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Tag archives: science and society

Sun-skimming comets, the future of the Space Race, scientists on record and more

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, professional astronomers and enthusiasts all over the world pointed their telescopes (and satellites) at the comet ISON as it raced towards the Sun and had its closest encounter with our star yesterday. Of course, the big question was whether the “Sungrazing comet” would survive its close call. Now, it seems that no-one is quite sure – early on, it looked as if the comet faded rather dramatically, suggesting that its nucleus disintegrated, and then it disappeared completely as it made its way through the solar atmosphere, making scientists mourn its fiery death. But lo, today a very faint smudge of dust was seen again, and seems to be brightening up once more. For now, researchers are referring to ISON as “Schrödinger’s Comet” and we may have to wait a while to know for sure. Right now, it seems that some of the comet has survived, but just how much of it made it through and if it will be visible in the sky in December is unknown. In case you missed all the action yesterday, take a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he was posting live updates on the comet and Karl Battams’s blog on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign site, where he explains what happens next.

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Pop-culture mathematics

By Tushna Commissariat

Earlier this week I went to hear a talk about mathematics…and The Simpsons. That’s right, I am indeed referring to the long-running animated TV show that is a satirical parody of middle-class American life and its unexpected but concrete mathematical vein. Surprising as it may sound, some of show’s scriptwriters have degrees in maths and physics, meaning that some very advanced concepts, problems and ideas from all of 20th-century mathematics and physics are littered around many of the show’s 535 episodes. Regular Physics World readers will have already seen that we have released the shortlist for our Book of the Year 2013 and that physicist and science communicator Simon Singh’s latest offering – The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – is one of 10 books on the list. I had the happy job of reading and reviewing Singh’s book for our “Between the lines: Christmas special” section in the December issue of the magazine.

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Why do beer bottles foam when struck on top?

A foamy mess in the making (Courtesy: Javier Rodríguez-Rodríguez)

A foamy mess in the making. (Courtesy: Javier Rodríguez-Rodríguez)

By Hamish Johnston

We’ve all had a friend who does it – you’re deep in conversation at a party, beer bottle in hand, when someone sneaks up and taps the top of your bottle with theirs, causing a foamy mess to erupt from your bottle. And to add insult to injury, their bottle doesn’t foam.

Now, physicists in Spain and France have studied this curious effect and gained a better understanding of how it occurs. While their work won’t prevent wet shoes and slippery floors at university social gatherings, the researchers believe their work could provide insights into geological features such as oil reservoirs, mud volcanoes and “exploding lakes”.

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Safe graphene, Martian mollycoddling, mathematical tales and more

The

The “Telescope names” comic from xkcd. (Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

Just when we thought that it couldn’t possibly have any more practical applications, everybody’s favourite “wonder material” graphene is going to be used to develop “stronger, safer, and more desirable condoms”. Thanks to a Grand Challenges Explorations grant of £62,123 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists at the University of Manchester will use graphene to develop new “composite nanomaterials for next-generation condoms, containing graphene”. Unsurprisingly, the story made all the national newspapers with the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent all having their say. The Guardian also noted that industrial graphene-producer Applied Graphene Materialsshares jumped by 40% during its stock-market debut, the day before the above story broke. You can read more about graphene’s many potential applications on page 50 of Physics World’s anniversary issue, a free PDF download of which is available here.

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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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Waiter, there’s a bug in my cocktail!

By Hamish Johnston

Just in time for Christmas, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have unveiled the ultimate “cocktail accessory”. It’s an edible self-propelled boat that whizzes around on the surface of an alcoholic drink.

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Project Einstein, NASA shares its wealth, how the kettle got its whistle and more

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares (Courtesy: Marblar)

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares. (Courtesy: Marblar)

By Hamish Johnston

The best thing about science fiction is that it is fiction, and nit-picking about scientific accuracy shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good story. That’s the theme of Roger Highfield’s review of the latest blockbuster Gravity. Writing in his old paper The Daily Telegraph, Highfield – who now works at London’s Science Museum – takes exception to a series of Tweets by the celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the film. Among other things, the Tweets complain that Sandra Bullock’s hair should be wafting around in zero gravity, not hanging down as it would on Earth. Despite these and other “scientific holes big enough to fly a Saturn V rocket through” both Highfield and Tyson agree that Gravity is a film well worth seeing. The review is called “Gravity: how real is the science?“.

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How to build brain-like circuits

Jim Gimzewski speaking about art and science at Institute of Physics Publishing

Jim Gimzewski speaking about art and science at IOP Publishing.

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday Jim Gimzewski, who is professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, paid a visit to IOP Publishing – which publishes Physics World. Gimzewski was here to give a lecture about his two professional passions: art and science. He spoke about his involvement in a travelling art installation that was inspired by butterfly metamorphosis and also about his work in synaptic electronics

Jim Gimzewski on synaptic electronics
Why scientists are trying to build artificial brains
This text will be replaced

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Grumpy astronauts, LEGO overpopulation, videogame quantum mechanics and more

The xkcd webcomic about LEGO titled

The “Minifigs” comic from xkcd (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, the Red Folder seemed filled to bursting with amusing and captivating news stories from around the web about physics. To start off, this rather hilarious and candid account of the Apollo 7 mission on the Discovery News website. I will not give too much away and let you read the story yourself, but suffice to say that having a rather bad cold while in space sounds dreadful and is bound to make the best of us quite grumpy – and I am sure the Apollo 7 crew would agree with me!

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Nobel trivia, turn your phone into a spectrometer and more

APS Outreach Specialist James Roche shows off SpectraSnapp. (Courtesy: Mike Lucibella/APS)

APS Outreach Specialist James Roche shows off SpectraSnapp. (Courtesy: Mike Lucibella/APS)

By Hamish Johnston and Tushna Commissariat

This was Nobel week, and physicists had two prizes to celebrate this year. Of course there was the prize for physics, which this year went to Peter Higgs and François Englert for their theoretical prediction of the Higgs boson in 1964.

Shortly after the physics-prize announcement, Englert was on the phone to Stockholm, but the Nobel officials couldn’t seem to find Higgs. Early rumours were that he had retreated to the Highlands of Scotland to avoid the media glare, but a few hours later he was photographed outside his Edinburgh home by The Scotsman newspaper.

Later, the BBC reported that Higgs was told about his Nobel win by a passer-by on an Edinburgh street, who stopped her car when she spotted the physics laureate on the pavement. “She congratulated me on the news and I said ‘Oh, what news?’,” Higgs is quoted as saying.

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