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August 2012 Archives

Supporting the careers of physics postdocs

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By Margaret Harris

If you want to pursue a career in physics, it might help if you like to move around. Last week’s Facebook poll asked what steps you had taken in order to pursue your career in physics, and the most popular responses – by, ahem, a country mile – involved moving to a new location. A lot of those moves involved significant distances, too, with 38% of the 110 poll respondents having moved more than 500 miles at least once in their career, while 13% had moved a shorter distance.

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The most popular non-geographic change, according to the poll, was switching to a different field of research: 19% of respondents had done this. Changing sectors – the example given was moving from academia to industry – was much less popular among poll respondents, with only a handful (5%) having made this type of move.

Respondents who picked the last two options in the poll – “two of the above” and “three or more of the above” – are harder to categorize because there is obviously going to be some overlap. Nevertheless, the 8% of respondents who picked “three or more” must have moved locations, too, and it seems likely that at least some of the 16% who selected “two of the above” will have done so as well. The total figure, then, is around two-thirds, give or take a few per cent.

In retrospect, I wish I had included a “none of the above” option in the poll. I suspect there aren’t many professional physicists out there who have stayed in one location, field and sector for their entire careers, but you never know. If you are one of them, please accept my apologies for not giving you the option of saying so.

This week’s poll is a bit more abstract, and like the poll we presented two weeks ago about choosing a postdoctoral position, it focuses on early-career researchers.

Which of the following actions would be most helpful to physics postdocs?

Better advice on career options outside academia
More training in transferrable skills
Longer-term contracts (e.g. three years rather than one)
Creating more mid-level “permanent postdoc” jobs
Improved support for postdocs with spouses and families

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response or give us more suggestions by posting a comment below the poll or by e-mailing us at

By Margaret Harris

 Physics in fiction podcast

From science-fiction epics such as H G Wells’ The Time Machine to Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, physics has long been a rich source of themes and characters for fiction writers.

In our latest books podcast, we discuss four recent additions to the “physics in fiction” genre, including works of historical fiction about Newton and Kepler, a thriller about the world of mathematical finance and a novel about the creation of the universe.

Find out how they measure up by listening to the podcast here or downloading it via this link.

Special Report: Japan

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By Michael Banks

Japan is certainly not resting on its laurels in maintaining its world-leading position in physics.

Only last week a Japanese government committee on high-energy physics released the English-language version of its highly anticipated report looking into the country’s particle-physics research programme for the coming decade.

 Physics World Special Report: Japan

The 19-member committee not only recommended that Japan should take a lead in the design for a collider to study the Higgs boson, such as the International Linear Collider, but also that it should lead on plans to build a large-scale neutrino facility to study charge–parity violations in neutrino oscillations.

It is exactly for this reason – Japan’s history as a leading nation in physics – that we decided to take a closer look at physics in the country. Not only the many successes it has enjoyed, but also what challenges it faces in staying ahead.

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 articles about physics in Japan. Several of the articles are based on a week-long road trip to Japan that I went on earlier this year that included visiting Tokyo and Osaka.

In the issue we look, for example, at a major upgrade to Japan’s famous KEKB collider, a new asteroid-sample-return mission, as well as the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser. But Japan also faces many challenges to its world-beating status in physics, including how to entice foreign scientists to work and study in the country as well as attracting more women into physics.

I hope you find this special report stimulating and please do let us have your comments by e-mailing

Here’s a rundown of what’s inside.

• Recovering from the quake – I discuss how Japan’s World Premier Institutes – set up to attract international researchers – have fared following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011

• The only woman in town – Mio Murao of the University of Tokyo explains how to get more women interested in physics in Japan

• Japan’s X-ray vision for the future – I travel to the remote SACLA facility, which houses the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser

JAXA pushes for asteroid encore – Dennis Normile looks at plans to launch a second asteroid-sample-return mission after Japan’s successful Hayabusa probe

• Getting a grip on antimatter – Yasunori Yamazaki of the RIKEN laboratory in Tokyo describes his research on antimatter

• Coping with “Galapagos syndrome” – although Japan has introduced a number of reforms to reverse a trend of increasing isolation, some fear they may not be enough, as Dennis Normile reports

• Revamping Japan’s atom smasher – with the KEKB facility in Tsukuba undergoing a major upgrade, I describe how it could one day help to explain why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe

Scientists see saccharin star

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Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in the infrared

(Courtesy: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L Calçada (ESO) and NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team)

By Tushna Commissariat

A team of astronomers in Denmark has spotted sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star. And why is finding sugar in the gas surrounding a star important, you ask? It’s important because it tells us that complex organic molecules, like the sugars, that form the building blocks of life can be found around young stars at the time when planets could be begin to form around them.

The team found molecules of one of the simplest form of sugar – glycolaldehyde – in the gas surrounding a young binary star known as IRAS 16293-2422, which has a mass similar to that of the Sun. While the sugar has been found in space before – within our galaxy itself – this is the first time it has been found in close proximity to a star; in fact, it’s as close to IRAS 16293-2422 as Uranus is to the Sun. This discovery shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this system at the time of planet formation. IRAS 16293-2422 is also located only about 400 light-years away from us – a mere hop, skip and jump in astronomical terms, making it an excellent target for astronomers studying the molecules and chemistry around young stars.

“In the disc of gas and dust surrounding this newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde, which is a simple form of sugar, not much different to the sugar we put in coffee,” explains Jes Jorgensen from the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, who was the lead researcher of the team that used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe the star. “This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which – like DNA, to which it is related – is one of the building blocks of life.”

The image above shows the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in the infrared, as seen by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE). IRAS 16293-2422 is the red object in the centre of the small square. The inset image is an artist’s impression of glycolaldehyde molecules, showing glycolaldehyde’s molecular structure (C2H4O2).

“What it is really exciting about our findings is that the ALMA observations reveal that the sugar molecules are falling in towards one of the stars of the system,” says team member Cécile Favre of Aarhus University in Denmark. “The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction.”

Jorgensen further explains that the gas and dust in clouds surrounding newly formed stars is initially extremely cold (only around 10 degrees above absolute zero at –273 °C) and simple gases such as carbon monoxide and methane settle on particles of dust and solidify as ice, and only after this occurs are more complex molecules formed. The newly formed star then heats its neighbourhood, evaporating the complex molecules from the dust and gas, and these molecules are then detected as radio emissions at low frequencies by telescopes such as ALMA.

“A big question is how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets? This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and the ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery,” concludes Jorgensen.

Stephen Hawking to narrate Paralympics opening

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By Hamish Johnston

While the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics did a wonderful job of highlighting what was great about Britain (and Northern Ireland), I couldn’t help thinking that the nation’s scientists were short-changed. While the ceremony celebrated the industrial revolution, there was no reference to the great British scientists who developed the scientific groundwork that made it possible.

Now it looks as if Britain’s scientists will bask in the glory of this evening’s opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics – with Stephen Hawking playing a prominent role. Co-directed by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, the ceremony begin at 20:30 BST and is called “Enlightenment” – and yes, it refers to the Enlightenment!

The British press is reporting that it will include references to British scientific giants of that era – with the Daily Telegraph quoting London Olympics and Paralympics head Sebastian Coe as saying “It focuses on that extraordinary period in European history and the great intellectual revolution that took place…Everything from Newton making sense of gravity and motion to Napier with logarithms and Harvey with blood circulation.”

Logarithms – I can’t wait, and if that isn’t enough excitement, the BBC reports that Stephen Hawking will provide some of the narration for the ceremony. “We worked very closely with Professor Hawking to develop a series of messages that are very much integrated into the storytelling of the ceremony,” the BBC quoted Hemmings as saying.

By Hamish Johnston

Semiconductor diode lasers are everywhere. They created the light pulses that raced along the fibres between our server and yours – allowing you to read this article – and if you stop at the supermarket on the way home, their light will read the barcodes on your purchases.

diode laser.jpg A few years ago I would have also pointed out that CD and DVD players rely on diode lasers, but those once-revolutionary technologies have already become passé while diode lasers have gone on to new and exciting applications such as healthcare.

So what does the image on the right – which looks more like a bent paperclip than a state-of-the-art laser – have to do with this revolutionary technology? It is the first diode laser (also called an “injection laser”) and was made in 1962 at the Lebedev Institute in Moscow. The institute was home to a group of scientists formed in 1957 by Nikolay Basov with the aim of creating a semiconductor laser. The team succeeded, and Basov’s pioneering efforts in the development of lasers earned him a share of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Physics – along with his institute colleague Aleksandr Prokhorov and Charles Townes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One member of Basov’s team was Yuri Popov, who is still at the institute and who has written a historical account of the group’s effort for a special issue of the journal Semiconductor Science and Technology – published by IOP Publishing, which also produces Physics World.

As well as historical papers documenting the development of the diode laser, the special issue also contains a number of invited papers that look at a range of contemporary research, including quantum-dot-based lasers and cascade lasers for the generation of terahertz radiation.

And if you can’t get enough about diode lasers, the Institute of Physics is putting on a conference in Leicester in September called The Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Diode Laser.

By Margaret Harris
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In last week’s Facebook poll, we asked for your views on the most important criterion for choosing a postdoc position. The results weren’t quite what I had expected. While it makes sense that “institutional resources” came out on top – you can’t do much experimental physics without lab space and equipment, and theory is certainly easier if you’ve got a good bunch of colleagues – I was surprised by how much it outpaced the other poll options. A whopping 65% of voters rated “institutional resources” as the most important factor, with “prestige” of the supervisor and institution coming a distant second and third at 17% and 13%, respectively.

But the thing that really puzzled me was the low emphasis placed on “location”, which picked up a measly 5% (three votes out of 63). Are physicists really not that fussy about where they go to do postdoctoral research?

To find out, I’ve constructed this week’s Facebook poll so that it focuses on mobility – both geographic and intellectual.

What steps have you taken to pursue your career in physics?

Moved to a new location (less than 500 miles away)
Moved to a new location (more than 500 miles away)
Changed my field of research or expertise
Switched to a different sector (e.g. from academia to industry)
Two of the above
Three or more of the above

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response or give us more suggestions by posting a comment below the poll or by e-mailing us at

Thomas Kuhn book.jpg

By Hamish Johnston

“Great books are rare. This is one. Read it and you will see.”

That’s the opening paragraph of an introductory essay included in the 50th anniversary edition of Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was first published in August 1962 by University of Chicago Press. About 1.4 million copies of the book have been sold and it was recently described by the Observer as “one of the most influential books of the 20th century”.

The introductory essay is written by the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking, who explores how Kuhn’s ideas have changed our view of the scientific process over the past five decades – and how controversial they were when the book was first published.

Kuhn was an American physicist who was born in 1922 and died in 1996. His career took an important turn in the 1950s when he taught a course at Harvard University on the history of science.

At the time, science was seen as a cumulative process in which knowledge is built up gradually. As such, it should have been possible for Kuhn to look back over the ages and conclude that the ancient Greeks understood X% of mid-20th century physics, while Newton understood Y%.

Instead, he realized that the way he understood physics was fundamentally different from how an ancient Greek philosopher understood physics. Indeed, he found it impossible to compare the science of ancient Greece with that of the mid-20th century – a property he later called “incommensurability”.

Fascinated by these ideas, Kuhn gave up physics and focused first on the history of science and then its philosophy.

Central to Kuhn’s analysis is the idea that our understanding of the universe has evolved in a series of discontinuities in which an intellectual framework (or paradigm) is built up, only to be brought crashing down in a crisis in which it becomes clear that theory is incapable of describing nature. An example familiar to physicists is the failure in the early 20th century of classical mechanics and electromagnetics to explain what we now understand as quantum physics. The two paradigms are incommensurate because quantum concepts such as superposition and entanglement simply do not exist in classical physics.

The intervals between these “paradigm shifts” – a much used and abused phrase popularized by Kuhn – are dubbed as periods of “normal science”, in which scientists work within a paradigm and solve “puzzles” that are thrown up when observation doesn’t quite agree with theory. This is exactly where particle physicists have been for the last 50 years with the Standard Model. Although many hope the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will deliver observations that will put particle physics into a period of crisis, so far it has discovered exactly what it was expected to discover.

Indeed, it must be the fear of some particle physicists that the LHC will end up being an extremely expensive puzzle solver rather than a shifter of paradigms.

Sláinte to science

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By Margaret Harris

I didn’t make it over to Ireland in mid-July for the big 2012 European Science Open Forum (ESOF) conference/science party in Dublin, so I was pleased to see one of ESOF’s more unusual offshoots land in my in-tray this week.

2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines is a lightweight little book with some hefty thinking inside it. As the title implies, the book contains 20 short poems about science – each written by a different poet from the island that gave the world such scientific luminaries as John Bell, William Rowan Hamilton and George Stokes. The poems’ subject matter ranges from the cosmic to the whimsical to the mundane, and two of the entries are composed of six lines in Irish Gaelic paired with six-line English translations. One that I particularly like (even though – or perhaps because – my pronunciation skills aren’t up to speaking it in the original) is called “Manannán”, and author Gabriel Rosenstock has provided the following translation:

Ladies and gentlemen
Allow me to introduce Manannán:
A microchip which is planted in the brain
Enabling us
To speak Manx

The book has been edited by Iggy McGovern, a physicist at Trinity College Dublin, so naturally, physics features in a number of the poems. One of the most inventive of these is Maurice Riordan’s “Nugget”, which is about – yes, really – the gold-covered lump of plutonium that Los Alamos scientists occasionally used as a doorstop during the Manhattan Project. Two others try to capture the sense of wonder found in gazing up at the night sky (with or without a telescope). All in all, it’s a lovely little book for anyone interested in Ireland, poetry or science – or better yet, all three.

By Tushna Commissariat

We’re taking a slightly different tack with our Facebook polls over the next few weeks, with a series of polls focused on careers. More specifically, we’re after your views on postdocs – that crucial stage of an academic physicist’s career that lies between earning a PhD and finding (or, in many cases, not finding) a permanent academic post.
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This is a topic that’s been in the news a lot lately, with a growing number of voices arguing that there is something seriously wrong with an academic career path that supports large numbers of PhDs and postdocs but produces very few permanent or tenure-track academic jobs for them to move into. We’ll look into that a bit more over the next few weeks, and if you have a personal experience of postdoc-hood – good or bad – that you’d like to share, please get in touch via For this week’s Facebook poll, however, we’ve got a comparatively simple question that anyone – not just postdocs – can answer.

What is the most important criterion when choosing a postdoc position?

Institutional resources
Prestige of supervisor
Prestige of institution

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response or give us more suggestions by posting a comment below the poll.

Last week we asked you which planet from our solar system, apart from the Earth, you find the most captivating. Unsurprisingly, Mars came out on top with about 38% of votes, followed by 20% for Jupiter, 14% for Venus, and 12% for Saturn, while 10% of you felt that exoplanets are a much more interesting option. Sadly, Uranus got only four votes, Neptune three votes and Mercury just the one vote. So it looks like Mars is still captivating Earth.

Thank you to everyone who took part and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

Giving physics some soul

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The Congregation

The Congregation performing live (Hooper is fourth from right). (Courtesy: D T Kindler)

By Michael Banks

It seems as if Fermilab physicist Dan Hooper has finally hit the big time. Not for his latest theory on the Higgs boson or dark matter but rather through his involvement in the soul band The Congregation.

Guitarist Hooper formed the band about three years ago and it now consists of a drummer, bass player, singer, horn player and keyboard player.

On 9 August the “60s-era soul band” opened a joint gig by the US rock bands Garbage and the Flaming Lips in Madison, Wisconsin. “The show went great – although we did get some rain,” Hooper told “We were well received, and had a great time.”

Not resting on their laurels, the band is getting ready to release its latest album on 28 September. Right Now Everything will be available to buy on the band’s website.

Hooper, who goes by the stage name Charlie Wayne and who also writes the band’s lyrics, says that the band steers clear of anything physics related, as well as any rock-band antics. “We don’t do a lot of smashing guitars and such anymore,” says Hooper.

So will the band’s success force Hooper to give up his physics career? “I can’t imagine doing that,” he says. “Doing physics is the best job someone like me could have – even compared with playing rock and roll for a living.”

Up, up and away

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By Matin Durrani

The Physics World editorial team has been to a fair few places in the last couple of years as we try to make some interesting, entertaining and (hopefully) informative films about the world of physics.

We’ve been inside CERN to investigate the latest in the search for the Higgs boson. We’ve travelled to major international conferences from San Francisco to Boston. And then there was the time we went one mile underground to a dark-matter experiment in the north of England.

Yesterday, however, we shot a set of new films at this year’s Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, where thousands of people gather to watch as a series of hot-air balloons take off over a four-day period.

balloon fiesta

balloon fiesta

So what, you might wonder, is the link with physics? Well, as Alan Watson describes in this new article, this week marks the centenary of the discovery – during a balloon flight – by the Austrian physicist Victor Hess of what we now know as cosmic rays.

Physicists from the University of Bristol, led by David Cussans, decided to use the fiesta as an opportunity to showcase not only the centenary but also a new project that has allowed school pupils to build their own cosmic-ray detector.

The university launched two balloons, one of which you can see being filled with hot air (right). No, don’t ask me the cost in wasted greenhouse gases.

Sadly we didn’t hitch a ride in either of the balloons, but three of the pupils who were involved in the detector-building project were on board, as were three others who won a competition to take part in the flight.

As you can see, the view from the balloon over the festival site was fabulous.

balloon fiesta

Although Physics World editors didn’t manage to thumb a lift, a copy of the August issue of Physics World, which contains Watson’s article, did make the trip.

balloon fiesta

The pupils even took their detector in the balloon, but unfortunately – as is the way with experimental physics – someone had accidentally left the battery running and it had discharged completely so no data could be collected during the flight. Oops.

Apart from that, as we discovered when we returned to the fiesta this morning, the flight was a success and took the pupils and crew to a height of some 3000 m.

We’ll now set about turning our footage into a set of films, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, for more about the cosmic-ray centenary, don’t forget the Physics World feature.

All pictures courtesy: Beth Cotterell

By Tushna Commissariat

Earlier this week, NASA’s $1bn Curiosity rover landed on Mars and successfully started sending back data. The mission has taken a mammoth team of hundreds of scientists and engineers more than eight years to build and it promises to provide new insights into the Martian landscape while looking for conditions that could host life as we know it.

The rover can travel about 200 m per day and the current mission is expected to last about 687 Earth days or one Martian year. Being much heavier than previous rovers sent to Mars, Curiosity was lowered to the planet’s surface using a retro-rocket-firing “sky crane” that slowly deposited the car-sized rover. The unique and ultimately successful landing had people worldwide excited by the idea of travelling to other worlds once more.

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Around the same time, it was revealed (albeit unofficially) that the Indian government has approved the country’s first ever mission to Mars, with a launch planned for November 2013 from the country’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the island of Sriharikota using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The £70m mission would follow just four years after India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission and the expected 500 kg orbiter would study Martian geology and climate. The mission has already been allocated £26m in the country’s science budget.

In the light of the current interest in sending robots or travelling to other planets in our solar system, this week we are asking you which planet you find the most captivating. Please let us know your opinion by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll.

Which is the most scientifically interesting planet in our solar system, apart from the Earth?

None of the above – exoplanets are more interesting

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response or give us more suggestions by posting a comment below the poll.

In last week’s poll we asked you what would be the most beneficial way of spending $27m on physics, were you feeling very generous, in light of the newly established Fundamental Physics Prize. Of the 216 of you who voted, almost 60% thought that the money would be best spent by investing in a research institute, with another 21% supporting high-school education, 11% voting for funding numerous PhDs, 4% voting for funding goal-oriented competitions and 1% voting for awarding the money to high-achieving scientists – the category that the money is actually used for!

Thank you to everyone who took part and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

By Matin Durrani

It’s probably because he was born and raised in Bristol, UK – the city where Physics World is based – that my colleagues and I perhaps give a disproportionate amount of coverage to Paul Dirac compared with other great theoretical physicists of the 20th century.


But although Dirac did his most famous work at the University of Cambridge, where he was Lucasian professor for more than 35 years, it is nevertheless true to say that his approach to science was forged by his educational experiences in Bristol, as Graham Farmelo’s classic 2009 biography makes clear.

Dirac studied for two separate degrees in engineering and mathematics at the University of Bristol and before that gained a wealth of practical experience, particularly in the art of technical drawing, when he was a pupil at Merchant Venturers’ Technical College – an institution that was the forerunner of today’s Cotham School.

Given that 8 August is the day on which Dirac was born back in 1902, I thought today an appropriate moment to mention an interesting new artwork (see right, click to enlarge) that is currently on show at Cotham School.

Created by Eric Hardy, the work is an alternative version of the traditional end-of-year school photograph and consists of a pixelated image of Dirac himself. All the pixels, however, have been replaced by photos taken in 2010 – when Hardy was still at Cotham School – of fellow pupils, teachers and other members of staff.

“As such it connects the past to the present, the individual to the collective,” says Hardy’s father Tim.

The original artwork, which is printed on a canvas about 100 × 90 cm in size, was on display at the school in May when its other great former pupil – the University of Edinburgh theorist Peter Higgspaid a visit.

If you can’t make out Dirac in the image, try scrunching up your eyeballs.

And talking of Dirac, don’t forget that today is also the day that the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste awards its annual Dirac prize, which this year went to Duncan Haldane, Charles Kane and Shoucheng Zhang for their work on a new class of exotic materials called “topological insulators”.

By Hamish Johnston

In the autumn of 1989 I was doing what many physicists were also doing at the time – I was trying to get deuterium atoms to fuse together in a solid after hearing about the work of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. Working at the University of Utah, the pair used electrolysis to “load” metal electrodes with deuterium and claimed to have seen excess heat and particles that could be interpreted as by-products of nuclear fusion. This process was dubbed “cold fusion” and was touted in the popular press as a solution to the world’s energy problems – if only it was…

Fusion normally occurs at extremely high temperatures and therefore it was very difficult to understand how the nuclei could overcome the considerable electrostatic repulsion in order to fuse. A popular explanation at the time was that the positive charges of deuterium nuclei within a solid such as palladium were screened by the negatively charged electrons in the metal, thereby allowing two nuclei to get close enough to fuse.

Like the hundreds of others worldwide, my little experiment found no evidence for cold fusion. With the exception of a few diehard enthusiasts, interest in cold fusion has since withered. Indeed, for physicists of my generation, the cold-fusion saga was a public embarrassment and an example of “bad science” – so much so that even legitimate investigations into its possibility are still viewed by many with scorn.

Fleischmann died on Friday at the age of 85 in England, where he had arrived from his native Czechoslovakia in 1938. I find it sad to think that things could have been so very different for him – and humanity – if he had indeed discovered cold fusion.

Early image of Mars from Curiosity

An early view of Mars from Curiosity. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Hamish Johnston

It cost about one billion dollars and took hundreds of scientists and engineers more than eight years to build – and earlier today NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars and is now sending back images.

The above photograph is one of first sent back by Curiosity. It was taken through a wide-angle lens on the left “eye” of a stereo pair of “hazard-avoidance” cameras on the rover. The object on the right of the image is one of the rover’s wheels.

The image is in black and white and is taken at a relatively low resolution. Larger colour images from higher-resolution cameras should be beamed back to Earth later this week when Curiosity’s mast is deployed.

Because it is five times heavier than NASA’s previous Martian rovers, Curiosity was winched down to the surface of the planet by a retro-rocket-firing “sky crane”.

“Ambitious, audacious and unconventional” is how one NASA scientist described the landing.

Curiosity landed on target in a huge crater, where it will look for evidence that the local area has – or ever had – conditions that could support life. The rover will be able to travel up to 200 m per day and the mission is expected to last one Martian year or 687 Earth days.

During that time it will use a suite of scientific instruments to study the Martian soil and atmosphere. Curiosity’s alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer was built by a team led by the physicist Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph in Canada – my alma mater. Guelph physicists have a long history of using X-ray spectroscopy to study everything from precious works of art to Martian rocks and it was learning about this work many years ago that first got me interested in the practical applications of physics.

Pier Oddone to step down as Fermilab’s director

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By Tushna Commissariat


Fermilab’s director, Pier Oddone (right, image courtesy Fermilab) announced yesterday that he is retiring, after heading one of the world’s biggest particle physics laboratories for eight years. Oddone will continue in his role as director until July 2013, which ought to give a committee appointed by the Fermi Research Alliance (FRA) board of directors, who manage the lab, plenty of time to find a suitable successor. Oddone joined Fermilab as its fifth director in 2005, after a long stint at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he also served as lab director for a time.

His time at Fermilab has been a busy and fruitful one, with many successes for the lab’s Tevatron collider, from contributions towards finding the Higgs boson to neutrino experiments, as well as research at the cosmic frontier.

“During Pier’s eight years as director, Fermilab has made remarkable contributions to the world’s understanding of particle physics,” says Robert Zimmer, chairman of the FRA board. “Pier’s leadership has ensured that Fermilab remains the centrepiece of particle physics research in the US, and that the laboratory’s facilities and resources are focused on ground-breaking discoveries.”

“Working with Fermilab’s employees and users from across the country and around the world is a wonderful experience. It has been an honour to partner with you over the past seven years to achieve significant milestones in the performance of our accelerators and detectors and in our contributions to the Large Hadron Collider,” says Oddone in an online message to Fermilab’s staff through their newsletter.

In September last year, the Tevatron accelerator was shut down. To find out more about life at Fermilab and the rather nomadic careers of particle physicists who worked there, tune in to the podcast put together by my colleague Margaret Harris, following visits to Fermilab and CERN. You can listen to the podcast here, or download it via this link.

By James Dacey

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Nine physicists have found themselves significantly richer this week, after picking up $3m each in prize money. The nine men, listed in this blog by my colleague Michael Banks, are the inaugural winners of the Fundamental Physics Prize, a new award that was only unveiled to the world on Tuesday.

The prize is funded by the Russian investor Yuri Milner, who completed a degree in physics from Moscow State University before eventually becoming an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Milner has made his money by investing in start-up companies, apparently finding particular success through his investments in Internet firms such as Facebook, Twitter and Zynga.

Milner’s latest project is to launch the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, which according to its website is “a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the universe at the deepest level by awarding annual prizes for scientific breakthroughs, as well as communicating the excitement of fundamental physics to the public”.

One of the recipients, Andrei Linde from Stanford University, told that he hopes the prize will “increase [the] prestige and morale of all people in [the] scientific community”. Another winner, Ashoke Sen from the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India, focused on the impact the new prizes might have on the scientific community of tomorrow. Speaking to the Indian Express, he said “I see it [the award] more as a sort of entitlement…encouragement to younger people to take interest in fundamental science.”

If you had the funds, how would you splash the cash on physics? Please let us know your opinion by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll.

If you were to give $27m to physics, what would be the most beneficial to the subject?

Prizes for high-achieving scientists
Funding a large number of PhDs
Investing in research institutions
Funding competitions that have clear targets
Supporting high school education

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response – or suggest another way of spending the cash – by posting a comment below the poll.

In last week’s poll we asked whether you find that regular exercise helps you to focus when studying. The outcome was conclusive, with 91% of responds saying yes. The question was inspired by the sad news of the death of Sally Ride. Ride made history in 1983 by becoming first American woman in space, combining her physics training with her passion for physical activity.

Thank you to everyone who took part and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

Nine physicists bag $27m prize

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Andrei Linde

Andrei Linde from Stanford University was one of nine physicists to receive the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize. (Courtesy: L A Cicero)

By Michael Banks

Nine physicists just got one hell of a lot richer after bagging the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize together with a cool $3m each.

If you haven’t heard of the prize before, don’t worry – I hadn’t either until last Tuesday, when it was announced that Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten, all from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, had won the prize.

They shared it with Alan Guth from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alexei Kitaev from the California Institute of Technology, Maxim Kontsevich from the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies in Paris, Andrei Linde from Stanford University and Ashoke Sen from the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India. They all bagged $3m each, taking the total prize fund to a whopping $27m.

The prize has been awarded by the Russian investor Yuri Milner, who has a degree in physics from Moscow State University but who dropped out of a PhD in theoretical physics at the Lebedev Physical Institute. After a stint working at the World Bank in Washington, DC, he turned to investing in start-up companies, apparently making his millions by investing in Internet firms such as Facebook, Twitter and Zynga.

Milner has now set up the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that, according to its website, is “dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the universe at the deepest level”.

The foundation has established two prizes: the Fundamental Physics Prize, which “recognizes transformative advances in the field” and which was won by the nine physicists above; and the New Horizons in Physics Prize, which will be awarded to “promising junior researchers” and carries a cash reward of $100,000 for each recipient.

The Fundamental Physics Prize is even bigger than the annual science-and-religion gong from the Templeton Foundation, which gives a single winner $1.7m, as well as the Nobel Prize for Physics, which this year will be $1.2m (and possibly shared by three people) after the prize fund was cut by 20% from last year’s total.

Speaking to, Linde says he heard that he had won the prize only a few days before the announcement. He says he was surprised by the amount of cash on offer, but added that “physicists always complained that they get less money than the football coaches of the teams of their universities”. Linde hopes that the prize will “increase [the] prestige and morale of all people in [the] scientific community”.

This year’s winners were chosen by Milner himself, but next year’s recipients will be chosen by a selection committee of previous winners.

So if you want to get your hands on next year’s prize, then you will have to be nominated online by someone else, but there are no age restrictions and previous winners can also win the prize again.

The August 2012 issue of Physics World is out now

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By Matin Durrani


Now that the dust has settled on CERN’s historic discovery of what looks very much like a Higgs boson, why not settle back and enjoy the August 2012 issue of Physics World. In a series of special Higgs-boson-related sections, we explore the implications of the discovery, offer a selection of amusing behind-the-scenes tales about CERN’s big announcement on 4 July, while Michael Riordan looks back at how the Higgs boson was predicted and the first quarter century of experimental searches for it. The digital magazine also includes access to a fabulous new Physics World podcast, “Going where the beam is good”, about the ups and downs of a career in particle physics.

Elsewhere in the issue, Alan Watson celebrates the centenary of cosmic rays, Kevin Weatherill and Edgar Vredenbregt describe how ultracold particle beams could transform nanoscience, while Physics World columnist Robert P Crease looks back at this summer’s historic transit of Venus. Plus reviews, careers, lateral thoughts, feedback and much more.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can access the entire new issue online through the free 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.

For the record, here’s a rundown of highlights of the issue:

CERN finds evidence for new bosonHamish Johnston explains how attention is now being focused on finding out more about the new boson’s properties

Japan frets over ‘Galapagos syndrome’ – With worries that Japan’s research is becoming isolated, it is hoped that new initiatives will reverse the trend, as Dennis Normile reports

Introducing the higgsonGordon Fraser and Michael Riordan argue that the boson discovered at CERN should be known not as the Higgs boson, but the “higgson”

Critical point: Transit watchingRobert P Crease reports on the result of four new experiments in “historical astronomy”

The long road to the Higgs bosonMichael Riordan looks back at how this long-sought particle was predicted and the first quarter century of experimental searches for it

100 years of cosmic rays – A century on from the discovery of cosmic rays, Alan Watson relates how physicists have gradually revealed the nature of these mysterious objects, and examines progress in understanding where cosmic rays come from and why they tail off at high energies

The next coolest thing – Over the past 25 years, laser cooling and trapping have transformed experimental atomic physics. Kevin Weatherill and Edgar Vredenbregt describe how ultracold particle beams could soon do the same for nanoscience applications

A Cold War puzzle persistsIstvan Hargittai reviews The Pontecevoro Affair: a Cold War Affair and Nuclear Physics by Simone Turchetti

ESP and LSD on the CIA’s dimeAndrew Whitaker reviews How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser

Making the ‘wonder material’ – Graphene is taking the world of physics by storm, with new applications cropping up almost weekly. Daniel Stolyarov describes how he and his wife, Elena Polyakova, turned the graphene boom into a business

Once a physicist: Olaf Olafsson – Meet the executive vice-president for international and corporate strategy at Time Warner, whose fourth novel, Restoration, was published in February

A brief geography of time – In this month’s Lateral Thoughts column, Gareth Leyshon muses on the awkwardness of Earthly calendars

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

By Hamish Johnston

If there was any doubt in your mind that physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have found a particle best described as a Standard Model Higgs boson, two preprints uploaded yesterday by the CMS and ATLAS collaborations should put you at ease.

The preprints provide the latest analysis of the data gathered by the two experiments. While much of this information was presented at a special seminar at CERN on 4 July, the preprints do include some new information.

In particular, the statistical significance of the ATLAS result seems to have gone from 5.0σ to 5.9σ. In particle physics, anything greater than 5.0σ is considered a “discovery”. The significance of the CMS result seems to remain the same as it was on 4 July at 5.0σ.

Both experiments continue to suggest that the particle they have discovered bears a striking resemblance to a Higgs boson as described by the Standard Model of particle physics.

You can read the ATLAS preprint here and the CMS preprint is here.