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Tag archives: women in physics

Candy corn in space, compact fusion reactors and physics in Palestine

 

By Hamish Johnston

Besides the great views of the Earth, one of the best things about being on the International Space Station (ISS) must be messing around in near-zero gravity. In the above video on Science Friday the American astronaut Don Pettit describes an “experiment” that he did on the ISS using candy corn, which are kernel-like sweets. He begins with a blob of floating water into which he inserts the candy corn pointy-end first. The points are hydrophilic so they tend to stay in the water, and eventually Pettit has a sphere of candy corn packed around the water. The flat ends of the candy corn have been soaked in oil to make them hydrophobic so the candy corn layer acts like a detergent film or one half of a cell membrane. It’s a fun video and I wonder how he got the idea in the first place?

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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 cost of stereotypes

By Margaret Harris

When a 2012 study showed that scientists subconsciously favour male students over females when assessing their employability as early-career researchers, it generated plenty of debate – not least among women, who were, according to the study, just as likely to be biased as the men were.

Some of these discussions got rather overheated, but one cogent criticism of the study did emerge.  Roughly, it was this: might the scientists’ preference for men over equally well-qualified women be a rational response to the fact that, because of various barriers, women in science often need to be better than their male counterparts in order to have an equal chance of success?

The question was an awkward one, since it implied that women in science could be caught in a vicious circle, with the negative effects of bias in the workplace making it “rational” to be biased in hiring (and, in turn, making such workplace bias more likely to persist).  However, a new study appears to rule out this argument by finding similar patterns of hiring bias against women even when the “job” is an arithmetical task that, on average, women and men perform equally well.

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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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3D printing, Ada Lovelace and controversial bloggers

By James Dacey

One of the more inspiring stories we have come across this week was the tale of a resourceful inventor in the West African nation of Togo. Kodjo Afate Gnikou has managed to build a 3D printer at the meagre cost of $100 by mainly using parts he found in a scrap yard in the capital city Lomé. The story is described on inhabitat.com, which says the machine has been constructed from broken scanners, computers, printers and other e-waste.

On the subject of 3D printing, Wired magazine ran a story about how the UK supermarket chain Asda is planning to trial a 3D printing service at its store in York. They will be offering customers the chance to take a break from their shopping to have a full body scan, which will be used to create miniature dolls of themselves. Prices apparently start at £40 and Asda boasts about how lifelike these dolls can be: “The technology produces highly realistic ‘mini me’ figurines at whatever scale you like!”

Portrait of Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada Lovelace (1838)

From a shop in York to the next story that involved celebrations all round the world. Tuesday was Ada Lovelace Day 2013. The annual celebrations, which are now in their fifth year, are held to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The annual event was founded in 2009 by the social technologist and writer Suw Charman-Anderson “as a response to online discussions about the lack of women on stage at tech conferences”.

This year events included a mass Wikipedia “editathon” at the University of Oxford in an attempt to raise the profile of women’s contributions to science, as described in this article in the Guardian.

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Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2013

By James Dacey

Portrait of Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada Lovelace (1838)

Science songs in London and a series of “lightning talks” in the Equadorian capital Quito are among the many events being held today around the world to mark Ada Lovelace Day 2013. The annual celebrations, which are now in their fifth year, are held to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The day’s namesake Ada Lovelace is often referred to as the world’s first computer programmer. Born in 1815, Lovelace was a child of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, and was raised by her mother who encouraged her daughter to develop an interest in science, logic and mathematics. Lovelace excelled and became friends with the mathematician Charles Babbage at the University of Cambridge, who had already started drawing up plans for his famous calculating machines.

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Stings, furloughs and women in physics

The National Institute of Standards and Technology website is on furlough this week

The National Institute of Standards and Technology website is on furlough this week.

By Hamish Johnston

This week the magazine and journal Science published an article called “Who’s afraid of peer review?“. It describes a remarkable “sting” operation by the journalist John Bohannon, who submitted a spoof scientific paper to 300 or so open-access scientific journals. The  paper claimed to offer evidence for the anti-cancer properties of a naturally occurring compound. It contained several fundamental errors that should have been caught by the peer-review process, not to mention made-up authors working at fictitious institutes.  Instead of being rejected by all the journals, more than half of the submissions (157 in total) were accepted for publication.

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Why are school pupils flocking to physics?

Graph showing rise in A-level physics entries

This graph shows that the proportion of all A-level entries accounted for by physics, maths and other sciences has been growing steadily in recent years. (Courtesy: CaSE)

By Matin Durrani

Getting more people interested in physics is something we hear about all the time here at Physics World.

When I was in India last year, for example, I lost count of the number of times physicists said there weren’t enough people going into the subject. Engineering and medicine seemed to be the top choices for technically minded Indian students going to university.

A worrying decline in interest in physics was a message I also heard while in Korea earlier this year.

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