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Tag archives: history of physics

Rediscovering Marie Curie and the pioneering women of science

Photograph of a panel of speakers at the women in physics conference

The panel of speakers at the women in physics conference. (Courtesy: Institute of Physics)

By Tushna Commissariat

This Sunday, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, I’ll be thinking of some amazing women who had a huge impact on the world of physics, helping shape the field as we know it today. Indeed, yesterday I was at the Institute of Physics in London, attending a day-long conference on “The lives and times of pioneering women in physics” hosted by the Institute’s Women in Physics group along with its History of Physics group. While there were a host of interesting speakers at the event, undoubtedly the star of the day was French nuclear physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot, granddaughter of one of the 20th-century’s most famous female physicists – Marie Curie.


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Oscar-nominated physics, putting the jump into popping corn and more


By Tushna Commissariat

There is nothing quite like a bowl of hot, buttery popcorn – and it seems as if even physicists are enthralled by it as they dig into the pops and jumps of this tasty snack. A recent article in the New York Times caught our attention this week, as it talked about how a French research duo used high-speed video cameras and a hot plate to see just why a kernel of corn not only pops, but also leaps up as it puffs. The team found that as the kernel’s hull is breached, we hear the popping sound and this is swiftly followed by the jump that happens when a puffy bit of the inside pushes out and makes the corn jump, a bit like a muscle twitch. Take a look at the lovely slow-motion video above of individual kernels leaping about like perfect puffy ballet dancers.


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The devil wears pulsars, Leó’s lost love and a terrifying polonium plot

Out of this world: a Hubble T-shirt from Couth Clothing (Courtesy: Etsy)

Out of this world: a Hubble T-shirt from Couth Clothing. (Courtesy: Etsy/Couth Clothing)

By Hamish Johnston

Fancy a Hubble Space Telescope T-shirt or perhaps a pair of leggings printed with glow-in-the-dark stars and planets? For pictures and links to these and other stellar fashions, check out the STARtorialist blog, which is run by two astronomers based in New York City and described as “Where science meets fashion and scientists get fabulous!”.


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Paris ushers in the International Year of Light

Photograph of the art installation "Light is Here" by Finnish artist Kari Kola projected onto UNESCO's Paris headquarters

The art installation “Light is Here” by Finnish artist Kari Kola projected onto UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. (Courtesy: UNESCO/Nora Houguenade)

By Matin Durrani in Paris

It was a grey and dank morning yesterday in the French capital, with even the top of the Eiffel Tower shrouded in clouds – perhaps not the most auspicious weather for the official opening ceremony of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015) here at the headquarters of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Inside the conference hall, however, all was brightly lit. The stage was bathed in beams of light in all the colours of the rainbow as the 1500 or so delegates first watched an official IYL 2015 video and then listened as a series of dignitaries voiced their backing for the initiative.

These included a message of support from UN director-general Ban Ki-moon read out by an official and a video recording from Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general. There were also speakers from Ghana, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia and Saudi Arabia – the five nations that took a key role in getting IYL 2015 approved by the UN in late 2013.


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Blockbuster physics, bowling balls and feathers in a vacuum, and more


By Tushna Commissariat

The results of a successful scientific experiment can make scientists very happy. Indeed, in the clip above, taken from the BBC TV series Human Universe, one scientist exclaims “holy mackarel!” when he sees the outcome he was hoping for. In the video, everybody’s favourite physicist Brian Cox carries out an experiment similar to Galileo’s Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, where he tested that no matter the mass of objects, they fall at the same rate under gravity. In the video above, Cox drops a bunch of feathers and a bowling ball in the world’s biggest vacuum chamber – the Space Simulation Vacuum Chamber at NASA’s Space Power Facility in Ohio, US. In the slow-motion video, you can see with exquisite clarity just how accurate Galileo’s prediction was, as the feathers and ball land at precisely the same time. We came across this video on the Dot Physics blog on the Wired Science network, written by physicist Rhett Allain, where he has worked out some of the maths and pointed out some of the nuances of the above experiment, so make sure you take a look.


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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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A theremin fit for a gerbil, hairdos for physicists and the trouble with Richard Feynman

Calling all musical gerbils: a new take on the Theremin (Courtesy: Paul Goddard)

Calling all musical gerbils: a new take on the theremin. (Courtesy: Paul Goddard)

By Hamish Johnston

How we created spooky experimental music in a superconductor lab”: what physicist could resist clicking on this story, which appeared on the Guardian website earlier this week? Written by the physicist-turned-computational-biologist Andrew Steele, the article describes how Steele and a few pals converted a magnetic sensor into a musical instrument. Like the theremin, which is played by waving your hands around an antenna, this new instrument responds to the player’s motion. But because the sensor was optimized for studying superconductors rather than creating freaky mood music, Steele explains the “instrument covered three octaves in less than a centimetre of hand movement”. He suggests that playing the instrument should probably be left to a talented gerbil rather than talented superconductor researchers. You can listen to Steele’s attempt at making music on SoundCloud.


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The cure is success

Photograph of Jim Gates

Jim Gates. (Courtesy: John T Consoli, Cheltenham Science Festival)

By Margaret Harris

Last Sunday I went up to Cheltenham for the final day of the town’s annual Science Festival. My plan was to meet the University of Maryland theorist Jim Gates before lunch and then stay to hear his lecture on science and policy.

I was already somewhat familiar with Gates’ research thanks to a feature he wrote for Physics World in June 2010. I could also have made an educated guess about his activities as a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). However, I knew very little about his personal history before his evening lecture, when he was interviewed by the physicist and science presenter Jim Al-Khalili.

Gates was born in 1950 and grew up during a period when African-Americans faced severe institutionalized discrimination across the US. However, being from a military family helped insulate him from some of the worst effects, and he told the audience that he didn’t feel the full impact until his family moved to Florida after he turned 11. For the first time, he attended a racially segregated school, and there, he said, he had “the very curious experience of having to learn how to be black”.


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Meeting the last man to walk on the Moon

Photo of Eugene Cernan

Eugene Cernan speaking at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

By James Dacey, reporting from Sheffield

“I wanted to make a film about an old space cowboy” is how British director Mark Craig introduced his new film on Sunday afternoon here at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The Last Man on the Moon takes a fresh look at the the Apollo era through the story of Eugene Cernan, who was the last person to set foot on the lunar surface when he did so in 1972 as commander of Apollo 17.

The documentary interleaves a profile of “Gene” Cernan with NASA archive footage and special effects, focusing on the personal stories of the astronauts and their families. To give you a flavour, the film opens in the present day with close-ups of Cernan’s facial reactions at a rodeo event as he admires the spectacle and the bravery of the men being thrown around on the back of bulls. Later in the film, Cernan recounts his experiences of being rotated rapidly in space during the Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 missions.

Immediately after the showing, Cernan and Craig stayed for a Q&A session and the audience gave an extended standing ovation as the 80-year-old astronaut walked to the front of the auditorium. I was fortunate to catch up with the pair this morning to get some insights into the inspiration for the film and how it was adapted from the book Cernan co-authored in 1999.


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Cosmic blunders that have held back science

Big enough already: Portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

Big enough already: portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam. (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

By Hamish Johnston

Can you name 10 blunders that have held back the progress of modern astronomy? Avi Loeb of Harvard University can, and he lists them in an essay entitled “On the benefits of promoting diversity of ideas”, which is posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Loeb argues that a common flaw of astronomers is to believe that they know the truth even when data are scarce. This, he argues, “occasionally leads to major blunders by which the scientific community makes the wrong strategic decision in its research plans, causing unnecessary delays in finding the truth”.

The first example he gives is the 1909 pronouncement by Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, that telescopes had reached their optimal size and that there was no point trying to make them any bigger.


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