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June 2012 Archives

By James Dacey

Since my blog on the topic last week, speculation has intensified even further over whether CERN scientists are on the cusp of announcing the official discovery of the Higgs boson. The reason being that officials have announced an extraordinary scientific seminar to be held at CERN on 4 July, the eve of this year’s major particle-physics conference, ICHEP, in Melbourne. Journalists have been invited and promised updates from the LHC’s two main experiments looking for the Higgs – ATLAS and CMS.

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The seminar, announced last Friday, appears to be CERN’s response to avoid facing a potentially difficult quandary. In brief, the issue is as follows. Everybody knows that both CMS and ATLAS researchers have spent the first half of 2012 ploughing through new data. These LHC scientists are looking to either confirm, or to destroy, the bumps that appeared in their respective datasets last December, corresponding to a possible Higgs particle with an energy of roughly 125 GeV/c2.

If indeed they have both confirmed the particle to the gold-standard statistical level of “5-sigma significance” then they would surely have to reveal this to the physics community at the ICHEP conference. But from a political point of view, it would seem a bit odd to make the long-awaited Higgs discovery announcement in Australia, a country that is halfway across the world from the LHC and not a CERN member. Indeed, CERN’s PR guru James Gillies was quoted a couple of weeks ago as saying that the Higgs announcement will be made in Geneva. So the decision to hold this seminar next week is surely CERN’s way of making the announcement in Switzerland, while avoiding the need to withhold new science in Australia.

That said, perhaps it is not as clear-cut as the situation suggests. A source at CERN close to Physics World says that LHC scientists will not be declaring an official “discovery” unless both ATLAS and CMS have 5-sigma results that don’t disagree with each other. According to our source, for researchers to reach this point by 4 July “might be a tall order”. I reckon that if the scientists do not quite have the statistics for an official discovery – or indeed one or both of the two bumps have vanished – it could still make for an interesting seminar. But it will certainly leave the scientific leaders at CERN with a tough gig next Wednesday when sharing this news with the assembled journalists who have flown into Switzerland from around the world at fairly short notice.

So the question in this week’s poll is:

Will CERN scientists announce the discovery of the Higgs boson on 4 July?

Let us know by visiting our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your choice by posting a comment on the poll.

As excitement builds towards the seminar, you may want to hear Peter Higgs talk about his life in science and the search for the eponymous boson in a special audio interview with Physics World.

In last week’s poll we asked you whether CERN scientists should be encouraged to discuss ongoing LHC analyses with the outside world. It was fascinating to see that opinion was divided on this issue. 55% of respondents opted for “Yes, they should discuss the scientific process in the open”, while the other 45% went for “No, they should wait until conclusions are firmly established”.

The question was asked because amid all the recent speculation over the Higgs, there has been little on the blogs from the LHC researchers themselves over these latest developments in the Higgs hunt. You could argue of course that there are very good reasons for this, not least because this is an incredibly important and busy time in their scientific careers that requires complete focus. But on the other hand, if LHC scientists were to share their current thoughts with the outside world (outside the walls of the LHC experimental control centres) then it could provide a fantastic insight into how science really works.

The poll also attracted some interesting comments including this one from Larry E Jaynes who wrote: “By all means be as transparent as possible. It serves no purpose to talk about sigma confidence of findings when the public doesn’t have a clue as to what that represents. I say if it’s not ‘local confidence’ don’t improvise to fool the public.”

Thank you to everyone who participated and we look forward to your responses in this week’s poll.

Tau Bootis system
An artist’s impression of the Tau Boötis system. (Courtesy: ESO/L Calçada)

By Tushna Commissariat

It seems as if no sooner have I finished writing about exoplanets, then there is some more interesting news from the field and I am back at it.

Following last week’s story on the cosiest exoplanet system, today an international team of astronomers has used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to carry out a detailed study of the atmosphere of a large “hot Jupiter” exoplanet. Specifically, it is a non-transiting exoplanet – one that does not pass across the face of its parent star.

Transiting is one of the methods researchers use to look for exoplanets – by searching for small dips in a star’s light-curve that occur when a planet crosses its face during a “transit”. But using this method means we can only find planets that transit their stars from the point of view of Earth. Another method, the radial-velocity method, looks for changes in the radial velocity of the star – tiny shifts that occur because of the gravitational pull of a planet orbiting it. But this method does not give us any information about the planet’s atmosphere, as no spectrum is seen. Hot Jupiters are a class of exoplanets with masses that are close to or more that the mass of Jupiter. They tend to orbit close to their parent stars and are easily detected.

Now, astronomers have managed to directly capture the faint glow from one of the first detected exoplanets, Tau Boötis b, and have both studied its atmosphere and measured its orbit and mass precisely for the first time – in the process solving a 15-year-old problem. Surprisingly, the team also finds that the planet’s atmosphere seems to be cooler higher up, the opposite of what was expected. Tau Boötis b is one of the closest known exoplanets and was previously only detected using radial-velocity measurements of the system, so the atmosphere was unknown.

The team used the CRIRES instrument on the VLT and high-resolution spectroscopy results, combined with specialized algorithms that ignore the host star’s much stronger signal, to tease out the weak signal of the planet.

The team also probed the planet’s atmosphere and measured the amount of carbon monoxide present, as well as the temperature at different altitudes by means of a comparison between the observations and theoretical models. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the planet has an atmosphere with a temperature that decreases higher up, contrary to other hot Jupiters, which show “temperature inversion” – an increase in temperature with height.

The results prove that high-resolution spectroscopy from ground-based telescopes can be very useful for the detailed analysis of the atmospheres of non-transiting exoplanets. In the future, the detection of different molecules will allow astronomers to learn more about the planet’s atmospheric conditions. By making measurements along the planet’s orbit, astronomers may even be able to track atmospheric changes between the planet’s morning and evening.

The paper on the new work will be published in Nature.

(Courtesy: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

At first glance, the image above might remind you of a colour-perception test. But what one-time physicist and comic-designer Randall Munroe has done is to create a to-scale visualization of all the known 786 planets that we have discovered over the years – including the eight of our own system.

He has been particular enough to note that the size of some of these planets has been determined simply on the basis of their mass – meaning that they might, in actuality, be smaller and denser. Interestingly, this is not the first time that Munroe, who is behind the hugely popular webcomic, has had something to say about the billions and billions of exoplanets that we now know exist. In fact, in a previous comic, he talks about travelling in interstellar space, with one particular character agonizing about his partner’s apparent apathy over the wonder of all the worlds.

While Munroe’s newest comic is excellent, unfortunately, he is already out with the count. As of yesterday, the team behind NASA’s planet-finding Kepler telescope announced that it has found another two planets in its data. However, these two planets are caught in quite a clinch – they are closer to each other than any planetary system we’ve found to date.

The cosy system, mundanely called Kepler-36, contains two planets circling a subgiant Sun-like star that is several billion years older than the Sun. The inner world, Kepler-36b, is a rocky planet with a 14-day orbit. It is about 1.5 times the size of Earth and is 4.5 times as massive. The outer world, Kepler-36c, is a “hot Neptune” planet with a 16-day orbit that is 3.7 times the size of Earth and 8 times as massive.

The researchers point out that as the planets are so close to each other, from the surface of the smaller planet one would see the partner-planet as we see the Moon, only 4–5 times bigger, filling up its sky and presenting quite a spectacular view.

If Munroe’s first exoplanet comic does prove to be correct, I vote we point our spaceships towards this rather interesting system.

By Hamish Johnston

We have heard from a reliable source that CERN will be holding a press conference on 4 July. This is the first day of the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Melbourne, Australia, where physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are expected to unveil the latest results in their search for the Higgs boson.

Earlier this week the Physics World editorial team played out a few scenarios regarding how CERN would deal with the possibly that data presented in Melbourne would tip 2011’s preliminary sighting of the Higgs to “discovery status”.

A big problem with an “official announcement” in Australia is that the country is a “non-member” of CERN – and therefore it seems very unlikely that the discovery would be unveiled in a country that hasn’t paid a significant chunk of the LHC’s price tag. Also, CERN’s PR guru James Gillies is on the record as saying that the Higgs announcement will be made in Geneva.

The only option, it seemed, was for CERN to organize a press conference in Geneva before or during the Melbourne conference to announce the discovery – and it looks like that’s what it has done.

But this introduces another problem. The press conference is scheduled for 09.00 Geneva time, presumably because this is 17.00 Melbourne time. However, this is 02.00 at Fermilab in Chicago – which is keen to emphasize the huge role that lab has played in the hunt for the Higgs. Oh, and 4 July is a national holiday in the US. Apparently, the Americans are not pleased!

Well, that’s enough speculation…I’ve got to get my ticket to Geneva booked!

By James Dacey

With the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Melbourne just around the corner, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive over whether CERN scientists will be presenting findings that confirm last year’s initial sighting of the long-sought Higgs boson.

ICHEP will start on 4 July and will include presentations by scientists working on the two major experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that are searching for the Higgs particle: CMS and ATLAS. It is presumed that these researchers will be discussing new data that either support or destroy the bumps that appeared in the datasets of both CMS and ATLAS last December, which both corresponded to a Higgs particle with an energy of roughly 125 GeV/c2.

Speculation about the state of play in the LHC analysis has been going on via the usual suspects in the blogosphere. This includes the mathematical physicist Peter Woit, based at Colombia University in the US, who writes in this post about how he has heard from both CMS and ATLAS that they are seeing data that strengthen the bump from last year. Meanwhile, the independent physicist Philip Gibbs, located in the UK, ponders the statistical significance of the new results. He concedes that he does not know how much new data have been analysed but speculates that if both experiments have reached the gold-standard “5-sigma significance” then they will not be able to resist combining their results for the Melbourne conference. If they do indeed do this, then by the standards of particle physics they will effectively be announcing the Higgs discovery in Australia.

Interestingly, there has been little on the blogs from the LHC researchers themselves over these latest developments in the Higgs hunt. CMS physicist Tommaso Dorigo, who is never usually one to shy away from informed speculation, prefers to discuss predictions for the existence of the Higgs made in 2010. Another CMS research and blogger, Seth Zenz, actively tries to ward off speculation. He is critical of the New York Times for running a recent article with the headline, “New data on elusive particle shrouded in secrecy”. Zenz says that there is nothing to hide and he asks politely if we can all wait patiently for another couple of weeks for the ICHEP conference.

The extent to which this silence is CERN-sanctioned is unclear, but it does appear that LHC scientists have a (possibly unspoken) agreement to keep quiet about their analyses with the outside world. You could argue of course that there are very good reasons for this, not least because this is an incredibly important and busy time in their scientific careers that requires complete focus.

From a scientific communication point of view, I reckon you could argue it both ways. On the one hand it will be a lot “neater” to wait until the finding is beyond any doubt before announcing the discovery to great fanfare, embarking on the Higgs boson grand tour, scripting the Hollwood film, etc. But on the other hand, by depriving the general public of your thoughts (and by this I mean depriving anyone who is not involved with the LHC), you are depriving them of a fantastic insight into how science really works. As any researcher knows, the scientific process is messy. It’s about carefully tweaking experiments and rigorously testing statistical data. So, for CERN to remain quiet while it carefully choreographs a public discovery announcement could create a false impression of science as a series of “Eureka moments” occurring among a secret society of knowledgeable folk.

Let us know what you think in this week’s Facebook poll.

Should CERN scientists be encouraged to discuss ongoing LHC analyses with the outside world?

Yes, they should discuss the scientific process in the open
No, they should wait until conclusions are firmly established

Let us know by visiting our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your choice by posting a comment on the poll.

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In last week’s poll we asked you to place yourself in a scenario that could soon become a reality for a few certain people if the Higgs boson is confirmed. We asked you tell us what you think would be the best thing about winning a Nobel prize, by selecting one from a list of options. People responded as follows:

The recognition that my field would receive (43%)
Freedom to do the science that I want to do (30%)
Securing a place in the history of science (17%)
I wouldn’t want to win (6%)
The fame and all that comes with it (3%)

The poll also attracted some interesting comments, including some alternative benefits that could come from winning the prize. Alan Saeed wrote: “I think the most rewarding part of a Nobel prize is the inspiration that it will infuse in the young minds of the country from where the recipients came”. Robert Ley, in the UK, made the good point that: “It would be interesting to see if this poll returns the same result if the votes were made anonymously!” One commenter, who probably wouldn’t be altered by anonymity, is Alan Timme who wrote (possibly with his tongue in cheek) that the best thing about a Nobel prize would be: “Rubbing it in the face of my doubters!”.

Thank you for all your comments and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

Introducing Agent Higgs

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By Tushna Commissariat

“Dodging the physicists of the world is no easy task! You need all your wits about you, and the steady hand of a secret agent to stay out of sight.”

Agent Higgs
Agent Higgs

If that sentence has left you wondering who or what is hiding from physicists, apart from the so-called elusive Higgs boson, you have hit the particle on the head! In a bid to keep the Higgs even further from physicists’ clutches, physics educator turned science-related games designer Andy Hall has developed a game for iOS devices known as “Agent Higgs”.

“The whole world is after the elusive Higgs particle. Accelerators the size of cities are being used to create truly awesome concentrations of energy in a vast number of collisions. We’ve detected all the other particles of the Standard Model. Muons, quarks, neutrinos, the whole gambit. But not the Higgs. How is it avoiding detection?” asks the tantalizing game description. Well, apparently it’s thanks to the help of gamers the world over.

In the game, you are encouraged to help the Higgs hide from nosy particle detectors, by hiding “him” behind a slew of the other known subatomic particles such as electrons, neutrinos and muons. Hall, who set up TestTubeGames in 2011 in an attempt to make complex scientific topics fun and interesting, is hoping that Agent Higgs will introduce people to particle physics in a fun way.

According to Hall, “The rules of the game are based on the fundamental forces. Use the weak force to get particles moving, or to make them decay. Use the electromagnetic force to make particles attract or repel. The physics introduced in this game even extends to matter–antimatter annihilation and neutrino oscillation.”

The game has more than 100 levels that slowly and steadily introduce particle-physics laws that gamers can use to block the Higgs from the detector’s view. Hall says that he designed the game to be challenging yet engaging.

The game has been released worldwide through the iTunes Store and is priced at $0.99 in the US. You can download the game from the iTunes Store here.

And so to Oxford…

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Edward Cowie
Edward Cowie, left, after yesterday’s world première of Particle Partita.

By Matin Durrani

“I loved it, I really loved it.”

So said one guy to me on the lawns of Balliol College, Oxford, at the drinks reception that followed yesterday’s world première of what was dubbed “a ground-breaking arts–science collaboration themed around the elementary particles”.

The event was a one-hour scientific “performance–lecture” presented by Oxford University particle physicist Brian Foster and the Brit Award-winning violinist Jack Liebeck, in which the pair linked the ideas of particle physics with music.

The concept was simple. Foster presented a bite-sized history of particle physics in eight parts, all the way from Democritus’s idea of atoms right up to the current hunt for the Higgs boson at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. At the end of each part, Liebeck performed music specially written by the physicist, artist and composer Edward Cowie, with each of these eight short pieces reflecting – and being inspired by – the concepts just discussed by Foster.

Entitled Particle Partita, Cowie dubs the work “a sonic ‘history’ of particle physics” that follows the “ornate and beautiful actions and reactions” of particles’ charge, spin and symmetry. “It is a music of great complexity with many materials that re-emerge in altered but related forms from the opening to the close,” muses Cowie in the programme notes. Cowie also created special drawings for each piece that were displayed on a screen as Liebeck played in Oxford’s beautiful Holywell Music Room.

Drawing by Edward Cowie

The last of the eight pieces was a duet in which Liebeck was joined by Foster to perform “The Higgs boson – and beyond?”.

Foster and Liebeck are not, of course, new to the world of art–science collaborations, having been entertaining audiences for more than five years with their lectures Superstrings and Einstein’s Universe. Cowie, meanwhile, also collaborated with Bristol University’s Michael Berry in writing Rutherford’s Lights, a work for solo piano created as a homage to Ernest Rutherford.

Speaking in an interview with Physics World in 2010, Cowie wryly noted that many arts–science collaborations are “unholy marriages”. At turns sparse, dramatic and violent, the music of Particle Partita is certainly demanding of the listener, with Cowie himself admitting to me as we made our way in to yesterday’s first public performance that the music is “challenging”. One audience member, meanwhile, was overheard to say that the lecture went “right over my head”.

Particle Partita was commissioned with funds from the University of Oxford, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Institute of Physics, which publishes You can get a special, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the piece in this video we filmed last year.

Galactic mirage

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NGC 3314 galaxies

Trickster galaxies. (Courtesy: NASA/ESA/ W Keel, University of Alabama)

By Tushna Commissariat

Over the years we have seen some fantastic images of colliding or interacting galaxies. Images of the closely entwined Antenna Galaxies, the Whirlpool Galaxy interacting with its satellite galaxy and the cheesily named Mice galaxies have caught our attention in the past.

So what exactly is special about the image above of two seemingly overlapping galaxies – called NGC 3314 A and B – captured by the Hubble Space Telescope? They are a perfect example of “seeing is not always believing”, as the two galaxies are not interacting at all – in fact, they are tens of millions of light-years apart. The only reason that they look like part of a galactic pile-up is thanks to a celestial optical illusion – the two just happen to appear in that configuration from our point of view.

The main clue that led researchers to realize that there was no interplay between the two galaxies was their shapes. When galaxies are interacting, the enormous gravitational force of each galaxy distorts both galaxies out of their normal shapes, long before they even actually collide. These energetic distortions often affect the galaxies themselves, triggering new episodes of star formation that we observe as glowing nebulae.

In the case of NGC 3314, we do indeed see deformation in the foreground galaxy (NGC 3314 A), but this is a bit of a red herring. The distortion that is visible at the lower right of NGC 3314 A’s core, where one can clearly see streams of hot, blue-white stars extending out from the spiral arms, is not caused by any interaction with the background galaxy. Researchers think that the distortion is because of an encounter with another nearby galaxy to NGC 3314 A that can be seen in wide-field images.

Looking at the motion of both NGC 3314 galaxies, researchers say that the two are relatively undisturbed, and are moving independently of each other. This means that the galaxies are not, and indeed have never been, on any collision course.

Such a rare alignment of galaxies is proving useful to astronomers who want to study gravitational microlensing – another type of optical illusion that occurs when the gravitational field of a large astronomical body, such as star or a galaxy, causes small perturbations in the light coming from a more distant source, distorting it. Indeed, the observations of NGC 3314 that led to this image were carried out in order to investigate this phenomenon.

So while it does look very much as if the NGC 3314 galaxies are close-knit, they are nothing more than a chance alignment that gives us an interesting view.

By James Dacey

hands smll.jpg This week the Nobel Foundation revealed that the prize money received by laureates is to be slashed by 20% because of ongoing financial difficulties. The announcement comes two and a half years after the foundation first announced that it might need to reduce the size of prizes, because the global financial crisis led to losses in its assets. As of this year, the prizes will be cut from SEK 10m to SEK 8m (£729,000), marking the first reduction in the value of the prize since 1949.

On first reading this, it seemed strange – and perhaps a little sad – to learn that a prize as prestigious as the Nobel could be as vulnerable to the economic climate as anything else. But then surely recipients don’t really care about the money because the real incentive for winning a prize is the freedom you would gain as a scientist and the recognition among peers? Hmm, well I’m not so sure. From my own experience, along with anecdotal evidence, I know that prize winners and would-be prize winners certainly don’t overlook the size of the prize money, even if this is not their main motivation. After all, most of these academics are not millionaires to begin with.

We want you to share your feelings on this issue by imagining that you were in a position to become a Nobel laureate, for this week’s Facebook poll question.

What do you think would be the best thing about winning a Nobel prize?

I wouldn’t want to win
Freedom to do the science that I want to do
The recognition that my field would receive
Securing a place in the history of science
The fame and all that comes with it

Let us know by visiting our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your decision or suggest another benefit to winning the prize by posting a comment on the poll.

In last week’s poll we looked at the world of science fiction, by asking you to name your favourite author from the genre. It was a popular poll and it attracted some lively discussion, but the author who stole the crown in the end was the Russian-born American writer Isaac Asimov, attracting 56% of the vote. The other authors lined up as follows, Arthur C Clarke (17%), Ray Bradbury (8%), Stanislaw Lem (7%), Robert A Heinlein (6%) Larry Niven (3%), William Gibson (2%) and Kim Stanley Robinson (2%).

Thank you for all your contributions and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

Where physics meets sport

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David Schorah

By James Dacey

At its best, athletics is about sporting dramas. When leading athletes push their bodies to the limits it can create national heroes and inspire new generations of sports enthusiasts. But behind the stellar sporting performances there is also a lively arena of fascinating science and technology. In a new series of videos for Physics World we will take you on a scientific tour of three of the most fundamental and iconic sports: running, cycling and swimming. This week I travelled with a film crew to the north of England to visit the Centre for Sports Engineering Research (CSER), which is part of Sheffield Hallam University. It proved to be a fascinating experience.

One of the things we filmed was a physiology test with the British athlete David Schorah (above) who will be competing in the European student orienteering championships in Alicante, Spain, at the start of July. In this image you can see how Schorah’s blood-lactate levels are being monitored by researcher Alan Ruddock (left) as the athlete runs at progressively faster speeds. It was part of a series of tests to gauge Schorah’s base fitness level to help in the design of a short-term heat-acclimation training programme.

tracktalk.JPG The Physics World videos will also look at some of the other areas of science involving sport. We cover the work of the designers and engineers who create new sports equipment to enable and enhance athletes. One of these people based at the CSER is Steve Haake (image right, right), who trained as a physicist before focusing his attention on sports engineering. Back in 2000 Steve wrote this popular article for Physics World about sports technologies and the roles they play in performance, and he is writing again on this theme for the July issue of Physics World.

Being a keen sportsman himself, as well as a sharp scientist, Haake appears to have landed his ideal job at the CSER. So to put his mental and physical capacities to the test we whisked him off to Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium and I interviewed him about the science of running as we jogged several laps around the track. Still in his jumper and trousers, Haake barely broke sweat.

You will be able to see this interview as part of this sports video series when it appears on in the coming weeks.

One step closer towards European superscope

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An artist’s impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope,
on site at Cerro Armazones, Chile. (Courtesy: ESO/L Calçada)

By Tushna Commissariat

Although a site for the most ambitious project of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) – the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) – was picked in 2010, astronomers were not sure if the project would get the definite go-ahead. But yesterday, at a meeting at ESO’s headquarters in Garching, Germany, the ESO Council approved the construction of what is to be the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world.

The one remaining stumbling block is that four of ESO’s 12 member states – Belgium, Finland, Italy and the United Kingdom – have only provisionally voted in favour of the project. Construction will only begin when they have agreed and 90% of the €1083bn funding required has been secured. ESO says that the facility should then be able to start operations early within the next decade.

The 39.3 m diameter E-ELT will be about 80 m high, with a monstrous dome almost the size of a football stadium and a base diameter of about 100 m. It is planned to be tens of times more sensitive than any current ground-based telescope of its kind and will be built in Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO’s Paranal Observatory. ESO hopes that most of the funding, as well as the initial large-scale industrial contracts, will be approved by next year. Some contracts for specific parts that require a detailed design study have, however, already been signed.

With the E-ELT, astronomers will be primed to discover Earth-like extrasolar planets and to study the distribution of dark matter and dark energy, which are thought to make up most of our universe. John Womersley, chief executive of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, says that its commitment to the E-ELT “reflects its high priority in our science strategy, the world-leading position of the UK astronomy community, and the potential returns to UK industry”.

The physics of football

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By Matin Durrani

With storm-force winds and heavy rain battering the Physics World headquarters here in Bristol, UK, I can’t say I’ve really got that summer feeling at all.

But summer it is and today marks the start of UEFA Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, in which 16 of Europe’s top men’s international football teams fight it out to be crowned champions of Europe.

Spain, who won the tournament last time it was held in 2008, remain favourites in my book, but you can never write off the Germans in big competitions, while France and the Netherlands are in with a definite shout. As for England and Italy, I think both will struggle.

All of which is a decent excuse for me to remind you of one of Physics World’s most popular feature articles ever, entitled simply “The physics of football”, which you can read here.

Co-authored by Steve Haake from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, the article looks at why footballs can be made to swerve spectacularly through the air, using a famous 1997 free kick by legendary Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos as an example.

Struck 30 m from the opponents’ goal, the ball was heading so far wide of the net that a ball-boy, standing several metres to the right of the goal, instinctively ducked his head in response. Once the ball had cleared the wall of defenders, it took a wicked late swerve before arriving, astonishingly, in the top right-hand side of the net.

If Haake’s analysis of how this happened leaves you wanting more, then check out a paper published in 2010 by our colleagues on New Journal of Physics, which looked in greater detail at Carlos’s wonder goal.

And don’t forget this analysis by two US sports scientists of bending balls, which led to some interesting conclusions about another famous free kick, this time taken by David Beckham in 2001.

By Hamish Johnston

lemaitre lecture.jpg Last night while I was tidying the kitchen there was a lovely programme on BBC Radio 4 about the father of the Big Bang theory – the Catholic priest (and famous Belgian) Georges Lemaître.

The action begins in 1923 in a Cambridge drawing room where Lemaître first encountered the pioneering astrophysicist and cosmologist Arthur Eddington…you can listen to the rest here.

Apparently Lemaître was never seen without his dog collar, as you can see in this photograph of him lecturing at the Catholic University of Leuven, where he spent most of his professional life. (Photograph courtesy of the Catholic University of Leuven)

The transit of Venus – your pictures

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By James Dacey

Earlier this week people all across the world were presented with an opportunity to witness one of the rarest predictable astronomical events, as our neighbouring planet Venus cut across the face of the Sun as viewed from the Earth. If you missed this chance to see Venus silhouetted against the solar surface then unfortunately it is almost certain that you will never see it live again – the next transit will not occur until December 2117.

Fortunately, though, there are many keen photographers around the world who realized the rarity of what they were seeing and managed to capture some stunning photographs. Here is a selection of the images submitted to the Physics World photo challenge group on Flickr.

Venus Transit 2012
This image was taken near Lake Lavon in northern Texas, in the US. It was submitted by Flickr member R Hensley who says the shot was captured directly through the lens without any kind of filter, so I hope his eyes are okay.

Venus Transit

Patience and the ability to seize an opportunity when it arises are important traits for photographers to acquire. At least one of these traits is possessed by photographer Jube Wong who managed to capture this dramatic image of a seagull silhouetted against the backdrop of the transit of Venus.

_MG_4333, Transit of Venus
This image offers a more focused view of the transit itself and the level of detail is so crisp that you can also see some tiny sunspots where the solar surface is particularly volatile. It was taken in Kuwait by photographer Bron Gervais.

Transit of Venus
In addition to photos of the transit itself, we have seen a lot of great pictures of people experiencing the event and deploying a range of different strategies for observing the Sun without damaging their eyes. For instance, this image submitted by Judson Powers shows a man watching the transit on a home-made projector.

Transit of Venus 4
Then we have this image, taken by Bob McClure, in which we see three people watching the event in Arizona while wearing special glasses to filter out the harmful frequencies.

Start of the Transit of Venus
Many people around the world watched the event in special organized group viewings, such as this one at the Grand Rapids Public Museum in Michigan in the US. This image, submitted by Melter, shows the moment at which the transit began, as captured on a projector from the Michigan vantage point.

Transit of Venus
Peter Hoh submitted this image of another method for observing the transit by projecting it onto a piece of paper via a sunspotter.

Transit of Venus viewed in Wagga Wagga

Finally, we travel to Australia, one of the last places to witness the transit. This picture was taken by Flickr user Bidgee at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.

Who is your favourite science-fiction author?

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By James Dacey

hands smll.jpg I must confess that throughout school and university I could never warm to science-fiction books. On the several occasions when I did attempt to read these stories, I found that I would quickly get bored, as I simply could not engage with the zany characters and situations that all seemed so cold and detached from my own everyday experiences. And in many cases I quickly became irritated by the tone of these authors, who to my mind seemed more intent on demonstrating how wickedly clever they were than actually bothering to craft a decent story. And then I discovered Ray Bradbury.

It was courtesy of my parents, who bought me The Illustrated Man as a Christmas present. My mum, a literature lover with no particular interest in science, told me that this was a great collection of short stories about people, which just happen to be set in distant places or futures. She was absolutely right and I was soon gripped by these imaginative tales with their familiar characters and surprisingly simple plots.

For instance, I loved “The Long Rain”, a story about some explorers who become stranded on Venus, a planet where it is never ceases to pelt down acidic rain. Their only hope of survival is to reach one of the man-made “Sun domes”, where they can take refuge before they are driven to insanity by the rain. In another story, “The Man”, a group of astronauts from Earth travels for years before landing on a distant planet. To the travellers surprise/disappointment they discover that this world has been paid a visit only the previous day by a Jesus-like character who has managed to enlighten the entire population. The story then becomes focused on the varying reactions of the astronauts to the situation.

In short, my experience of reading Bradbury transformed my view of science fiction. I now realize that it is a very broad genre that overlaps with other types of fiction that I knew I already enjoyed.

So with the sad news that Bradbury died this week, I thought it would be a nice idea to dedicate this week’s Facebook poll to science fiction, by asking you to select your favourite author from the genre. Now, despite my fairly recent change of heart, I’m still a very long way from being any sort of expert in the science-fiction field. So I asked a colleague here at Physics World with a passion for literature to draw up a list of some of the undoubted greats of the genre. This is what we have:

Isaac Asimov
Ray Bradbury
Arthur C Clarke
William Gibson
Robert A Heinlein
Stanislaw Lem
Larry Niven
Kim Stanley Robinson

Please vote for your favourite by visiting our Facebook page. And, of course, feel free to explain your choice or suggest an alternative author by posting a comment on the poll.

In last week’s Facebook poll we asked you to express your opinion on the recent announcement that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope will be constructed in both South Africa and Australasia. This “split-site” decision by the SKA committee came as a bit of a surprise, given that the past few years have seen South Africa and Australasia battling it out with independent bids to host the telescope.

The decision, however, is popular with the people who took part in our poll, as 93% of respondents selected the option “Yes, it is a good compromise”. Just 5% believe that SKA should be built exclusively in South Africa, and only 2% believe it should be built exclusively in Australia. Thank you for all your responses and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

Your guide to the nanotech world

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By Matin Durrani

June 2012 cover If you’re too busy to keep up to date with all the latest research findings in the ever-growing field of nanotechnology, then the latest Physics World focus issue is the place to get up to speed.

The focus issue, which can be read here, has been produced in association with our sister publication and examines some of the latest advances and applications in nanotechnology.

Published in addition to our monthly magazine, the focus issue includes our pick of the top 20 applications of graphene – the amazing carbon nanomaterial that led to the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics.

There is advice for anyone thinking of founding a nanotech start-up, a look at the potential of using nanotubes to generate “thermopower waves” and a report on sculpting materials at the nanoscale.

It also includes a video filmed at the Manchester University lab of Andre Geim, where the Nobel-prize-winning graphene work was carried out, showing how this ultrathin 2D carbon material is made.

The message of the issue is clear: nanotechnology is swiftly moving beyond pure research and scientists are finally reaping the benefits of new nanomaterials.

As always, let me know your comments on any of the topics covered by e-mailing me at

Click here to access the issue.

The June 2012 issue of Physics World is out now

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By Matin Durrani

June 2012 cover For any publication, it is never wise to spend too much time talking about itself. In the case of Physics World, our main aim is to reflect and report on the breakthroughs, events, personalities and issues in the global physics community – and to do so in a timely, accessible, accurate and entertaining way. Still, it seems churlish for me not to highlight the fact that Physics World has been named “best magazine” in the “professional association or royal college” category by MemCom – a UK-based organization that supports membership societies, charities and not-for-profit bodies.

As for the new issue, which is just out, my pick this month is the wonderfully written feature by Pablo Arrighi and Jonathan Grattage on the idea that our universe can be modelled as a giant computer. Their article is mind-boggling and certainly raises as many questions as it answers. You can read the article here but to enjoy the article and images in all their glory, remember that members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can access the entire new issue online free of charge through the digital version of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.

Here’s a rundown of other highlights of the issue.

India sticks to the thorium trail – A three-stage plan that will see India generate nuclear power from its vast reserves of thorium is gaining ground, but huge challenges remain ahead, as Matthew Chalmers reports.

The only woman in town – As the only female physics faculty member based at the University of Tokyo, Mio Murao talks to Michael Banks about the challenges Japan faces in getting more women into the subject.

Quantum guidebooks – Fresh from his appearance in the latest Physics World podcast, which examined the enduring popularity of books about quantum mechanics, Robert P Crease surveys the many tour guides to the quantum world.

Fixing the climate – While nations attempt to limit global warming by reducing carbon emissions, Colin Baglin argues that such actions will fail to solve the problem if geoengineering is not used in the short term.

Bringing down the trash – The density of junk orbiting the Earth is at or near a critical value beyond which this man-made debris will self-perpetuate, forming many smaller pieces that are even more of a problem. Stephen Ornes reports on the latest ideas about how to bring down the trash.

Now we’re cooking – From the very first oven to the foamed foods of modernist cuisine, physics has played a dominant role in food throughout history. But now the subject has the potential to solve a major global cooking issue, says Sidney Perkowitz.

Changing the Hamiltonian – Trained to understand particles rather than people, physicists who become managers often struggle with human-resources challenges such as motivating and developing employees. Properly applied, however, a knowledge of physics can be a management boon, not a burden, as Graham Boyd demonstrates.

Twin-tub theoryKevin McGuigan recalls his near-horror with his mam’s washing machine.

If you’re not yet a member, you can join the IOP as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year via this link. Being an IOPimember gives you a full year’s access to Physics World both online and through the apps.