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Tag archives: history of physics

In the footsteps of Cecil Powell

Pion pioneer: a bust of Cecil Powell

Pionic man: a bust of Cecil Powell. (Courtesy: University of Bristol Special Collections)

By  Matin Durrani

I spent yesterday at the University of Bristol, where a meeting was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the pion in 1947.

The particle was spotted by Cecil Powell, who joined the university’s physics department in 1928 and went on to win the 1950 Nobel Prize for Physics for his efforts.

At the time, the pion was thought to be the carrier of the strong nuclear force, which binds protons and neutrons in the nucleus, though we now know it is one of a family of strongly interacting mesons.

As we heard yesterday from introductory speaker Brian Pollard, Powell found evidence for the pion using a series of ingenious (and literally breathtaking) experiments that involved him taking specially manufactured photographic plates to high altitudes up the Pic-du-Midi mountain in the Pyrenees.


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Primal colours across the spectrum, impossible space engines


By Tushna Commissariat 

Physicists and artists have long been intrigued and drawn in by the various mysteries that light and its many colours offer. In the latest installation to be unveiled at the Natural History Museum in London, artist Liz West has unveiled her stunning new work dubbed Our Spectral Vision. The exhibit aims to delve into the long and complex history of the development of colour and vision “through the eyes of nature”. Our regular readers will recall the many physics papers that look into the same, from the structural colour of butterflies to the nanostructures in avian eggshells to the mantis shrimp’s visual superpowers. West’s exhibit deals with many of these topics and more including some fantastic “350 rarely seen specimens, from beautiful birds to fossils of the first organisms with eyes”. If you are based in the UK, do visit the exhibit and otherwise, take a look at the video above to see through West’s eyes.


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Spiralling temperatures, physics legacies, the science of mac and cheese

Spiralling global temperatures

Ring of fire: spiralling global temperatures. Created by climate scientist Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading.


By Tushna Commissariat

As we face up to the realities of global warming and see the effects of climate change become apparent, it’s more important than ever that people the world over truly grasp its impact. With this in mind, University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins has created the above animated spiral, which shows how the global temperature has changed over the past 166 years. Using data from the Met Office’s Hadley Centre observations datasets, Hawkins’ animation presents data in a a clear and artistic way. “The pace of change is immediately obvious, especially over the past few decades. The relationship between current global temperatures and the internationally discussed target limits are also clear without much complex interpretation needed,” says Hawkins, who is based at the university’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science. Take a look at his webpage to learn more about the project and for a list of specific weather events that are noticeable in the data.


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Steven Weinberg defends his ‘Whig’ view of history

Photograph of Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg in full flow discussing his view of the history of physics.

By Matin Durrani in Baltimore, Maryland, US

I wasn’t planning on blogging about the talk that the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg gave yesterday afternoon here at the APS March meeting. He’d been speaking about his recent book To Explain the World: the Discovery of Modern Science, which examines the history of physics from the ancient Greeks to the present day.

The book ruffled a fair few feathers when it was published last year, with historians and philosophers annoyed at Weinberg’s approach to history, which basically involves judging the past from the standpoint of the present. It’s known as the “Whig interpretation” of history and sees past events as a march towards enlightenment, ignoring dead-ends and blind alleys. It’s the history of winners, if you like.

I have probably mis-stated the criticisms of Weinberg book – I’m no historian – and that’s my point. I felt the arguments against his approach were too subtle and nuanced to fit in a blog. But I changed my mind this morning about covering the session Weinberg appeared in. Not only because the room where Weinberg gave his talk was full to bursting, with about 500 people present, but also because some of the things he said, which I Tweeted yesterday, were proving popular on Twitter. Clearly, people want to hear what Weinberg says – he’s a master of the soundbite – so here, for posterity, are a few of his thoughts.


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Would you encourage your grandchildren into condensed-matter physics?

A packed room for Sir Anthony's talk at APS March 2016

Packed in: a full room for Anthony Leggett’s talk. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat in Baltimore, Maryland, US

One of the most popular talks this morning at the APS March meeting was almost certainly given by Nobel-prize-winning physicist Anthony Leggett of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US.  Leggett, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on superconductors and superfluids, talked about his “Reflections on the past present and future of of condensed-matter physics”.

As the abstract of his talk suggests, Leggett looked at the ways, means and even the very definition of “condensed-matter physics” has changed and “evolved since its inception in the early 20th century, with particular reference to its relationship to neighbouring and even distant disciplines”. He went on to “speculate on some possible directions in which the discipline may develop over the next few decades, emphasizing that there are still some very basic questions to which we currently have no satisfactory answers”.

I missed the beginning of his talk as I was attending the morning’s first set of press briefings (more on those later) but when I did walk into the packed hall for his talk, his slide had the rather interesting title: “Would I encourage my grandchildren to go into condensed-matter physics?” Happlily enough, his answer at the end of his talk was a resounding “yes”.


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The February 2016 issue of Physics World is now out


By Matin Durrani

Welcome to the February 2016 issue of Physics World magazine.

As I explain in the video above, this month we have a package of articles looking at some of the issues surrounding peer review, including a news-analysis piece by Physics World news editor Michael Banks, who talks to a range of figures in physics and publishing with views on this subject.

Our cover feature this month is on the new interdisciplinary science of “network physiology”. Elsewhere in the issue, John Campbell from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand looks at Rutherford’s secret work in the First World War using sonar to spot submarines, while science writer Matthew Francis looks at efforts to rewrite the rules of gravity.


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Physicists’ pets, seven stars for Bowie, ping-pong in space and more

Brahe and his pet elk. (

Prancer and the astronomer: Brahe and his pet elk. (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute)


By Tushna Commissariat

Sparks of inspiration come from many sources, but for some of the 20th century’s most well known scientists, their four-legged pets played a key role. From Tesla’s cat “Macak” – his interest in electricity was lit as a child when he noticed sparks generated while he stroked Macak –  to Schrödinger’s (real live) dog “Burshie”, these intellectual giants sought the company of pets just as we do and over at the Perimeter Institute’s website, you can learn all about “Great physicists and the pets who inspired them”. My favourite “pet” is of course Tycho Brahe’s infamous elk (you can read about it in the image above). With all of these pets about, its a miracle that a paper wasn’t eaten by a naughty dog or cat!


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Immersive art, physics pumpkins, personalizing Thor’s hammer and more


By Matin Durrani

If you’ve ever been to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, you’ll know that blackboards are everywhere. You can find them in handy little alcoves, in the cafe and even in the institute’s lifts – the idea being that brain-box theorists who have a great idea in their heads can crack off the underlying maths before their thought fizzles into the aether. (Not that there is an aether, of course, but you know what I mean.) Anyway, the institute’s new California-based artist-in-residence Alexa Meade, has taken the idea to a new level, creating a huge 3D living chalkboard to create the “perception-bending art for which she is internationally renowned”.  As you can see from the video above, it brings a whole new dimension to the idea of getting “immersed” into science. You can see more images of Meade’s living installation at Perimeter on Flickr.

This week, China’s president, Xi Jinping, is on a state visit to the UK, and today he toured the new National Graphene Institute (NGI) at the University of Manchester. We reported on the planned tour yesterday, with our story including a special behind-the-scenes video that Physics World recorded on our own recent visit to the NGI in the company of its architect and desinger Tony Ling. But an interesting nugget about the Chinese visit has since emerged: it appears that Kostya Novoselov, the Nobel-prize-winning Manchester physicist who helped to isolate graphene for the first time, has presented President Xi “with a gift of traditional Chinese-style artwork, which Kostya himself had painted using graphene paint”. We’ve yet to see what this objet d’art looks like, but I’m sure it’s lovely.


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Moving meridians, Stradivarius violins, sunspots and more

The Prime Meridian and the modern reference meridian

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.


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The August 2015 issue of Physics World is now out


By Matin Durrani

Mention the two words “science policy” and most physicists’ eyes will probably glaze over. Most of us dream of discovering a new planet or finding the Higgs boson – not poring over budget spreadsheets, championing science to politicians or commenting on legislation.

But science policy is vital in today’s world, which depends hugely on scientific research and in the cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out, Len Fisher and John Tesh offer 12 practical tips for scientists who want their ideas incorporated into science policy. You’ll be intrigued by what the two authors have to say.

Elsewhere in the issue, as my colleague Tushna Commissariat explains in the video above, there’s a great feature based on an interview with the French physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot – the granddaughter of Marie Curie. In the article, Langevin-Joliot explains what’s known as the “Curie complex” and gives her own tips for scientific success. Langevin-Joliot didn’t suffer from the complex herself, but she acknowledges that it is a big problem for others and, these days, spends her time actively promoting careers for women in science


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