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Tag archives: geophysics

Why we’re five years overdue for a damaging solar super-storm

By Matin Durrani

The cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out in print and digital formats, looks at the Sun – and in particular, at the consequences here on Earth of a “solar super-storm”. As I point out in the video above, these violent events can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field – potentially inducing damaging electrical currents in power lines, knocking out satellites and disrupting telecommunications.

One particularly strong solar super-storm occured back in 1859 in what is known as the “Carrington event”, so named after the English astronomer who spotted a solar flare that accompanied it. The world in the mid-19th century was technologically a relatively unsophisticated place and the consequences were pretty benign. But should a storm of similiar strength occur today, the impact could be devastating to our way of life.

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Seismic study digs into volcanic plumbing

Map of the seisemic velocity of Mount Fuji

What lies beneath?: Mapping Mount Fuji. (Courtesy: Florent Brenguier)

By Tushna Commissariat

Plumbing problems do not get any bigger and more complicated than a backed-up volcano. But geophysicists looking at the responses of ground waves below Japanese volcanoes have now come up with a technique for identifying where pressurized volcanic fluids build up, allowing them to better anticipate when a volcano may erupt. Scientists already knew that seismic waves from large earthquakes agitate volcanic systems and that large eruptions generally follow a build-up of pressurized fluids at some depth. But they had been unable to pin down the specific physical changes that seismic waves cause. Now though, Florent Brenguier of the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in Grenoble, France, and colleagues at the University of Tokyo have used recordings of seismic-wave velocity from the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake to create a map of seismic-velocity changes in its aftermath. Surprisingly, the largest changes were not observed in the area closest to the earthquake epicentre near the Pacific coast but farther inland, immediately below volcanic regions. The image above highlights an anomalously low seismic velocity below the Mount Fuji volcano after the earthquake, despite it being some 500 km from the epicentre. The drop in velocity is because the regions are susceptible to earthquake shaking – cracks in the crust open so that fluids at high pressures can escape, and could be seen as proxies for the high-pressure fluid build-up (Science 345 80).

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Physicist explains why Spaniards aren’t actually lazy

Graph showing when Spaniards go to work

Graph of latitude versus solar time for when people in Spain (red), Italy (blue) and the UK (black) start working. The blue line is sunrise at winter solstice while the green band is 30 minutes either side of this.

By Matin Durrani

We’re not the kind of people here at Physics World who resort to national stereotypes – if anything, physicists are pretty much the same the world over no matter where they’re from.

But in the case of Spain, there is a widely held (and probably unfair) view that the Spanish are a bit on the lazy side, saddled with a reputation for long lunches, snoozy siestas and late nights out.

In fact, the Spanish are aware of the problem and there has been much debate in the Spanish media over what can be done to improve productivity and working lives. A Spanish parliamentary commission last year even proposed that the country should turn its clocks back by an hour from Central European Time (CET) to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Doing so, the commision said, would improve “productivity, absenteeism, stress, accidents and school drop-out rates”.

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Cracking the earthquake lights mystery and out-of-this-world technology

Old photo of earthquake ights taken in Romania

A photograph of streams of lights taken in 1977 near Brasov, Romania, about 100 km from the epicentre of a M 7.2 earthquake. (Courtesy: Seismological Society of America)

By Tushna Commissariat

In case you missed it, I was at the APS March meeting in Denver, Colorado last week and I was blogging about a whole host of interesting talks and sessions that I attended. Although I am back in Bristol now, there were one or two other talks that I thought covered some very interesting physics, so here’s a catch-up.

Slip slidin’ away
Seasoned physicsworld.com readers will remember that earlier this year, we featured a rather intriguing story on the phenomenon of earthquake lights – the mysterious and unpredictable glowing lights that seem to appear before some earthquakes. First documented in the 1600s and seen as recently as the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, the “unidentified glowing objects” add to the long list of possible earthquake precursors, and so are of interest. The study that we wrote about in January looked at 65 well-documented events of such lights and concluded that they may occur thanks to a particular type of geological fault – a subvertical fault – causing the earthquake.

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Postcard from Rio – following in Einstein’s footsteps

Photo of Einstein visiting Brazil's National Observatory in 1925

Einstein visiting Brazil’s National Observatory in 1925. (Courtesy: Observatório Nacional)

By Matin Durrani in Rio de Janeiro

I don’t think I’ve ever talked to the head of a physics lab with a parrot screeching outside the window. But that was the case today when I visited the Brazil’s National Observatory – the country’s oldest scientific institution, founded in 1827 by Emperor Dom Pedro I just five years after the country won independence from Portugal.

The parrot was somewhere in the lush green trees directly outside the open windows of the director’s elegant first-floor office, which is currently occupied by the physicist Joao dos Anjos, who took over as head of the observatory earlier this year. (He also claimed his secretary had seen a ghost in the office recently, but that’s another story.)

After closing the windows’ shutters and switching on the air-conditioning, Dos Anjos explained how the observatory is now focused on three main activities – astronomy, geophysics and metrology. In fact, the observatory is still the official body in Brazil for setting time, which was one of its original missions, along with determining geographical locations and studying the country’s climate.

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