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April 2010 Archives

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By Margaret Harris

Who uses lasers? What can we do with them? How have they changed physics? And what’s in store for their future?

Here at Physics World, we have been thinking about these questions for months now, as we prepared to celebrate an important milestone in the history of science and technology: the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser.

In our search for answers, we spoke to more than 20 experts in a wide variety of disciplines, including astronomy, biophysics, communications, defence, manufacturing, medicine, optics and space science (to name just a few).

You’ll find some of their responses in our May special issue – which you can download for free here – but for a more personal look at how lasers are shaping different areas of science and technology, check out our series of five exclusive video interviews:

Tom Baer of the Stanford Photonics Research Center reviews 50 years of laser physics, and makes some predictions about the next 50
Tom Hausken of the market-research firm Strategies Unlimited discusses how lasers are used in optical communications
• Medical physicist Brian Pogue of Dartmouth College describes laser-based cancer treatments and the rewards of working with lasers in an interdisciplinary field
Andreas Tünnermann explains how researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering are developing fibre lasers for use in manufacturing
Narasimha Prasad of NASA’s Langley Research Center talks about using space-based lasers to gather data about the climate on Earth – and perhaps beyond

All of the interviews were filmed during the 2010 Photonics West conference, which saw more than 20,000 photonics scientists and engineers from all over the world gather in San Francisco to share their latest results.

Stay tuned for more laser coverage over the next few weeks as we continue to celebrate 50 years of an amazing technology and its contributions to the world of physics…


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by Louise Mayor

Earlier this month, I and some of my colleagues – Kate Gardner, Margaret Harris and Dens Milne – braved the back streets of Bristol on a very important mission: to bring the readers of Physics World magazine a slightly-more-innovative-than-usual image on the front cover.


We were looking for something a bit different for the May issue of Physics World. This month we are marking the 50th anniversary of the laser by bringing readers top features from a host of eminent laser scientists, as well as a snazzy laser timeline. We needed a front cover that would do it justice.

Our brain wave was “laser-writing”. It would involve the four of us congregating in a darkened room, photographing a blank wall using a camera set to have a long exposure. We would write our chosen phrase on the wall using a red laser pen and capture this on camera. The relevancy would be immense – an image made of pure laser light, just the thing to introduce our laser special issue. Great idea, right?

Full of anticipation, after a drawn-out meal at the local curry house while we waited for darkness, we embarked on our mission. In a dark room we set up our digital SLR camera on a tripod. We used an exposure of tens of seconds to capture each individual alphanumeric character that we needed; these could then be later combined into words. And hey presto! … Hey presto? … Peering at the camera’s digital display, we realised that the effect was not as good as we’d hoped. The laser dot was so small in comparison to the size of the characters that the result appeared spindly.

But fret we did not, as we had back-up. We also tried using a torch (see I ♥ LASER image, top), and an array of bluish-white LEDs. The LEDs became the tool of choice that would eventually make the front cover with the “The laser at 50” image shown right. Note that the issue itself is available as a free pdf download.


We also tried to go a bit more arty, and took to the dimly lit streets. Our best outdoor shot is shown above; the venue was a fenced-up disused garage. If you are interested in trying this sort of thing yourself, take a look at this great guide to light-graffiti.

We hope that you enjoy our efforts!

It’s all relative

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Einstein with his dog friend Hannah. Credit: Charlie Cantrell

By Louise Mayor

Meet Einstein, the world’s smallest horse. He is a pinto stallion, born last week weighing just 2.7 kg, and only 35 cm tall.

I got in touch with Einstein’s owners, Charlie Cantrell and Dr Rachel Wagner from New Hampshire, US, to ask what inspired the naming of this cute little fella.

They replied to say that they named him Einstein because they felt it would be a reminder of two things. The first was “that one has to be intelligent when purchasing a miniature horse [as] they require a massive amount of specialized care.” The second was that “Einstein believed in compassion for all living creatures. He was an advocate of humane treatment of animals.”

“Oh yes, and we thought the name was befitting of him because he had such a huge head for such a little foal,” they added.

So it turns out that Einstein the foal is aptly named! Indeed, supporting the owner’s comments is this animal-friendly quote from Einstein: “Our task must be to free ourselves – by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”

The roof garden at Fusionopolis

By Michael Banks in Singapore

It is not every day that I get to dance with the popstar Shakira, but that is what I did this morning. Well, in the world of virtual reality at least.

Today I visited what is known as the Fusionopolis complex here in Singapore. The centre, which consists of three separate towers, each 100 m tall, contains government-funded research institutes, international companies and a range of facilities such as a gym, a theatre and restaurants – all under one roof.

The idea of Fusionopolis is to attract multinational companies from all over the world as well as local firms to establish a research and development base in the country.

There are six government-funded applied research institutes that will eventually be housed in Fusionopolis, which are each encouraged to collaborate and share their facilities with companies who put a base there.

Venturing into Fusionopolis this morning did feel a little like taking a trip into the future. I first visited FusionWorld, which showcases some of the applications that have emerged from research carried out by the six institutes.

One example was the so-called “transparent self-cleaning windows” – essentially glass coated with a substance that reacts with dirt and grease, turning it into something that is easily washed away when it rains.

But then the tour turned to more dreamier concepts. Indeed, one involved sleep itself – researchers have developed a sensor that can be put into a mattress that is sensitive enough to detect breathing and whether someone moves around in the bed. One application for this is in hospitals where an alarm can be sent to a doctor or nurse if a patient stops breathing.

I will leave it to your imagination to picture the “demonstration home”, which included a kitchen that can tell you when you run out of eggs or if they are out of date, a toilet that can diagnose ailments, or a computer display that can be controlled with a laser pointer.

By the end, Fusionopolis had a slight whiff of Jurassic Park about it and I thought that at any moment they would pull away the curtains to reveal tiny dinosaurs walking around in a pen. But maybe that was my imagination running away with me.

One of my next stops in Fusionopolis was the Institute for Infocomm Research, where researchers are developing new wireless network protocols as well as new methods of data compression for audio files.

The next phase of Fusionopolis

In one room they have been developing a virtual reality system that can process a person’s movements and then display that action through a computer-generated figure on a 3D screen.

The perfect demonstration of such a technology is, of course, dancing. So after some persuasion I stepped (or was forced) onto the dance floor where I “threw some shapes”.

The system works by picking up movements with a camera, which then sends a signal to the computer that immediately renders the 3D figure to copy your dance moves (in my case the figure was Shakira, but you could select other characters).

After taking off my dancing shoes, we moved quickly to another virtual-reality room. Unfortunately, I did not get to test the “tennis simulation room” where players can run around (it even has artificial turf) wearing 3D glasses and pretending to hit a virtual tennis ball at the screen, which itself covers the whole wall.

Apparently the system was being upgraded so that it can handle two players instead of just one. I was told by Susanto Rahardja, director of research of the Infocomm institute, that the system was sensitive enough to detect whether your wrist movement would put top-spin on the ball.

Fusionopolis is certainly a vibrant place and you get the sense that there is a lot of excitement about the project, which is expected to be fully complete by the end of the decade once all six institutes are housed there.

Indeed, companies are flocking to join the institute, including computer giant HP, which announced In January that it would open a research centre in Fusionopolis. Two other buildings are currently being constructed for Fusionopolis in what is known as phase 2A and phase 2B, which will be able to house more companies and facilities.

Overall the technology and research on show was quite impressive. Indeed, when browsing the glossy brochures after my visit I was almost expecting to see videos and hear audio straight from the pages. I didn’t, of course, but possibly that is something the Fusionopolis researchers are working on right at this minute.

It is really cold in there

By Michael Banks in Singapore

It was a humid 30 °C by mid-morning here in Singapore, so I was happy to be visiting what must be the coolest place in the country – the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT).

The CQT is located on the campus of the National University of Singapore, which lies on the southern tip of the island.

Founded in December 2007 by Artur Ekert from the University of Oxford, the centre carries out research into all things quantum, be it quantum computers, optics or cryptography.

I was satisfied enough to be standing in the air-conditioned labs to cool down, but that must not have been cold enough for physicists Murray Barrett and Kyle Arnold, both at the CQT.

Last year they reached a low-temperature extreme by creating a Bose–Einstein condensate (BEC) of atoms – reaching temperatures of a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero.

A poster on the wall outside their lab proudly identifies it as the first place in Singapore to have created a BEC – making it the coldest place in the country (and most likely on the equator as well).

Ekert, who is the CQT’s director, is hoping that this is the first of many breakthroughs that the centre will make in the coming years.

Ekert, one of the founders of quantum cryptography, certainly has some experience setting up successful research groups. During his PhD at Oxford, he established, together with fellow physicist David Deutsch, the first research group in quantum cryptography and computation.

Now armed with a grant of S$150m (£75m) from Singapore’s National Research Foundation, he is starting to build up the centre and attract top-notch researchers from around world.

There are already 90 researchers from no less than 24 nations at the CQT, with the majority coming from Singapore, China, Germany and the UK.

As CQT’s funding is over a five-year period, Ekert will have to apply for more funds in the coming years to keep the centre going. “We have received a lot of positive responses from the university, so I am pretty confident we will get it,” he says.

STM data showing quasiparticle scatterings q2 and q3 (Courtesy:Science)

By Hamish Johnston

Almost exactly 24 years ago to the day, Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller of IBM Zurich submitted a paper describing the first high-Tc superconductor. The new copper-based (or cuprate) material had zero electrical resistance at temperatures up to Tc = 35K – shattering the previous record by more than ten degrees.

Bednorz and Müller won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery, which spurred intense international effort to understand the physics of high-Tc materials and pushed superconducting temperatures to 100K and beyond.

However, physicists still struggle to understand much of the physics behind the cuprates and other high-Tc materials – making it one of the great unsolved problems of physics.

The discipline received a huge morale boost in 2007-08 with the discovery of the first iron-based high-Tc material. Many more iron superconductors have been found since, and physicists hope that comparisons between these new materials and the cuprates will lead to a breakthrough.

So what do we know so far? Superconductivity arises when conduction electrons form pairs – which, unlike single electrons, can condense at low temperatures into a superfluid that travels through the material without any resistance.

The pairing mechanism in conventional low-temperature superconductors such as lead or mercury is well understood – lattice vibrations called phonons mediate a spherically symmetric interaction between electrons. This is relatively easy to describe mathematically in conventional superconductors – but calculations are much more difficult for cuprates because the electrons interact much more strongly with each other. Furthermore, physicists don’t know exactly what mediates the pairing in cuprates – it’s unlikely to be phonons and could be the electron–electron interactions themselves.

Physicists do know that the pairing interaction in cuprates is not spherically symmetric (or s-wave) but rather has a pronounced lobes at right angles to each other (d-wave).

The big question is whether the new iron-based materials are also d-wave – and evidence is mounting that the answer is no. Instead, the interaction appears to be perfectly symmetric in terms of its magnitude but involves a reversal of phase. First theorized by Igor Mazin and colleagues in 2008, this “S± symmetry” is supported by a growing number of experiments.

The latest is published today in the journal Science, where Tetsuo Hanaguri and colleagues at RIKEN in Japan present scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) studies of a superconductor made of iron, selenium and tellurium.

The team looked at the interference patterns that arise when an electron – or more precisely an electron-like quasiparticle – in the superconductor scatters from one state to another. The scattering is caused by superconducting magnetic vortices in the sample and the measurement gives the phase difference between the quasiparticle states.

The result backs Mazin’s S± theory in which the pairing interaction is mediated by spin fluctuations. This magnetic origin for superconductivity is perhaps not that surprising in iron-based materials.

As for the cuprates…the work continues!

By Margaret Harris

Last month, with space in the print edition of Physics World tight, I cut a couple of sentences from the end of a short review I’d written of Len Fisher’s new book, The Perfect Swarm. This turned out to be a bad idea. How bad? Well, you can read the published review here, but this is how it originally ended:

“UK readers may be particularly interested in [Fisher’s] explanation of how, in a three-way race, voting is not transitive. This means that it would be theoretically possible for a majority to prefer the Tories to Labour, another majority to prefer Labour to the Lib Dems, and a third majority to prefer the Lib Dems to the Tories. Ouch.”

Ouch indeed. As keen observers of British politics will have noticed, the possibility of a tight three-way race got a lot less theoretical last week, after Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s performance in the first-ever televised debate between party leaders boosted the (usually third-place) Lib Dems’ poll ratings.

But although I’ve clearly blown my chance of being hailed as a political oracle, it’s not too late to take a closer look at the mathematics behind a three-way race – and particularly at the Condorcet paradox, the technical name of the situation I (almost) described.

Flight of the fruit fly

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Aerial trickery revealed in the shadow play

By James Dacey

The fruit fly, like many winged insects, has to work very hard to stay in the air given the tiny size of its wings. To generate the vertical force necessary to maintain flight, it must beat its wings hundreds of times every second. But at these speeds and torques, how on earth does the fragile fruit fly manage to control its flight to make those sharp turns and pull off those difficult aerial manoeuvres?

Well, the answer, according to a group of researchers at Cornell University in the US, lies in a gentle, passive movement of the fly’s wings.

The Cornell research team have honed in on the turning kinematics of fruit flies by filming these insects as they fly around within a confined space. They capture the motion using three synchronized cameras, focused along orthogonal axes – the x, y and z – to capture 8000 frames per second or about 35 frames for each wing beat.

Then comes the clever bit – converting these 2D snapshots into a full 3D reconstruction of the insect’s flight motion. This was achieved using a technique known as Hull Reconstruction Motion Tracking (HRMT), which merged three separate images, one from each camera, at distinct time steps. Attila Bergou, a member of the team, says that this was like painting three silhouettes from the three cameras onto the faces of a box. “The volume you get by using a cookie cutter to cut out the shadows and peeling all but the centre away is the visual hull,” he explains.

What they found is that the fly does something very smart. By allowing aspects of their wing motion to be passively dictated by the aerodynamic and inertial forces, they end up being able to control their flight through the air in a very simple and elegant manner. Bergou says that the fly does this without “thinking”, comparing the motion to the wiggle of a boat’s oar as it cuts through the water.

Bergou believes that the manoeuvrability and efficiency of flapping flight at small length scales will be of interest to aircraft engineers. “There is a large amount of interest in the development of micro-air vehicles that use such flapping strokes to fly,” he says.

This research is documented in a new paper in Physical Review Letters.

By Michael Banks

It is amazing how far a bottle of scotch can take you.

On 18 April 1955 photographer Ralph Morse got a call early in the morning from an editor at LIFE magazine to go to Princeton.

Morse, who worked for the magazine for decades, was told to cover the news that Albert Einstein had died of heart failure at Princeton Hospital.

Armed with his camera and a case of scotch, Morse travelled 90 miles from his home to Princeton, New Jersey. But instead of going straight to the hospital, which was flooded with reporters, Morse drove to Einstein’s office at Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

After offering a superintendent some scotch, Morse had access to Einstein’s office just as the physicist left it, where he took a now iconic image of his desk.

Last week, LIFE magazine published 10 other previously unseen photographs taken on the day. Most of the pictures are taken at the service, which was held on the afternoon of 18 April at Ewing Crematorium in Trenton, 20 km south of Princeton.

Morse located the service after workers at a cemetery in Princeton told him where it was being held – all with the help of a little scotch.

Update: Here is the latest image from the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite, taken yesterday afternoon. A plume of brownish-grey ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano can be seen leaving Iceland in a roughly south-easterly direction.

(Edited 20 April 2010 – the original story follows below.)

New satellite image of ash spewing from Iceland’s volcano.
(Image acquired 19 April 2010, 1:45 PM) Credit: ESA
Volcanic ash cloud as viewed from space.
(Image acquired 15 April 2010, 12:25 PM) Credit: ESA

By Louise Mayor

This image, taken yesterday, shows the extent of the volcanic ash that has been spewing out of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano since Wednesday. The ash, which contains tiny particles of rock and glass, can be seen as a grey streak in the upper half of the image, being swept by winds high in the atmosphere towards the rest of western Europe.

In the bottom-right of the image you can just about make out the Republic of Ireland, and the UK where all but a few individually permitted flights have been grounded for a second day running as a result of the ash cloud.

The picture was acquired by the Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) on board the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite. Launched in 2002, the satellite’s primary purpose is to image the colour of the Earth’s oceans using 15 spectral bands over the 390–1040 nm range. These images reveal characteristics of water such as its concentration of chlorophyll, which can then be used to understand the role of our oceans in the carbon cycle.

Life in the new energy regime

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Physicists chatter excitedly at CERN (Drawing: Georges Boixader)

By James Dacey

A couple of weeks ago, I went to CERN to witness the big moment when the first collisions of 7 TeV occurred within the Large Hadron Collider. The event smashed yet another world record and marked the beginning of the LHC’s physics programme, 18 months after the colossal machine was initially switched on.

Amidst the excitement, I carried out a series of quick-fire interviews with scientists at the four experiments to find out their hopes and aspirations for the coming months.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation at ATLAS and CMS, the two largest detector experiments, about the hunt for the Higgs boson – the particle predicted by the Standard Model to give mass to substance in the universe.

Reactions were equally excited at the LHCb and ALICE experiments where physicists were talking freely about some quite frankly mind-boggling questions that they are about to tackle. These will include: how the universe evolved in its first ten-millionths of a second; and why are we not surrounded by antimatter suns and antimatter galaxies.

In addition to the science, I also found out what it’s like to work at CERN: the conditions; how scientists deal with the competition between collaborations; and the benefits of working in a truly international project.

You can read highlights from these interviews in this newly published feature article.

By Hamish Johnston

“We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it.”

That is the main conclusion of an independent panel of scientists nominated by the UK’s Royal Society to scrutinize the scientific methodology of researchers at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU).

The seven-member panel was set-up by the university and chaired by Ron Oxburgh – a geologist, former oil-company executive and member of the UK’s upper house of parliament. It released its findings today.

The panel looked at 11 “representative publications” produced by CRU members over the past 24 years.

While the report is good news for CRU scientists, some climate-change sceptics have accused the panel of being biased because Oxburgh is chairman of the wind energy company Falck Renewables and president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association. Oxburgh has insisted that the panel had no pre-conceived views on the CRU science.

This is the second report published after private e-mails of CRU members were hacked last year and made public. Critics of the CRU have alleged that the e-mails show that the scientists incorrectly interpreted data to support manmade climate change and also flouted freedom-of-information requests to make data and computer code available to their critics.

The first report – which was released on 31 March by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee – concluded that the University of East Anglia was mostly to blame for supporting a culture of non-disclosure.

Calling all citizen scientists!

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Artist’s impression of ε Aurigae. Credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech

By James Dacey

Citizen science projects sound great in principle, but I often wonder just how much Joe Bloggs (or Joe Schmoe) can really contribute to scientific understanding, and whether we can really help the professionals without selling our homes to fund all the specialist gear.

Well, here’s a project where we apparently can.

Citizen Sky launched last year by the American Association of Variable Star Observers to help solve a mystery that has puzzled astronomers for the past 175 years.

The mission is for the public to help the professionals to work out what’s going on with a rare star system known as epsilon Aurigae, which could hold important clues about stellar structure and how stars evolve. Epsilon Aurigae is visible with the naked eye even in the most light-polluted of cities, so you don’t even need a telescope, say the organizers.

Let me give you the back story.

Stars don’t like to be alone and an estimated 60% of stars can be found in either binary or multiple star systems. However, from our vantage point here on Earth, only 0.2% of these systems are eclipsing – that is, a star darkens from our point of view when a second star or other astronomical body sweeps across our line of vision. These eclipses are very useful because they allow astronomers to determine many things about the star such as its temperature, luminosity and even the presence of distant planets.

But epsilon Aurigae is rarer still because since its discovery in 1821 astronomers have never been quite sure what is doing the eclipsing. Eclipses in this system occur roughly once every 27 years and last for the unusually long time of two years. This suggests that the eclipsing object is larger than the stars themselves, and one of the stars is permanently hidden over a range of wavelengths.

The latest eclipse of epsilon Aurigae began last August and a paper released yesterday in Nature reports the first direct images of the eclipse and the researchers suggest it is caused by a large dust cloud passing in front of the binary system. However, there are still many questions regarding the properties and form of this dust cloud – and this is where the citizen science comes in.

This July and August will see the middle of the eclipse and this is the best time to pin down the properties of the dust cloud, which the researchers believe is the remnants of an accretion disc. Astronomers want all the observations they can get, including information from keen amateurs. “With a good pair of eyes and a finder chart – which we will give you – you can monitor this eclipse,” says Rebecca Turner, the Citizen Sky project manager.

You can hear more about the kind of data they are looking for on the project website.

Could we have predicted L’Aquila?

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L’Aquila Credit: RaBoe Wikipedia

By James Dacey

On the anniversary of the earthquake that devastated L’Aquila in central Italy, the Guardian has run an intriguing article about the scientist at Gran Sasso laboratory who apparently predicted the disaster, but was unable to warn the public because of a gagging injunction.

Giampaolo Giuliani, a scientific technician living near L’Aquila, has long argued that imminent quakes can be predicted by rising levels of radon gas emissions near the fault zone.

Giuliani was so convinced of the truth in this theory that he built two radometers at his own expense and positioned these along the fault zone.

On Sunday 5th April, 2009, Giuliani became deeply anxious that a large quake would strike within 24 hours, and he made urgent calls to his friends and colleagues.

Tragically, one week earlier, the Italian authorities had issued a gagging injunction on Guiliani, following a previous false alarm for an earthquake in the region to the south east of L’Aquila.

At 3.32 a.m. on 6th April, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale struck L’Aquilla, killing 307 people and injuring 1500 others.

One telling quote in the Guardian article is attributed to Walter Mazzochi, deputy leader at Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology: “The things Guiliani has presented are at a very low level, from a scientific point of view. I didn’t see any evidence that the method could work.”

This indictment probably says a lot about the standing of earthquake prediction, which is clearly an underdeveloped area of science.

The proposed link between radon levels and earth slipping, however, will hopefully get a fair testing now that Nobel Laureate Georges Charpak has recently unveiled a new detector that could be deployed en masse along fault lines to monitor the levels of this gas.

By Joe McEntee

It’s 50 years since the birth of the laser and to mark the imminent anniversary will be cranking up its coverage of photonic science, technologies and applications over the coming weeks.

For starters, there’s our latest video exclusive, a vox pop with faculty and students at the Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC), part of Stanford University in California and home to one of largest photonics research programmes in the US.

SPRC’s Ginzton Laboratory is the focal point for that programme and an interdisciplinary research team that comprises around 40 professors and 200 graduate students and postdocs. Theirs is a wide-ranging brief – SPRC working groups span information technology, telecommunications, integrated photonics, microscopy, neuroscience and solar cells – though with a common objective: to partner with industry to bring innovative photonic technologies to market.

With innovation a defining metric, a sizeable slice of SPRC’s activity comprises contract research funded by industry. The centre has 20+ commercial partners, among them the likes of SONY, Agilent Technologies, Lockheed Martin and NTT Communications.

Partnership is the key word here. The affiliates don’t just give their name to SPRC or sponsor a meeting, they actively support the research programme. Tom Baer, executive director of SPRC, reckons the affiliates are a “unique interface” between industry and the science and engineering taught at Stanford.

“SPRC provides the opportunity for students to work closely with our [industry] affiliates…and helps the students become exposed to scientific and technical problems that are current and relevant to the commercial sector,” he told

Equally significant, the SPRC reflects the research culture at Stanford, which has been cross-disciplinary for many decades. And that multidisciplinary effort is more than just a bunch of people from different disciplines working together, it’s about nurturing teams of “multidisciplinarians”.

“You really need to encourage the physicists to learn the biology, the engineers to learn the chemistry and so on,” Baer explained. “Something I instill in SPRC students from the off is that the more unique fields of enquiry you have knowledge of, the more you become unique in the eyes of your employers.”

• Our filming project at SPRC’s Ginzton Laboratory was a one-day excursion to the cutting edge of photonics. If you want to learn more, be sure to check out our other exclusive video interviews with Stanford physicists Steven Block (on single-molecule biophysics) and Phil Bucksbaum (on the world’s brightest X-ray source).

By Ken Heartly-Wright

1 April 2010

Brian Cox (courtesy: Gia Milinovich)

Brian Cox, the University of Manchester particle physicist and a researcher at CERN in Geneva, is set to appear in the longest-running British TV soap opera.

The 42 year old has recently presented the BBC series Wonders of the Solar System, in which he travels the globe explaining various phenomena in our solar system.

To promote the series, the former keyboard player in the band D:Ream has also appeared in a string of high-profile television and radio appearances.

Last week the rock-star physicist appeared on the late-night TV programme Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, which is normally reserved for A-list celebrities.

And only last month he was heard on the top-rated Chris Evans Breakfast show on BBC Radio 2. Indeed, most physicists can only d:ream of being on such prime-time shows as these.

Now, however, Cox will star in an upcoming episode of the prime-time soap opera Coronation Street.

The show, known affectionately as Corrie, is set in the fictional town of Weatherfield, a suburb of Manchester, and follows a number of dysfunctional families living on the street with the Rovers Return pub as its main social point.

Cox, who was born in Oldham, Greater Manchester, will be no stranger to the show or indeed the dialect, which can feature terms such as “eh, chuck?”, “nowt” and “by ‘eck!”

The Mancunian physicist is set to play the character Byron Knox, a particle physicist who works at Weatherfield Polytechnic.

Although details about the storyline for Cox’s character are scarce, has learned that Knox used to work at CERN but returns to Weatherfield after being sacked for accidentally dropping his meat and potato pie onto an electrical connection at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – stopping the experiment from working.

Returning to Weatherfield after his CERN humiliation, Knox discovers that he is the long-lost son of Ken Barlow – famous as being one of the original characters in Corrie and one of the few to have attended university.

Keen to resurrect his career, Knox then begins teaching physics at Weatherfield Polytechnic. Some scenes will involve him lecturing some of the show’s stars on particle physics in the Rovers Return as well as encouraging the street’s rebel teenager, Rosie Webster, to pursue a career in physics.

It is not yet known whether Cox’s appearance will be a one-off or if he will make regular appearances on the show. understands that this will depend on his research commitments.