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Tag archives: science communication

Promoting better science journalism

By Margaret Harris

Some people fear public speaking more than illness or death. I’m not one of them, but I’ll admit to some qualms on Monday morning, when I travelled to the University of Westminster to speak about science to a group of journalism students.

As I rode the Metropolitan Line train up to Westminster’s Harrow campus, I wondered what sort of speaker the students were expecting. I was giving the talk as part of a Royal Statistical Society (RSS) programme to train journalists in basic statistical principles and how science works; however, unlike most of the people involved in the programme, I am neither a professional scientist nor a statistician. Moreover, the official RSS curriculum places a strong emphasis on statistics and scientific practices in medical science, which isn’t exactly my strong suit either. So while I knew the programme was aimed at helping non-specialists understand basic concepts like risk, the scientific method and the role uncertainty plays in science – all topics that I’m fairly comfortable with – I couldn’t help feeling like a bit of an imposter.

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Prizewinning book gives materials science a chance to shine

By Margaret Harris

Mark Miodownik

Mark Miodownik last night.

Materials scientist and first-time popular-science author Mark Miodownik was all smiles last night as his book Stuff Matters scooped one of the UK’s top non-fiction awards, the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. The book, an engaging and often highly personal look at some of the everyday materials that make modern civilization possible, was the unanimous choice of the five-member judging panel, coming top in a strong shortlist that also included a history of general relativity, a memoir about cancer and an analysis of the role played by physicists in Nazi Germany.

Miodownik picked up his award – a rectangular prism that looked like glass but was, he informed us, actually made of acrylic – at the end of a ceremony in which he and four of the other shortlisted authors appeared on stage at the Royal Society’s London headquarters to read passages from their books. Earlier in the evening, there had been an audible buzz in the room as Miodownik read from the introduction of Stuff Matters, in which he describes how, as a teenager, he was slashed with a razor blade during an attempted mugging, and how he became obsessed with materials and their properties afterwards. (He is now a materials engineer at University College London.)

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The pin-up of particle physics, an octopus-inspired robot and Witten versus Horgan redux

 

By Hamish Johnston

One of my favourite radio programmes is The Life Scientific, in which the physicist Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their lives and work. Al-Khalili introduces this week’s guest as “the pin-up of particle physics”, whose remarkable career has taken him from playing keyboards in pop bands, to winning a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to do particle physics, to hosting one of the BBC’s most popular science programmes.

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How to give a great TEDx talk

Bob Crease at TEDx, CERN, 24 September 2014

Hitting his stride – Robert P Crease in full flow at yesterday’s TEDx talk at CERN after forgetting about the timer, which is the small object at his feet. (Courtesy: Maya Elhalal)

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

It’s great to go first.

Then you can actually listen to the other performances without fretting about your own. Somewhere near the middle of my TEDxCERN talk yesterday (Wednesday 24 September) I stopped being aware of the timer at my feet, began to have fun and left the stage at the end without even noticing whether I had exceeded my time limit. I made a brief stop backstage to lose my “Madonna” – a microphone that’s not on a neck clip or attached to a headset but extends out from an ear brace – then retook my seat in the front row.

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A TEDx train wreck?

Photo of CERN as seen by Robert P Crease from his bedroom windown in September 2014

Calm before the storm – the view of CERN from Robert P Crease’s bedroom window as he tries desperately to shave a final two minutes off his TEDx talk.

By Robert P Crease in CERN, Geneva

On Sunday morning I arrived at CERN to find workers putting finishing touches on a huge tent where the lab will host its TEDx event on Wednesday, and its 60th anniversary festivities next week.

“TED”, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a non-profit organization that promotes talks on what it calls “ideas worth spreading”; the “x” denotes an independent event organized in that spirit. This is the second TEDxCERN – the first took place last year – and it’s hosted by Brian Cox. More than 1000 people will watch 14 speakers, three performances and three animations; tens of thousands more viewers are expected online.

James Gillies, CERN’s head of communication, invited me to be a speaker. The subject this year, he said, was how science could better engage with major social challenges. He said that my May Physics World column “Why don’t they listen?” – on why scientists have difficulty getting politicians’ ears – had “hit the nail on the head”, and asked if I’d be interested in discussing the idea.

A week at CERN? A great excuse to implore colleagues take over my classes? Sure! All I had to do, I thought, was talk my way through some extended version of the column.

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Sweet-talking physics

By Louise Mayor

We’re always up for trying new formats and approaches to journalism here at Physics World. You’ve probably seen our documentary-type films, podcasts and 100 Second Science video series, but the latest addition to our repertoire is a short monthly video in which one of our editorial team highlights something in the upcoming or current issue as a kind of taster.

So this month, I decided to take the plunge and get in front of the camera myself to present the third edition of what we have started jokingly referring to in the office as our “fireside chats”. (Here are the July and August versions.)

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What can you learn at a quantum ‘boot camp’?

By Tushna Commissariat in Stockholm, Sweden

Google the word “quantum” and take a look at what comes up.
NORDITA logo

In addition to the obvious news articles about the latest developments in the field and the Wikipedia entries on quantum mechanics, you’ll undoubtedly come across a heap of other, seemingly random, stories.

I found, for example, a David Bowie song being compared to a quantum wavefunction (by none other than British science popularizer Brian Cox), as well as a new cruise ship being named Quantum of the Seas. Then there’s the usual jumble of pseudo-scientific “wellness” therapies that misguidedly adopt the word in a strange attempt to give their treatments some sort of credibility.

So while it seems that everyone is talking about quantum something or other, how much do we really understand this notoriously difficult subject? More to the point, how much do science journalists, like me, really know about the subject? I write stories about quantum mechanics from time to time for Physics World and the subject can, I assure you, be fiendish and quite mind-bending.

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Life after a nuclear bomb, farewell to MetroCosm and the nerdiest thing ever

 

(Courtesy: David Ng)

Observed change in Tatooine surface temperature 100BBY – 10ABY. (Courtesy: David Ng)

By Hamish Johnston

What’s it like to have a nuclear bomb dropped on you? Okay, I know the question is a bit heavy for this light-hearted column but I was really inspired by this piece about Shinji Mikamo who was less than a mile from the epicentre of the Hiroshima bomb. He was 19 at the time and not surprisingly the bomb changed the course of his life in many ways. What I found most amazing is that Mikamo managed to survive an explosion so intense that it blasted off the glass and hands of his father’s pocket watch, but not before imprinting the time of the blast on the watch’s melted face. The article is called “When time stood still” and it appears on the BBC website.

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‘Outspoken’ scientist reveals his Hollywood life

Photograph of Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2014

Sean Carroll helps Hollywood use more believable science better in films. (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

By Matin Durrani

This blog is a shameless plug for the latest Physics World podcast, in which I talk to Sean Carroll – the California Institute of Technology cosmologist who also serves as a science adviser to Hollywood.

I chatted with Carroll when he was in the UK speaking at the recent Cheltenham Science Festival and, in the podcast, you can find out about his favourite science-fiction films and why he thinks it’s important to get the science in such films right. Carroll also reveals who he thinks he’s most like in TV’s The Big Bang Theory.

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Women Rock Science author bags new student-science award

Hadiza Mohammed

Hadiza Mohammed being presented with the inaugural IOP Student Science Publication Award last night.

The photo above shows me presenting the inaugural Student Science Publication Award, sponsored by the Institute of Physics and IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, to Hadiza Mohammed of the online magazine Women Rock Science. She is a working civil engineer currently doing a Master’s in advanced environmental and energy studies.

The award, which was launched this year, recognizes student journalists who produce a regular science publication and seeks in part to nurture the next generation of science writers. It forms part of the annual awards given by the Association of British Science Writers and was presented at a reception held at the Royal Society in London as the culmination of this year’s UK Conference of Science Journalists.

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