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Tag archives: Lateral Thoughts

Solving your scientific identity crisis

By Margaret Harris

What kind of scientist are you? In a world where astronomers are getting into (exo)biology, geologists file their programming manuals next to their rock hammers and three physicists shared a chemistry Nobel prize for work with medical implications, it can be hard to keep track. But fear not. For behold, in the midst of this glorious interdisciplinary muddle (and, for many readers, the holiday season), we bring you tidings of great clarity. As it turns out, your scientific identity crisis can be solved with a simple flowchart.

The idea for the flowchart came last summer, when physicist Eugene Hickey submitted his ideas on sorting the geoscientists from the cosmologists to Lateral Thoughts, Physics World’s column of humorous and otherwise off-beat essays about physics and physicists. Hickey began his essay by observing that in his university (the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, near Dublin, Ireland) the interdisciplinary spirit has even trickled down to undergraduate level. For example, to create a materials-science degree, “the right physicist met up with the right chemist [and] decided to bolt together the best elements of both disciplines into a coherent bundle”. Students taking this degree, he added, “spent half their time in each department, like some sort of joint custody arrangement”.

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Quantum kung fu

This article first appeared in the “Lateral Thoughts” section of the July 2014 issue of Physics World

By Felix Flicker

Felix Flicker

Practising the “plate trick”. (Courtesy: Paul Blakemore)

If someone puts you in an armlock, what should you do? If you happen to be a martial artist well-practised in the art of joint manipulation, or chin na, you will know the answer already: there is one simple move that will allow you to turn the tables on your aggressor, leaving them on the wrong end of a throw. However, if your skill set tends more toward manipulating mathematical symbols, there is still hope, for the answer is also closely tied to theoretical physics.

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Lateral Thoughts: Voices from history

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War. (Courtesy: US Army)

By Margaret Harris

This is the third in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. Click to read the first and second posts.

As part of Physics World’s 25th anniversary celebrations, I’ve been reading through the archive of “Lateral Thoughts”, the magazine’s column of humorous or otherwise off-beat essays about physics. My goal is to get a better feel for the topics that have amused and preoccupied Physics World readers over the past quarter-century, and to understand how the community has changed.

While most Lateral Thoughts have focused on the world of physics, the archive shows that every now and then, the wider world intrudes. The results can be fascinating, sobering and sometimes even disturbing. Consider the essay “Soft zlotys for western hardware”, in which the metallurgist Jack Harris describes taking a research trip behind the Iron Curtain to Poland. “In science, as in other areas, I was struck by how little real contact there was with Russia,” Harris wrote. His Lateral Thought was published in July 1989. Two months later, Poland defied its puppet-masters in Moscow by electing its first non-communist government since the Second World War.

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Lateral Thoughts: some things never change

By Margaret Harris

This is the second in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. You can read the first one here.

The Lateral Thoughts column of humorous, off-beat or otherwise “lateral” essays has been part of Physics World ever since the magazine was launched in October 1988. In my previous post about the column’s history, I described some ways that Lateral Thoughts have changed since the early days (tl;dr version: loads of sexism, side order of class conflict).  But in my trawl through the archive, I’ve also discovered that some things haven’t changed very much at all over the past quarter-century.

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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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