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September 2011 Archives

By Michael Banks

The world may be in the midst of an economic downturn, yet that has not stopped scientists from planning a whole host of next-generation “big-science” facilities as well as governments pledging billions of euros to build them over the next 10–15 years.

From the ITER fusion experiment currently under construction in Cadarache, France, to the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, the coming decade look to be a boon for researchers seeking new subatomic particles that exist for only a fraction of a second or studying events that occur on the femtosecond timescale.

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In a special supplement accompanying the October issue of Physics World and available to download here, we take a look at the specific challenges of building and designing these facilities – from how to get them funded to the engineering and scientific issues that have to be met before construction can begin.

One facility that certainly fits the big-science mould is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva. With the LHC now on track hunting for new physics, researchers at CERN are not resting on their laurels but planning a major upgrade to their accelerator and detectors that will produce and track ever more collisions.

Indeed, detecting faster processes is also an integral part of the planned SuperB particle-physics experiment to be built near Rome by 2016, which will study the decay of quarks. As one article in the supplement explains, it may employ CMOS detector technology to take images at a rate of two million per second of the debris caused by particle collisions.

Other highlights in the supplement include the challenges that lie in store for the European X-ray Free Electron Laser in Germany – a new facility to detect ultrafast processes such as chemical reactions – that will use pioneering superconducting magnet technology to enable it to take “movies” of chemical reactions happening in real time. Magnets are also the name of the game at ITER, which will use thousands of tonnes of coils to hold a 150 million Kelvin plasma in place.

Big science also means big lasers and they are set to play a key role in a German-based collaboration using them to accelerate protons for medical application as well as at the European Extremely Large Telescope, planned for Chile, which will use lasers as an integral part of its novel approach to correcting for atmospheric distortions of light from distant objects.

I hope this supplement gives you a glimpse of the challenges that researchers face to surpass the possibilities of existing technology and make next-generation facilities happen. Download it here.

By Hamish Johnston

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It’s that time of year again…predictions are being bandied about coffee/tea rooms worldwide and worthy physicists are dusting off their ties and tails in anticipation of a trip to Stockholm to meet Carl XVI.

The 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced next Tuesday so we thought we would test the waters with a Facebook poll. Instead of asking who will win the prize, we’re more interested in the field that the winners will be from.

The options are:

Quantum information
Metamaterials and invisibility
Neutrino oscillations
Aharonov–Bohm effect and Berry’s phase

Have your say here.

What do I think? Well, this year I’m going for the Aharonov–Bohm effect and Berry’s phase – which means that the prize would be shared by Yakir Aharonov and Bristol’s very own Michael Berry.

Peter Rodgers (former editor of Physics World) adds Alain Aspect to Aharonov and Berry and suggests a prize for contributions to the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

Last week’s poll focused on perhaps the most famous fictional physicist – Sheldon Cooper of TV’s Big Bang Theory. We asked you what you thought of this abrasive character as played by actor Jim Parsons.

“He’s an exaggerated version of a physicist for comic effect”, garnered the most support with about 73% of the vote. Only 5% see him as a grotesque parody of a physicist.

Interestingly, 7% of respondents answered “He’s got me down to a tee!”. This included one person who left a comment that included the following observation:

“I’m sure there are many who feel that he’s an accurate representation of some scientists, even of those most likely to be drawn to science, without believing they personally are like him.”


By Matin Durrani

I went up to London yesterday (I’m never quite sure if one goes up or down to the capital but never mind) to attend a lecture at the Institute of Physics given by Mary Curnock Cook (right), who is chief executive of the University and Colleges Admissions Service.

Entitled “Gender maps in education”, Cook’s presentation was this year’s memorial lecture given in honour of Elizabeth Johnson, a US-born condensed-matter theorist who did much to encourage women to pursue careers in science.

The memorial lectures always have women in science as their general theme and as head of UCAS – the centralized service in the UK for students applying to university or college – Cook had some fascinating data about how many women go to university and how well they do once they are there.

Cook’s starting point was that women who have a degree from a British university earn a total of £82,000 more over their lifetime than someone without a degree. Which sounds fantastic, until you realize that the equivalent “graduate premium” for men is a much larger: roughly £121,000.

So why the difference? Well, it’s complicated is the short answer – or, as Cook put it, “it’s the educational equivalent of a can of worms”.

But one reason is that more men than women study science, engineering, technology and medicine (STEM) subjects at university, which generally lead to jobs that have higher salaries than those jobs that don’t require a science degree.

However, the good news for women is that they are starting to catch up with men when it comes to pay: while men in their 40s earn quite a bit more than women of the same age, younger men who are currently in their 20s are on a par with women. We could, Cook speculated, have reached a tipping point: as those women get older, the overall differences in pay between the sexes – the “gender pay gap” – will even out.

What’s also interesting is that while some 40% of 18-year-old women in the UK go into higher education, just 32% of men of the same age go on to do degrees. On the other hand, men have a slightly better overall success rate of being accepted onto a course than women. That’s because men are more likely to study STEM subjects, which are generally less popular and hence easier to get into.

Cook was well aware that there’s a lot more one could say on this subject – and that a proper treatment would probably require a year-long academic study to get to the bottom of things. But the evening-out of the gender pay gap certainly sounds like a good thing.

Is Sheldon an inspiration or a grotesque parody?

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By James Dacey

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Earlier this week US actor Jim Parsons picked up an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, the socially inept physics postdoc, on the hit CBS TV comedy show The Big Bang Theory. Parsons picked up the award for “outstanding lead actor in a comedy series” at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Saturday night, as reported by my colleague Matin Durrani. A large appeal of the comedy smash hit stems from the relationship between Sheldon and his friends and colleagues (two other physicists and an engineer), and their interactions with “near-normal” neighbour Penny (played by Kaley Cuoco).

The idea of humour on screen being derived from a geeky scientist is not particularly new: Eddy Murphy in The Nutty Professor and Christopher Lloyd in the Back to the Future series are two obvious examples that spring to mind. But the thing that strikes me as novel about the Big Bang Theory is that the vast majority of the humour comes from the geeks’ responses to everyday situations, outside of their work. A rich source of humour, for instance, derives from Sheldon’s excessively analytical approach to social situations, where he is aware of what “people” do in given situations but he is not sure why.

On the one hand, it is refreshing to see that people have accepted Sheldon and his crew into their hearts and people seem to love him because all of his physics geekiness. But on the other hand, it is rarely clear whether we are laughing with Sheldon or at him. The extreme view is that Sheldon is a grotesque parody of a socially inept physicist who simply does not fit in with everyday life.

We’d like to hear your thoughts about this. Which of the following statements best describes your feelings about Sheldon?

He’s got me down to a tee!
He’s an exaggerated version of a physicist for comic effect
He’s a grotesque parody that insults physicists
Who is Sheldon?

Have your say by taking part in our Facebook poll. And please feel free to explain your answer by posting a comment on the poll.

Last week’s poll addressed the issue of money, given that the worsening economic conditions on either side of the Atlantic have kept fiscal affairs in the headlines of late. We asked you: “Can ideas borrowed from physics lead us to financial recovery?”

80% of respondents said yes and 20% said no. This suggests that there is still faith in the ability of science to predict “the madness of men”, as Newton once described stock trading after losing a lot of money in the South Sea Bubble. Luis Rico, one of the respondents who voted yes, believes that one of the main advantages of applying physics ideas to economics is “the lack of both political bias and conflicts of interest”. He believes that economics needs to develop more sophisticated systems to better reflect the real world. “Working with a single model of a complex system that has already proven to fail seems unnatural to me and the inability to question axioms makes impossible any real advance.”

Thanks you for all your responses. And check next Thursday for the results to our latest poll.

Searching for a star

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By Matin Durrani


I learned earlier today that Lord Sainsbury – the former UK science minister – is launching a search for the UK’s “most inspirational technician”.

It seems a worthwhile initiative, given how important lab technicians are for the smooth running of science. (We can all probably speak from experience – I recall some fabulous technicians during my time at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, including Dick the glassblower, who once saved my bacon after I blew up a mercury thermometer that I’d left too long in a beaker on a hot plate. The beaker dried out and the thermometer exploded. Fortunately the embarrassing incident took place inside a fume cupboard and was not witnessed by anyone else.)

Supported by Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation and STEMNET – a charity that tries to get young people involved in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) – the award seeks to recognize “the excellent work of technicians who inspire young people to follow technical careers” and to improve the image of a profession in “high demand by employers”. It is one of five categories in the National STEMNET Awards 2011, sponsored by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the others being for best teacher, best employer, best STEM club and best STEM ambassador.

There is no limit to the number of categories you can nominate in and all finalists will be decided by an expert panel. The deadline for nominations is Monday 3 October – more information is available via this link

The top technician – and the other award winners – will win a day trip to the CERN particle-physics lab in Geneva, sponsored by the STFC. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony at the House of Lords in December.

If he were alive today, I reckon in the running for an award would be veteran Cavendish lab technician Ebenezer Everett, who by all accounts did some fabulous work that played a key role in J J Thomson’s discovery of the electron in the late 1890s.

The reason I mention Everett is that I recently came across the following passage in Robin Strutt’s biography of Thomson, which appeared in the Cavendish magazine CavMag last year, concerning the switching on of a powerful electromagnet surrounding a discharge tube.

JJ: “Put the magnet on.”

There followed a click as Everett closed the large switch.

JJ: “Put the magnet on.”

Everett: “It is on.”

JJ: (eye still to the microscope) “No, it isn’t on. Put it on.”

Everett: “It is on.”

A moment later JJ called for a compass needle. Everett returned with a large needle 10 inches long. JJ took it, and approached the electromagnet. When about a foot away the needle was so strongly attracted to the electromagnet that it swung round and flew off its pivot, crashing into the bulb (which burst with a loud report) and coming to rest between
the poles of the magnet. Everett was glowing with triumph, and JJ looking at the wreck with an air of dejection.

“Hmm,” he said. “It was on.”

Cell in the entorhinal cortex

Cell in the entorhinal cortex (Credit:Journal of Neuroscience )

By Tushna Commissariat

Last week I wrote about physicists in Europe who have developed a model to better understand the neuron activity in the brain that occurs when we listen to music. Their simulations suggest that certain notes sound harmonious because of the consistent rhythmic firing of neurons in the auditory system. They quantified this effect by showing that neural signals are regularly spaced for frequencies that are pleasant sounding, but are erratic for those that are not. The same researchers also said that their model may also provide insights into other senses, such as vision, that employ similar neural processing systems. Hot on the heels of that statement, this week I came across a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience discussing how neurons work to “code position in space” – simply put, the team looked at what mental processes occur while your brain perceives the space you are in and helps you to navigate within it.

Motoharu Yoshida and colleagues at Boston University in the US investigated how the rhythmic activity of nerve cells supports spatial navigation. The scientists showed that cells in the entorhinal cortex – which is located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain and acts as the main interface between the hippocampus and neocortex, playing an essential role in episodic and spatial memory formation – oscillate with individual frequencies, with the frequencies depending upon the positions of the cells within that cortex. Until now, it was believed that the frequency was modulated by the interaction with neurons in other brain regions, but in the light of these new data, this may be incorrect.

“The brain seems to represent the environment like a map with perfect distances and angles” explains Yoshida. “However, we are not robots with GPS in our head. But the rhythmic activity of the neurons in the entorhinal cortex seems to create a kind of map.” The activity of individual neurons in this region of the brain represents different positions in space, according to the researchers. The rhythmic activity of each cell may enable us to code a set of positions, forming a regular grid in the brain. Researching the capacity that most animals and mammals have for spatial navigation is always of interest, as a through understanding of it could lead to a clear picture of how our brains function in general.


By Hamish Johnston
Many things have changed in physics since I was a postgraduate in the 1990s. But if you asked me what the most exciting change has been, I would say the emergence of quantum information and computing as a discipline.

Or, more precisely, the fact that physicists are now able to create devices that routinely exploit quantum properties such as superposition and entanglement to make calculations and exchange information.

Granted, the devices are primitive and the calculations are limited, but let’s not forget that less than 70 years ago the first transistor was a large lump of germanium with wires sticking out of it.

The Institute of Physics (IOP) has just come out with a glossy brochure that captures the excitement of this revolution. It’s called The Age of The Qubit and a PDF can be downloaded here. Most of the IOP’s members are in the UK, so the brochure focuses on research done in Britain and Northern Ireland.

A new world of physics books

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PW books podcast

Physics World podcasters. Left to right: Margaret Harris, James Dacey, Matin Durrani

By James Dacey

“What I have to say about this book can be found inside the book,” was Einstein’s reply to a New York Times reporter’s request for a comment on his book, The Evolution of Physics.

But books, from my experience, have always had the power to raise questions that can stay with you, sometimes for years after finishing the final page.

In a new move at Physics World we are venturing deep into the world of books by creating a series of podcasts devoted to physics books and the issues they cover. These programmes will uncover the stories behind the stories, as we’ll be discussing some of the books recently reviewed in Physics World. And hopefully some of the authors will be a bit more forthcoming than Einstein and we’ll hear them discuss their books. I’ll be presenting the shows alongside Physics World’s editor Matin Durrani and the magazine’s reviews editor Margaret Harris.

On Friday we went into a studio at the University of Bristol to record our first podcast, a snapshot of which you can see in the photo above. The books we discussed in this debut programme all raised some interesting questions around the theme of “women in science”. The titles we discussed were the following:

Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel by Michael Hoskin
Science Secrets: the Truth About Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife and Other Myths by Alberto Martinez
Soft Matter: the Stuff that Dreams are Made Of by Roberto Piazza

The programme will be available by mid-October and it will also contain an interview with feminist historian Julie Des Jardins about her book, The Madame Curie Complex. Keep your eyes on this website for this podcast, which will be available to listen to or download by mid-October. And, don’t forget that in the meantime you can continue to read book reviews each month in Physics World and on

TV’s Sheldon bags Emmy

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Big Bang Theory
From left to right, Raj, Howard, Leonard and Sheldon build a robot to enter a fighting-robot competition. (Courtesy: Warner Bros Television Entertainment)

By Matin Durrani

Yes we know that is probably not your first port of call for red-hot showbiz news, but congratulations to Jim Parsons for picking up an award for “outstanding lead actor in a comedy series” at last night’s Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

Parsons, as you may well be aware (and if you’re not, then you really have been living under a stone), plays socially inept physics postdoc Sheldon Cooper on the hit CBS TV comedy show The Big Bang Theory.

Parsons, 38, bagged the same award last year, which marked the show’s first Emmy win. This time he beat his co-star Johnny Galecki, who plays fellow physicist Leonard Hofstadter.

On the show, a fifth series of which is set to start in the US on Thursday 22 September, the two physicists share an apartment together in Pasadena, with Leonard being what my colleague Tushna (who’s a self-confessed Big Bang nut) calls “a quintessentially cute geek”, who stoically puts up with Sheldon’s comical antics.

The appeal of the show lies partly in the relationships between Sheldon, Leonard and their two pals Raj (another physicist) and Howard (an engineer), but also in their interactions with “near-normal” neighbour Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who is the foil to the others’ actions.

But what’s made the show so popular with scientists – 2005 Nobel laureate Jan Hall told us it is just so damn funny – is that the show is peppered with references to physics, most of which are reasonably coherent, thanks in part to the contributions of the show’s science consultant – astrophysicist David Saltzberg from the University of California, Los Angeles.

I sat through about a dozen episodes on a long flight back to the UK from Australia a couple of months back and found the show moderately amusing – if not laugh-out-loud funny – and felt the writing was (like many other US sit-coms) a bit manufactured for my taste.

But, damnit, what do I know? Parsons has won an Emmy so he must be doing something right. And according to that trusted information source, Wikipedia, he, Galecki and Cuoco each earned $200,000 per episode in the last series, which is more than most postdocs earn in five years.

You can read more about the show in this great feature article we published last year, which includes interviews with Galecki, Saltzberg, Simon Helberg (who plays Howard) and the show’s creator, writer and executive producer Chuck Lorre.

Where is the Death Star? Artist’s impression of a real-life Tatooine spotted by Kepler. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s hard to believe that less than 20 years ago we didn’t know if stars other than the Sun had planets. Now it seems that such extra-solar planets (exoplanets) are just about everywhere we look in the heavens.

This week at the Extreme Solar Systems conference in the US, astronomers working on the HARPS instrument at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile announced the discovery of 50 more exoplanets. This puts the total of known exoplanets at about 680. The newcomers include 16 “super Earths”, which are up to 10 times more massive than Earth and expected to be rocky.

When astronomers first started looking for exoplanets, they tended to find gas giants like Jupiter in very close orbits around their stars – very different from our own solar system. However, it’s becoming clear that this was simply because such exoplanets were easier to find. Now that telescopes have improved, astronomers are finding much more familiar looking systems

Indeed, when HARPS looked at nearly 400 Sun-like stars, it found that about 40% of them have at least one planet less massive than Saturn. Furthermore, HARPS found that the majority of exoplanets of Neptune-mass or smaller existed in multiple-exoplanet systems.

When HARPS focused on 10 nearby sun-like stars, it found five super-Earths orbiting three stars. And one of these super-Earths is in the habitable zone of its star, where the conditions are just right for life – at least as we know it here on Earth

Given this rapid increase in our knowledge of worlds beyond ours, it can’t be very long before an exoplanet with signs of life is spotted. However, it won’t be extraterrestrial beings coming into view, but rather hints of liquid water and atmospheric gases such as oxygen that could be the by-products of life.

Also at the conference, astronomers working on NASA’s Kepler space telescope announced the first direct evidence of a “circumbinary” exoplanet – that is, a planet that orbits two stars.

Much comparison has been made to Tatooine, the circumbinary home planet of Luke Skywalker in the 1977 film Star Wars. Indeed, when the finding was unveiled at the conference, John Knoll of Lucasfilm, which made Star Wars, was on hand to comment. “Working in film, we often are tasked with creating something never before seen,” said Knoll. “However, more often than not, scientific discoveries prove to be more spectacular than anything we dare imagine.”

By Hamish Johnston

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Given the worsening economic conditions on both sides of the Atlantic, you might be surprised to hear that a telecoms company is spending $300m to shave 6 ms off the time it takes to make a transatlantic financial transaction. The current record is 65 ms.

Hibernia Atlantic has begun laying a 6021 km cable linking London to New York and the firm is confident it will earn its keep when it goes live in 2013.

The new cable will accelerate electronic trading based on computer algorithms that buy and sell without any human input. Indeed, an article in the Daily Telegraph claims that “a one millisecond advantage could be worth up to $100m (£63m) a year to the bottom line of a large hedge fund”.

Many of these algorithms will have been created by physicists who left academia to work in finance. But some in the industry blame these “rocket scientists” – and the techniques they borrowed from physics – for contributing to the economic crisis of 2008.

In this week’s Facebook poll we are asking “Can ideas borrowed from physics lead us to financial recovery?”. We’d like to hear what you think, so please feel free to explain your vote by posting a comment on the Facebook poll.

What do I think? I agree with Isaac Newton, who after losing a bundle in the South Sea Bubble apparently said “I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies but not the madness of men”.

In last week’s poll we asked for your opinion of art–science collaborations. Nearly half said “I love them, they’re fantastic!”, whereas only 3% said “Who cares? They’re a total waste of time”. The other options were “Hmm, some are great, some are not”, which garnered 35% and “They can be okay, but I often don’t ‘get’ the point”, which appealed to 11%.

Towards a ‘Year of Light’

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Varenna seen from Lake Como (CC BY-SA/Idéfix)

By Louise Mayor

One of the good things about being a science journalist is getting to travel to the same places as all the jammy scientists.

This week I’m heading over to Varenna – an idyllic town on the shores of Lake Como, Italy. If the name of the lake sounds familiar, that might be because it’s famous as a filming location for Casino Royale and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and it apparently has villas belonging to the likes of George Clooney, Sting and Richard Branson.

But I’m not going for the views, the laid-back atmosphere, the fabulous food and the wine – well okay, just a bit. This Friday 16 September, Varenna will host Passion for Light, an international workshop jointly arranged by the European and Italian physical societies (EPS and SIF), which will launch the idea of an International Year of Light (IYOL) in 2015.

Other recent “international years” with a scientific theme have included physics (2005), astronomy (2009) and chemistry (this year). Huge successes have been reported, with the International Year of Astronomy having at least 815 million participants in 148 countries.

But you needn’t be in Varenna to stay in the loop; on Friday you can tune in to a live, streamed video of the one-day event at the Passion for Light webpage.

Opening addresses will kick off at 9.30 a.m. (CEST) led by Luisa Cifarelli, president of EPS-SIF (previously interviewed in this video).

The rest of the day sees an all-star cast of 11 scientists talking about the role of light in many diverse areas of physics, with speakers including Nobel-prize-winners Ted Hänsch and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji. The full line-up of scientific talks is available here.


By Hamish Johnston

Edwin Cartlidge has just written a nice article for us about how the Sun could be used to test alternative theories of gravity. The idea is that gravitational quirks would manifest themselves as deviations in the expected properties of the Sun such as its acoustic modes and neutrino output.

The Sun offers an ideal laboratory for studying gravity because it is extremely massive and so close that we can detect tiny fluctuations in its behaviour. Now, physicists in the US think that the Sun could also be used to detect primordial black holes, which are smallish black holes that may have been formed in the early universe. Such black holes could vary greatly in mass – from that of a small asteroid to several Earth masses – and are expected to endure for at least as long as the age of the universe.

Physicists have yet to detect primordial black holes but Michael Kesden of New York University and Shravan Hanasoge of Princeton University believe that they could be spotted when they travel through the Sun.

The pair calculate that a primordial with a mass of about 1018 kg and passing through the Sun would induce transient seismic oscillations that could be detected by solar observatories. A simulation of such oscillations is shown above (image courtesy of the American Physical Society).

However, other astronomical measurements have put limits on how likely it is for a primordial black hole to collide with the Sun – and the suggestion is that it’s extremely unlikely.

But there is good news: in the race to find more planets orbiting stars other than the Sun, astronomers have built telescopes that are very good at astroseismology. Kesden and Hanasoge believe that these could be use to survey the heavens for signs of primordial black holes.

The physicists describe their work in Phys. Rev. Lett. 107 111101 and you can read the paper here.

Particle physicist teams up with violin virtuosos

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Jack and Brian (centre and right) attempt Edward’s composition

By James Dacey

Over the centuries, the deep connections between physics and music have been noted by many, particularly in the way both endeavours are underpinned by a mathematical language.

In a new collaboration, the two activities are about to meet head on with the internationally renowned composer Edward Cowie teaming up with particle physicist Brian Foster and the violinist Jack Liebeck. Cowie has been commissioned to produce a major new series of works for solo violin that will trace the history of particle physics from the late 19th century through to the present day. The plan is for Foster and Liebeck to perform the pieces at several major science facilities during the 2012/2013 season. The trio may also be releasing a commercial CD.

On Friday I went to meet the three collaborators at Oxford University where they were discussing the progress of this unique composition, entitled Particle Partitas. I was there with the Physics World multimedia team to record a short feature film about the project, which will be appearing on within the next few weeks.

Cowie, who says he writes his music as an expression of the experiences he has living and moving in the natural landscape, in fact trained as a physicist. He studied the subject at Imperial College, London, while he was still learning the piano and violin in his spare time, as well as doing the odd performance. Unfortunately, Cowie had to stop playing the violin seriously after a sporting injury to his left hand in 1966. It was interesting to hear that Cowie had composed the whole of this latest work without an instrument.

It was also fascinating to hear about the depths of thought that have gone into the work and to see how Cowie’s understanding of particle physics has informed the music. For instance, he talked about how one section of the piece gradually divides into shorter and shorter musical expressions. This, he said, mirrors the way Democritus conceived the concept of an atom as the division of matter into a final indivisible particle.

After all of the discussions, Cowie then treated us to a rendition of one of his earlier works: Rutherford’s Lights – a set of 24 “studies in light and colour for piano”. (He still regularly performs on the piano.) You can hear part of this work and Cowie talking about its influences in this interview with my colleague Michael Banks from December last year. You can also see a few more pictures from Friday’s meeting in this photo set on Flickr.

Institut Laue-Langevin
The reactor dome at the Institut Laue-Langevin

By Hamish Johnston

Particle physics usually conjures up images of electrons or protons smashing together at extremely high energies. But when I visited the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France, I met two physicists who do particle physics and cosmology using neutrons that are so lethargic they move slower than your average sprinter. Forget about the TeV (1012 eV) particle energies at the Large Hadron Collider, the energy of these neutrons is measured in neV (10–9 eV).

This means that these ultracold neutrons can be stored for long periods of time – and carefully poked and prodded to reveal their secrets. You can read more in this interview with ILL’s Oliver Zimmer and Peter Geltenbort.

I also recorded a broad-ranging interview with Andrew Harrison, who heads up the science division at ILL. I asked Andrew about the role that ILL’s reactor-based neutron source will play once the accelerator-based European Spallation Source (ESS) starts up in Sweden in about eight years’ time. That interview will appear online later this month.

Looking forward to October, Michael Banks is putting the finishing touches on a bumper Physics World supplement on “big science”. As well as looking at the challenges involved in making neutrons at the ESS, the supplement will also look at the ITER fusion facility, the Extremely Large Telescope, the Large Hadron Collider and much more…so stay tuned.

What is the point of art–science collaborations?

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By James Dacey

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CERN has recently announced that it will be opening its doors to artists to come into the lab. Artists working in different art forms will have the opportunity to take up a funded residency of up to three months where they will come into the lab and work alongside CERN researchers. The artists will then produce works based on their experiences to be exhibited at CERN and other locations. In the same statement, CERN revealed that details of a separate residency scheme, coupling scientists with dance and performance artists, will be unveiled in November.

We are interested to know what you think of this kind of scheme. In the latest poll on the Physics World Facebook page, we ask the following question: Which of these statements best describes your opinion of art–science collaborations?

a) I love them, they’re fantastic
b) Hmm, some are great, some are not
c) They can be ok but often I don’t ‘get’ the point
d) Who cares? They’re a total waste of time

Take part by visiting our Facebook page. And please feel free to post a comment on the poll to describe your personal experiences of art–science collaborations.

In last week’s poll we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the publication of Rutherford’s seminal paper on the structure of the atom. Rutherford was an industrious researcher who many remarkable contributions to science, including three discoveries that revolutionized our view of matter. So we asked people to choose which of Rutherford’s discoveries they think was the greatest:

a) That atoms are not always stable (his Nobel-prize-winning work on radioactivity)
b) The atoms have the majority of their mass concentrated in a nucleus
c) The world’s first alchemy (converting nitrogen into oxygen)

The results were fairly conclusive with 76% of respondents believing that Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus was indeed his greatest contribution to science. 17% opted for his work on radioactivity and just 7% went for his later work on transmutation. The general sentiment was captured nicely in this comment from one of the respondents, Pradeep Sharma, who said: “Rutherford’s most important discovery is undoubtedly the nucleus of the atom. He is one of the rare breed of scientists who did his most important work after getting the Nobel prize.”

Become a Wikipedian!

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By Louise Mayor


Being online right now, chances are you’ve recently been to the fifth most visited site on the Web: Wikipedia.

I am happy to admit that I use Wikipedia frequently and find it very useful – particularly for physics. It’s great when I want an introduction to a phenomenon or technique, or to get the cogs going again on something I learned long ago at university.

However, I do remember a time when using Wikipedia was a bit more hit and miss. It was pot luck whether an article would be either well written and accessible, or an impenetrable wall of techno-speak and equations.

Now, thanks to more than a billion edits since Wikipedia’s inception, the odds of finding a well-written article are much higher and article quality continues to improve every day.

But there’s still a long way to go before the site’s eventual goal is achieved: to assemble a complete overview of human knowledge. And this is where you come in. Yes, you! With a lay or professional interest in physics, you are ideally placed to contribute.

According to Martin Poulter, a new media manager at the University of Bristol, and Mike Peel, an astrophysicist at the University of Manchester, it is rewarding work. In “Physics on Wikipedia”, an article published this month in Physics World, Poulter and Peel argue that if you have knowledge you can share, Wikipedia needs you.

Also, how about images you can share? You may be ideally placed, for example, to capture photographs of things the public would not normally be able to see, such as pieces of equipment or research facilities. The image at the top of this blog entry (By ESO/Yuri Beletsky (ybialets at ( CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons) is a great example of this, and was picture of the year 2010 on Wikimedia Commons, an online respository where you can upload your images for free use.

Read “Physics on Wikipedia” now to find out why you should click that edit button.

Special report: China

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By Matin Durrani

Ever since Physics World was launched by the Institute of Physics in 1988, we have sought to report on physics wherever it is going on in the world – first in our print magazine and then here on this website.

But with the huge recent expansion of physics research in China – which has included everything from next-generation telescopes to powerful synchrotron and neutron sources – we have, in turn, massively increased our coverage of the country’s physics.

We’ve now put together a new Physics World special report, which you can view online here, that draws together a selection of our recent news stories, features and careers articles published about physics in China.

Among the highlights is an exclusive interview with the chief scientist of China’s lunar programme and a profile of the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Beijing.

There’s also an analysis of the massive growth in scientific papers produced by researchers in China, who – at least, according to a recent study by the UK’s Royal Society – now publish more than 10% of the world’s total. Sadly, the rise in quantity has not always been accompanied by a rise in quality, with some unfortunate though high-profile examples of plagiarism.

Several of the articles are based on a week-long trip to Beijing that I went on earlier this year – it was my first visit to China and I found the country a fascinating place. I hope you find this special report equally stimulating and please do let me have your comments by e-mailing

View the special report now!

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A single particle from the Itokawa asteroid. Courtesy: Science/AAAS

By Tushna Commissariat

When you think about near-Earth asteroids, they mostly bring to mind discussions about how to blow them up or move them out of the way, if they are headed towards us, perhaps with an afterthought of Bruce Willis. It is rather strange to think of engineering a method to ‘capture’ a neighbouring asteroid into an Earth-bound orbit. But that is exactly what a recent paper published on the arXiv pre-print server is looking at.

The researchers, from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, have proposed coaxing a near-Earth object (NEO) into a “temporary capture”, such that it becomes a satellite of the Earth. A likely candidate for this type of acquisition would be an NEO with a low-energy orbit that can be captured by Earth with a slight increase in the asteroid’s velocity. The authors point out that some Jovian comets are routinely claimed by Jupiter, orbiting around the gas giant from one to several orbits, which would be a period of a few Earth years.

Unfortunately, this is not something that will occur with the Earth and any of its NEOs naturally. But some NEOs will be tauntingly close to Earth’s orbit and would require just a gentle nudge in the right direction. In the paper, the researchers consider the necessary conditions to artificially engineer this. They look at the mechanics of a three-body problem – the Sun, the Earth and the asteroid – and calculate at which orbital co-ordinates the capture would be successful and how much of a change in orbit and velocity, with respect to the NEO in question, would be required.

Using these parameters, they then listed possible candidates from the known NEOs. A candidate that caught their eye is a 10 m NEO that will pass within a million kilometres or so of Earth in 2049. Its orbital velocity is close enough to that of the Earth that it could be captured into an Earth-bound orbit by a velocity change of only 410 mps. This would allow it to orbit Earth at nearly twice the distance of the Moon, before it wanders off like Jupiter’s comets.

But what is the point of it, you ask? As the researchers themselves point out, “a 2 km-size metallic NEO, for example, may contain rich metals and materials worth more than 25 trillion dollars”. While the concept of mining an asteroid had been around for a while, a practical method has not been found. The recently returned Hayabusa mission from the Itokawa asteroid was delayed by three years and its final sample was of about 1000 particles of asteroid dust – more than enough for research but not exactly a bountiful harvest in terms of minerals (see image above). Having an asteroid “on a leash” would make it a lot easier to study and mine them.

What was Rutherford’s greatest discovery?

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By James Dacey

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This year is the 100 year anniversary since Ernest Rutherford published his seminal paper describing his discovery of the atomic nucleus. But Rutherford was an industrious researcher who many remarkable contributions to science, including three discoveries that revolutionised our view of matter.

Rutherford’s first major scientific work was to lead to him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances. One major experimental breakthrough during this period was to discover that thorium gave off an “emanation” that was radioactive. Essentially, Rutherford had discovered thorium gas.

Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in 1911, but by that time he had already spent 4 years working at the University of Manchester where he held the chair of physics for 12 years. It was during this time that Rutherford, working with colleagues including Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, carried out his famous scattering experiments, designed to probe the structure of the atom. The results led to Rutherford’s second “eureka moment” when he realised that the majority of an atom’s mass is concentrated in a relatively tiny volume at its centre — he had discovered the nucleus.

Rutherford’s third big contribution was to effectively become the world’s first alchemist when he transformed nitrogen into oxygen. This finding was a result of bombarding nitrogen gas with alpha particles so that higher energy protons were ejected.

Of course all three of these discoveries have transformed our view of atomic physics in different ways. But, just for a bit of fun, if you had to single out one of these three discoveries, which do you think is the greatest?

• That atoms are not always stable (his Nobel-Prize-winning work on radioactivity)

• The atoms have the majority of their mass concentrated in a nucleus

• The world’s first alchemy (converting nitrogen into oxygen)

Have your say and take part in our facebook poll. And feel free to post a comment on the poll to explain your reasoning.

IOP members can also watch this short feature length film about Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus. It includes interviews with keynote speakers at the Rutherford Centennial Conference, which was held in August at the University of Manchester.

In last week’s poll we asked posed a question that is highly pertinent to the big questions surrounding the future of astronomy and the financial situation in the US. We asked whether funding be reinstated on the $6.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is poised to be the successor to Hubble Space Telescope (JWST). The question arose following a move by the US congressional committee to cancel the project after a series of over-run costs. The findings of our poll, however, were highly conclusive as 90% of respondents voted that “yes, jeep the JWST”.