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Tag archives: history of physics

Lateral Thoughts: a foreign country

By Margaret Harris

LT-cartoon
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

I’ve been re-learning this lesson recently thanks to “Lateral Thoughts”, the column of humorous, off-beat or otherwise “lateral” essays that appears on the back page of Physics World each month. These articles are written by our readers and they have been part of the magazine ever since it was launched in October 1988. In fact, Lateral Thoughts is the only section of Physics World that has remained unaltered in its 25-year history.

Unaltered in its format, that is. But what about the actual content of the essays? Lateral Thoughts are not normally commissioned by members of the editorial team; instead, they’re selected from a pool of submissions sent in, unsolicited, by Physics World readers. Any shifts in style or subject matter should, therefore, tell us something about the way that the physics community has evolved over the years.

With this in mind, I began trawling through the archive of past Lateral Thoughts, looking for evidence of change. And boy, did I ever find it.

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Colliding exhibits, influential researchers, edible particle-detectors and more

Collider exhibition at London's Science Museum (Courtesy: Nick Rochowski for the Science Museum)

The “Collider” exhibition at London’s Science Museum. (Courtesy: Jennie Hills / Science Museum)

 

By Matin Durrani and Tushna Commissariat

If you’re in the tiny minority of people whose job title says “particle physicist”, chances are you’ll have been to CERN at least once in your career to help build a detector, analyse some collision data or muse in the cafeteria over supersymmetry (or the apparent lack of it so far). But for the rest of the world, going to the Geneva lab is simply not on the agenda, which is one reason why the Science Museum in London has this week unveiled a big new exhibition devoted to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Entitled simply Collider, the exhibition “blends theatre, video and sound art with real artefacts from CERN” that will, say organizers, “recreate a visit to the famous particle-physics laboratory”.

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‘Wizzing’ physics, fundamental prizes, galactic paradoxes and more

By Tushna Commissariat

“Wizzing” to the top of the Red Folder this week is a group of physicists at the “Splash Lab” at Brigham Young University who have studied the physics of “splashback” that occurs when people urinate. Using high-speed cameras the researchers filmed jets of liquid from a “synthetic urethra” striking toilet walls. They found that the stream of liquid breaks up into droplets when it is about 15 cm from the urethra exit. “Wizz kids” Tadd Truscott and Randy Hurd suggest that apart from sitting down on the toilet (and risk being called Sitzpinklers by their German friends), men should get nice and close when doing their business to eliminate splashback. Take a look at their video about “Urinal dynamics” above.

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Writing about Oppenheimer

By Margaret Harris

Ray Monk (left) on the enigmatic J Robert Oppneheimer

Ray Monk (left) on the enigmatic J Robert Oppenheimer.

The American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer has been the subject of many biographies. It’s easy to see why. As the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer presided over one of the most important events of the 20th century: the development of the first atomic weapons during the Second World War. Not long afterwards, he became a prominent victim of another key moment in history: the anti-communist “red scare” that swept the US during the 1950s. And on a personal level, he was a learned and cultured man – one who quoted his own translation of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita (“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”) when asked how he felt after the first test of the atomic bomb.

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Do you recognize this antique scientific instrument?

Do you know what this is? Click on image for larger version. (Courtesy: Jean Barrette)

Do you know what this is? Click on image for larger version. (Courtesy: Jean Barrette)

By Hamish Johnston

Last week I promised readers a genuine mystery – and here it is. Do you know what this piece of apparatus was used for?

It currently resides in the McPherson Collection of physics instruments at McGill University in Montreal and its purpose has long puzzled curator Jean Barrette – who I spoke to when I was in Canada recently.

The device looks like it is designed for bench-top use and Barrette believes that it was used to study gases. Inside the cylindrical section with the half-moon window there is another small cylindrical part that can move. The small cylindrical extension to the right of the main component is an electrode input to bring high voltage inside the chamber.

“Any idea on the purpose of the instrument would be greatly appreciated,” said Barrette.

There must be a physicsworld.com reader out there who knows what this is. Please let Jean and I know by leaving a comment below.

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What happened to nuclear electrons?

By Hamish Johnston at the 2013 CAP Congress in Montreal

Sometimes I think that physicists can dwell too much in the past. Scientific papers, for example, often begin with a potted history of the field and it’s only in the second page that something new is mentioned.

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The first medical X-ray…

By Hamish Johnston at the 2013 CAP Congress in Montreal

Jean Barrette has one of the best jobs in the world as far as I am concerned. The retired nuclear physicist is curator of the McPherson Collection of physics instruments at McGill University here in Montreal.

jean-barrette-200px

Jean Barrette has a great job.

This morning in the “History of Physics” session at the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Congress, Jean gave a talk that featured many of the beautiful experiments – lots of brass and polished hardwood – in the collection.

The collection was made possible by the Canadian physicist Anna McPherson, who left a sizeable sum to the university when she died in 1979.

One of the highlights of the talk was what is surely the first-ever medical X-ray, which was taken in 1896 just six months after X-rays were first discovered. Taken at McGill, it shows a bullet lodged in the leg of a shooting victim.

During his talk, Jean asked for help in identifying a mysterious piece of apparatus in the collection that so far he had not been able to identify. Jean is going to send me a picture and I’ll post it in an upcoming blog entry.

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Cash sought to finish Salam film

By Matin Durrani

I have always felt a bit uncomfortable about the “heroic” view of science – the idea that the most significant progress depends on the work of individual geniuses. Unfortunately, this is the way in which many people view scientific history, with the contributions of lesser mortals dismissed and swept aside.

However, it is fair to say that some physicists do stand head and shoulders above all others – none more so than Abdus Salam, who was (and still is) Pakistan’s only Nobel prize-winner.

Now two Pakistani film producers, Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver, are creating a feature-length documentary about Salam’s scientific contributions – but they need your help to finish the job.

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Cryogenics through the ages on BBC radio

The Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider’s superconducting magnets are just one of the many spin-offs from the race to absolute zero. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Physicists have long been interested in how nature behaves under very cold conditions, and about 200 years ago the race began to realize the lowest temperature ever. Along the way, many new and amazing states of matter have been discovered, including superconductors, superfluids and Bose–Einstein condensates. More recently, access to extremely low temperatures has contributed to the current renaissance in the study of fundamental quantum mechanics and the development of quantum computers.

In his latest radio programme, the BBC’s resident polymath Melvyn Bragg looks at this race to the bottom, which really heated up in the late 19th century when physicists and chemists were feverishly liquidizing a wide range of gases include those cryogenic favourites nitrogen – and a little later in 1908 – helium.

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