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Pointless or profound?

By Matin Durrani

Cover of Physics World September 2014 issueThe cover feature of the September 2014 issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats, concerns “sterile neutrinos” – a hypothesized fourth kind of neutrino in addition to the familiar electron, muon and tau neutrinos. Sterile neutrinos are controversial – they have never been detected and we are not even sure if they exist at all. But if they do, sterile neutrinos could potentially solve a raft of unsolved problems in physics, including why neutrinos themselves have mass, what makes up dark matter and why there is so much more matter than antimater in the universe.

In the article, you can find out more about the mysteries these hypothetical particles could solve. But since they might not exist, why – you may wonder – would anyone bother looking for them? In other words, is the search for sterile neutrinos pointless or profound? Check out the September issue to find out more.

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Connecting physics with Argentine industry

Photo of scientists in an optics lab

That’s me on the right visiting an optics lab at the University of Buenos Aires.

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

This week, physics PhD students and advanced undergraduates from across Argentina will flock to the University of Buenos Aires for the physics department’s winter school. It’s an annual event where budding researchers spend a few days at the nation’s premier academic institution to learn about some of the latest developments in fundamental research. The year, however, the meeting will be focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry.

I’ve been in Buenos Aires as part of a fact-finding mission to learn about the physics-education system in Argentina. After meeting with various people involved with Argentine physics education, it seems to me that the theme of this year’s winter school at the University of Buenos Aires is indicative of a change in the way physics is being presented to students. The subject is being rebranded from a purely intellectual pursuit into a practical science that can equip students with highly sought-after professional skills. The bigger picture, of course, is that right now the Argentine economy needs all the fresh ideas and workforce it can get!

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Radiation levels near Fukushima, trust in science and fun with correlations

Do divorcees eat more margarine? Or does the butter substitute break up marriages? (Courtesy: Tyler Vigen)

Do divorcees eat more margarine? Or does the butter substitute break up marriages? (Courtesy: Tyler Vigen)

By Hamish Johnston

This week’s Red Folder begins in Japan, where the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant continues to cause misery for the 100,000 or so local people who still cannot return to their homes. But who is to blame? Writing in World Nuclear News, Malcolm Grimston of Imperial College London argues that radiation levels in much of the current exclusion zone are no higher than natural levels in other parts of Japan – and much lower than natural levels in some other populated regions worldwide. Grimston concludes that “an overzealous infatuation with reducing radiation dose, far from minimizing human harm, is at the heart of the whole problem”. His article is called “What was deadly at Fukushima?”.

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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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