had to rely on observations and trial-and-error methods to perfect recipes.
Now, though, chocolatiers have had help from an unexpected field – that of molecular biology – to figure out chocolate “conching” – the part of the chocolate-making process where aromatic sensation, texture and “mouthfeel” are developed. In a special issue on “The Physics of Food” published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Heiko Briesen and colleagues at Technische Universität München, Germany, use molecular dynamics to model and simulate how lecithin molecules, made from different sources, attach to the sugar surface in cocoa butter. “I’m quite confident molecular dynamics will strongly support food science in the future” says Briesen.
“Brevity is a great charm of eloquence,” said the great Roman orator Cicero. A new study published today suggests that researchers would be wise to follow Cicero’s advice when it comes to choosing a title for their next academic paper. Data scientists at the University of Warwick in the UK analysed 140,000 papers and found that those with shorter titles tend to receive more citations.
Similar studies have been carried out in the past leading to contradictory results. But Adrian Letchford and his colleagues have used two orders of magnitude more data than previous investigations, looking at the 20,000 most cited papers published each year between 2007 and 2013 in the Scopus online database. Publishing their findings in Royal Society Open Science, Letchford’s group reports that papers with shorter titles garnered more citations every year. Titles ranged from 6 to 680 characters including spaces and punctuation.
Our eyes were drawn this week to the results of the first national US survey of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or asexual (LGBTQA) people working in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects. Entitled Queer in STEM, the study was carried out by Jeremy Yoder, a plant-biology postdoc at the University of Minnesota, and Alison Mattheis who’s on the faculty at the College of Education at California State University Los Angeles.
The word “geek” used to be a bit of insult, but to be labelled a geek these days isn’t such a bad thing after all. I think a lot of that’s due to the sheer power and pervasiveness of smartphones, software and IT — in fact, the top definition of “geek” over at Urban Dictionary is “The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.” I also reckon the huge popularity of TV’s The Big Bang Theory has played its part in the reversal of fortune of the word, with many of us following the stories of Sheldon, Leonard and their geeky physics pals.
Walk the line: Airy meridian is marked as the “Prime Meridian of the World” (dotted line), and the modern reference meridian indicating zero longitude using GPS (solid line). (Courtesy: 2014 Google Maps, Infoterra & Bluesky)
By Tushna Commissariat
A visit to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich is incomplete without walking along the Prime Meridian of the world – the line that literally divides the east from the west – and taking some silly photos across it. But you may be disappointed to know that the actual 0° longitudinal line is nearly 100 m away, towards the east, from the plotted meridian. Indeed, your GPS would readily show you that the line actually cuts through the large park ahead of the observatory. I, for one, am impressed that the original line is off by only 100 m, considering that it was plotted in 1884. A recently published paper in the Journal of Geodesy points out that with the extreme accuracy of modern technology like GPS, which has replaced the traditional telescopic observations used to measure the Earth’s rotation, we can measure this difference. You can read more about it in this article in the Independent.