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Tag archives: mathematics

Test your brains with the Physics World blackboard quiz

A blackboard at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterlook, Canada

BLACKBOARD 1

By Matin Durrani

Can you tell what branch of physics is being described on the blackboard above? It’s one of six photographs taken by the communications folks at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, where blackboards are an integral feature of the building’s design, appearing everywhere from the lifts to coffee areas.

In this quiz, your task is to study six blackboards and match them up with the physics topics they represent. There’s no prize, other than the satisfaction of having at least some inkling of what those clever theorists at the Perimeter are up to.

So here are the six topics:

• Accretion physics and general relativity

• Cosmology

• Neural networks and condensed matter

• Particle physics 1

• Particle physics 2

• Strings

And here are the six blackboards (you can click on each to see it in more detail).

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Frightening physics films, a furry physics doodle and an epic pub crawl

Magnetic attraction: scary physics (Courtesy: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova)

(Courtesy: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova)

By Hamish Johnston

There are still 10 days to go until Halloween, but some physicists can’t resist getting into the spirit a bit early. Over at Symmetry, Kathryn Jepsen suggests a few scary physics films that would make for a spooky movie night on 31 October. They’re not actually real films, but rather a series of posters dreamt up at Chicago’s Sandbox Studio in collaboration with the illustrator Ana Kova. My favourite is Poltergauss (right), because trying to understand magnetism is terrifying.

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Michael Berry at 75

Sir Michael Berry unveiling a framed photograph of himself

A moment to reflect – Michael Berry unveils a framed photograph of himself in the University of Bristol at an event to mark his 75th birthday. (Courtesy: Brian R Pollard)

By Matin Durrani

Anyone who gets invited to an event that’s being held on April Fools’ Day is bound to think there’s something fishy going on. But last Friday’s meeting to celebrate the 75th birthday of Bristol University physicist Michael Berry was a genuine commemoration of his career, although it did have its lighter moments.

Grandly entitled “Physics, Art, Mathematics, Science”, the meeting was intended to reflect Berry’s extensive and wide-ranging interests, which stretch from the physics of waves and quantum phenomena to optics, tidal bores and magnetic levitation. (There’s also a phenomenon called the Berry phase, although I understand Berry himself is reluctant to use that term.)

It’s difficult to summarize Berry’s many contributions to physics – he has written approaching 500 papers – so I’m going to take the easy way out and instead point you at his excellent website, where you can easily get lost down lots of entertaining and stimulating rabbit holes.

If there’s one item on his site I can recommend, it’s his description of how his work on the mathematics of magnetic levitation led him to share the 2000 IgNobel Prize for Physics with the future (genuine) Nobel laureate Andre Geim, who in 1997 levitated a frog using a powerful permanent electromagnet while at Bristol.

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Shorter queues for taxiing planes?

Wing-tip vortice of an agricultural plane

Spinning around: The air flow from the wing of a plane, made visible by using coloured smoke. (Courtesy: NASA)

 

By Ian Randall

If you’re as impatient as I am, the worst part about flying off for your summer vacation is the interminable hold-up that sometimes occurs right before take-off – waiting for the plane to taxi onto the runway and desperately hoping the in-flight entertainment will kick off soon. But these annoying delays may soon be cut down thanks to Georgios Vatistas and colleagues at Concordia University in Montreal. The team has developed a new mathematical airflow model to help refine the safe separation distances needed between planes during take-off and landing.

As an aeroplane moves along, the lift-generating difference in pressure between the top and bottom surfaces of its wings causes air to flow out from beneath each wing and up around the wing tip. This creates a circular vortex pattern behind each tip (pictured above), with a downwash in-between – forming a turbulent wake that can be hazardous to any craft that passes through it. If large enough, this turbulence can roll the next aircraft, faster than they can resist – leading to a crash.

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Molecular footballs, knotty headphones and a naming contest for exoplanets

Is this exoplanet more of a Joanne than a Derek? You could soon be casting your vote to name 305 explanets

Is this exoplanet more of a Joanne than a Derek? You could soon be casting your vote to name 305 explanets. (Courtesy: IAU/M Kornmesser/N Risinger)

By Hamish Johnston

With the final two matches of the FIFA World Cup to look forward to this weekend, I thought I would sneak one more football-related story into the Red Folder. Over on the arXiv blog, there is a nice commentary about the topological nature of World Cup balls through the ages. Why? Well, two chemists in Taiwan have worked out a way to create a carbon-based molecule with the same shape as the football currently being used in the tournament in Brazil. Called the Brazuca, the ball is made from six panels that each have a four-leafed clover shape. Together, they form a structure with octahedral symmetry.

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What makes an equation beautiful?

By James Dacey

Earlier this year I wrote about a psychology experiment that revealed that mathematicians appreciate beautiful equations in the same way that people experience great works of art. In the experiment, which conjures up a slightly comical scene, mathematicians were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to view a series of equations. When the subjects looked at equations they had previously rated as beautiful, it triggered activity in a part of the emotional brain associated with the experience of visual and musical beauty. The formula most commonly rated as beautiful in the study, in both the initial survey and the brain scan, was Euler’s equation, eiπ+ 1 = 0.

Inspired by this study, we have put together this infographic to dissect the Euler identity and try to understand why so many mathematicians are enamoured with this little equation. Let us know what you think of the infographic and what you think are the most beautiful equations. Either post a comment below this article, or let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #BeautifulEquations.

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Making brain-busting ideas easier to grasp

Maths doodle by Tracey

Maths-inspired doodle; click to enlarge. (Courtesy: Tracey)

By Matin Durrani

With all the talk yesterday of evidence for inflation and signs of primoridal gravitational waves imprinted on the cosmic microwave background, many non-physicists (and probably quite a few physicists too) might have been left scratching their heads at the implications of the findings obtained by the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from the fact that many concepts in physics are hard and that cutting-edge experiments are incredible feats of technical endeavour. We can, though, all take solace from the fact that physicists at the frontiers of research have often spent decades living and breathing their subjects, which means they know the basics of their own field far better than anyone else.

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Cruise-ship physics, the many ways to tie a tie, shaken-up carbon dating and more

By Tushna Commissariat

If you like piña coladas and quantum mechanics, then we hope you are currently on the two-week “Bright Horizons 19” Southeast Asia cruise, as on board is physicist and writer Sean Carroll. He will be giving multiple lectures over the next 15 days on everything from the Higgs boson to dark matter and other fundamentals of quantum mechanics. Also floating along with Carroll are other lecturers who will cover topics from natural history to genetics to military strategy. If, like us, you are stuck at home, you can take a look at Carroll’s slides on his blog, maybe have a cocktail while you are at it.

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Beauty is in the eye of the mathematician

Euler equation

Is the Euler identity the most beautiful equation of them all?

By James Dacey

If you have ever talked with your arty friends about the sense of “beauty” you feel from maths, you may well have been greeted with a sympathetic smile. Perhaps even with jeers of derision.  Well, next time you find yourself in that position you will have some scientific evidence to back up what you are saying. A group of researchers in the UK has demonstrated that getting your noggin around an equation can trigger the same part of the brain as staring at the Mona Lisa or listening to The White Album.

In an experiment described in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 15 mathematicians were presented with a series of 60 equations and asked to rate them for their beauty on a scale of –5 (ugly), through to +5 (beautiful). The same subjects were then hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to view the same list of equations. It turned out that when mathematicians viewed the equations they had previously rated as beautiful, it triggered activity in a part of the emotional brain associated with the experience of visual and musical beauty.*

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Spacecraft duets, suprise supernovae, the dark side of physics and more

By Tushna Commissariat

While you would not actually be able to hear the uplifting notes of the music in the vast emptiness of space, a newly composed string and piano orchestral piece has unexpected ties to the cosmos. That’s because it is based on 36 years’ worth of data from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Domenico Vicinanza, a trained musician with a PhD in physics who works at GÉANT, a European data-network company, says that he “wanted to compose a musical piece celebrating Voyager 1 and 2 together, so I used the same measurements (proton counts from the cosmic-ray detector over the last 37 years) from both spacecrafts, at the exactly same point in time, but at several billions of kilometres of distance [of] one from the other”. The result of this “data sonification” is a rather beautiful piece of music – one of the best examples of physics and the arts coming together that we have heard. Of course, the story garnered considerable interest…you can read more about on the Wired and Guardian websites.

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