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Tag archives: careers

From physics degree to Hollywood

By James Dacey

Photo of Rob Pieké

Rob Pieké. (Courtesy: Manisha Lalloo)

This summer many of you will watch smoke billowing out of buildings as yet another villain wreaks havoc on the New York skyline in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I’m willing to bet that as you eat your popcorn you won’t be thinking about the Navier–Stokes equations of fluid dynamics. (Well, perhaps you will now that I’ve mentioned it!)

In fact, part of the reason that virtual smoke in films looks so realistic is because visual effects (VFX) specialists have applied the Navier–Stokes equations to their graphics. This was one of the interesting tidbits I learned from a talk yesterday in London by Rob Pieké, head of software at Moving Picture Company (MPC).

Pieké was speaking as part of a half-day event on “physics and film” organized by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. The gist of his presentation was that basic physics principles are used in a variety of ways to create special effects that capture viewers’ attention. “The audience wants to see something fantastical but grounded in reality,” said Pieké. Another example he gave was how naturally bouncing hair in computer-generated characters is modelled on mass—spring systems. Each individual hair could be modelled on as many as 30 masses connecting by springs.

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China eyes new high-energy collider

Matin Durrani outside the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing on Sunday 12 June 2016

Matin Durrani outside the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing before interviewing Xinchou Lou.

By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China

I had just landed in Beijing this morning when I saw an e-mail from my colleague Mingfang Lu waiting for me on my phone. Mingfang, who’s editor-in-chief at the Beijing office of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, has been helping me to organize my itinerary for the next week as I gather material for our upcoming special report on physics in China. You may remember we published a Physics World special report on China in 2011 but so much has happened since then that we felt it’s easily time for another.

Mingfang’s e-mail was to say we would be off at 2.30 p.m. to interview Xinchou Lou, a particle physicist at the Institute of High Energy Physics, about the country’s ambitious plans for a “Higgs factory”. If built, this 240 GeV Circular Electron–Positron Collider (CEPC) would be a huge facility (50 km or possibly even 100 km in circumference) that will let physicists study the properties of the Higgs boson in detail. I say “if”, but knowing China’s frenetic progress in physics, it will almost certainly be a case of “when”.

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On the frontline of the ‘reproducibility crisis’

Significant. (Click to view full cartoon. Courtesy: xkcd/Randall Munroe)

Significant. (Click to view full cartoon. Courtesy: xkcd/Randall Munroe)

By Margaret Harris

The “reproducibility crisis” in science has become big news lately, with more and more seemingly trustworthy findings proving difficult or impossible to reproduce. Indeed, a recent Nature survey found that two-thirds of respondents think current levels of reproducibility constitute a “major problem” for science. So far, physics hasn’t been affected much; the crisis has been most severe in fields such as psychology and clinical research, which, not coincidentally, involve messy human beings rather than nice clean atomic systems. However, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to physicists. Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking to three physics graduates who have become personally involved in addressing the reproducibility crisis within their chosen profession: medicine.

Henry Drysdale, Ioan Milosevic and Eirion Slade are third-year medical students at the University of Oxford. All three earned their undergraduate degrees in physics, and they now make up one-third of COMPare – an initiative by Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) that tracks “outcome switching” in clinical trials. As Drysdale explained to me over coffee in an Oxford café, researchers who want to perform clinical trials have to state beforehand which “outcomes” they intend to measure. For example, if they are trialling a new drug to treat high blood pressure, then “blood pressure after one year” might be their main outcome. But researchers generally keep track of other variables as well, and often their final report focuses on a positive result in one of these other parameters (a dip in the number of heart attacks, say), while downplaying or ignoring the drug’s effect on the main outcome.

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More data needed on the STEM ‘shortage’

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

(Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

“Science has always been the Cinderella amongst the subjects taught in schools…not for the first time our educational conscience has been stung by the thought that we are as a nation neglecting science.”

Sounds like something David Cameron or Barack Obama might have said last week, right? Wrong. In fact, it comes from a report by the grandly named Committee to Enquire into the Position of Natural Sciences in the Educational System of Great Britain, which presented its findings clear back in…1918.

I came across this quotation thanks to Emma Smith and Patrick White, a pair of education researchers at the University of Leicester who have spent the past few years studying the long-term career paths of people with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Smith and White presented the preliminary findings of their study at a seminar in Leicester yesterday, and one of the themes of their presentation – reflected in the above quote – was the longevity of concerns about a shortage of STEM-trained people, especially university graduates. As Smith pointed out, worries about the number and quality of STEM graduates are not new and, historically, reports of a “STEM crisis” have been as much about politics as they have economic supply and demand.

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The STEM jobs paradox rumbles on

Illustrations of jobs versus candidates

On balance: STEM shortages and surveys.

By Hamish Johnston and Margaret Harris

Are countries such as the UK, the US and Canada suffering from a shortage of scientists and engineers, or are scientists and engineers struggling to find jobs there? Our US correspondent Peter Gwynne reports that, according to a recent survey, physicists in that country can expect to be rewarded with handsome salaries if they work in industry – which suggests that their skills are in great demand. However, over in the New York Review of Books, an article on “The frenzy about high-tech talent” claims that “by 2022 the [US] economy will have 22,700 non-academic openings for physicists. Yet during the preceding decade 49,700 people will have graduated with physics degrees.”

In the past few years, Physics World has published several articles on the “STEM shortage paradox”, where reports of severe skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) coexist with lukewarm – and sometimes borderline alarming – data on employment in these fields. Hence, conflicting reports on career prospects for physicists don’t really surprise us anymore (although this is actually slightly different to what we’ve seen before, in that rosy employment data are going up against a downbeat statement about demand, rather than vice versa). But even so, when two reports point in such different directions, it’s tempting to conclude that one of them must be wrong, or at least missing something important.

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Women in graphene

 By James Dacey in Manchester

Women in Graphene posterToday is the third day of Graphene Week, a conference at the University of Manchester devoted to the fundamental science and applications of 2D materials. While many of the talks require a PhD in materials science to even understand the title (I for one am struggling), one session taking place this evening has the refreshingly simple title: Women in Graphene. Intrigued, I caught up with the session organizer Katarina Boustedt from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Graphene Week is an annual event organized by the Graphene Flagship, the EU’s biggest ever research initiative with a budget of €1 billion. As promoting equality is a key part of the Flagship’s mission, Boustedt has launched this initiative to support women working in 2D materials research. Tonight’s two-hour session is designed to start the conversation and find out the types of support that women researchers would like.

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Elect a physicist

Photograph showing the directions to a UK polling station

Cast your vote for the Physics Party. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/TylaArabas)

By Margaret Harris

It’s the issue no-one is talking about in the run-up to the UK’s general election on 7 May, but I’m convinced that a brand-new party is set to make significant inroads on the British political scene, increasing both its overall share of the vote and its number of parliamentary seats.

“What is this bold new force?” I hear you ask. “Is it the Green Party? The Scottish or Welsh nationalists? The UK Independence Party (UKIP)?” My friends, it is none of these. Nor is it the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats (the three parties that traditionally grab the lion’s share of seats at Westminster), or any of the parties representing Northern Ireland. It is something far more novel. More interesting. And above all, more able to solve the Schrödinger equation.

I’m talking about the Physics Party.

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Supporting industrial physicists

By Michael Banks in San Antonio, Texas

Here is a stat for you: around 50% of US physics graduates (both undergraduates and postgraduates) go on to work in industry.

Whether you think that is good or bad, the American Physical Society (APS) wants to do more to support those physicists who don’t pursue a career in academia.

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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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The October 2014 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

There’s some great material in the October issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats. Highlights include a look at Europe’s Rosetta mission, which is set to land a probe on a comet for the very first time, an analysis of whether pulsars could be used to detect gravitational waves, and a great feature by University of Maryland physicist James Gates, who insists that although CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has so far seen no signs of supersymmetry, the search for SUSY must go on.

Another great article in the issue is by my colleague Margaret Harris, who is Physics World‘s careers editor. She’s written an in-depth study of what we’re dubbing the “STEM shortage paradox”. This is the curious fact that many employers in the UK say they are struggling to find enough good people with science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) backgrounds, whereas at the same time lots of physics graduates are finding it hard to get jobs. So is there a really a “STEM shortage”, or do STEM graduates have the wrong skills, aren’t good enough or want to work in other fields? In the video above, Margaret outlines her motivations for writing the article.

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