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October 2012 Archives

Zombies in the machine

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By James Dacey

It’s a brilliant conceit – to film a zombie film at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s precisely what a group of PhD students at CERN have done, producing a feature length film called Decay.

The film follows a group of students – played by real physicists – who are desperately trying to escape from underground maintenance tunnels at the LHC. They are being pursued by a bunch of maintenance workers who have been turned into blood-thirsty zombies after exposure to the newly discovered Higgs boson.

Writer and director Luke Thompson, a PhD student at Manchester University in the UK, came up with the idea back in 2010 after joking that the tunnels at the LHC would make a cracking place to shoot a zombie film. Unlike most such ideas – often dreamt up late at night in a bar – Thomson actually set about recording the film. Armed with a budget of roughly £2000 and a regular cast and crew of 20, Thompson has spent the past two years filming and producing the 75 minute film.

The film is set to premiere in Manchester at the end of November, after which time it will be released free online under a Creative Commons licence. For updates keep an eye on the film’s website.

In good scientific fashion, Thompson accompanies promotion of the film with a strong caveat. “There is absolutely no evidence that [the Higgs boson] is harmful in any way,” he says.

Facebook poll

By James Dacey

A nifty psychological study reported this week on has found that a set of researchers assessing the employability of early-career scientists subconsciously favoured male students over females. The bias – if it indeed reflects reality – is thought to be a contributing factor towards the underrepresentation of women in physics.

The study, which you can read about here, involved the sending of a fake job application for a graduate-level lab-technician post to tenured scientists in the US. The professional scientists were asked to give feedback on the employability of the applicants, unaware that they were fictional. All applications were identical except for the fact that some were written by the fictional applicant “John” and the others by “Jennifer”.

From the scientists’ feedback John was deemed to be more competent and hireable than the identical female applicant, but the hirers would also have given the male student a higher starting salary. This bias was seen to exist in both male and female physicists and was exhibited by chemists and biologists.

In this week’s Facebook poll we want to know whether you think this bias does indeed exist in the real world.

Do you think physics employers have a subconscious bias towards male job applicants?

Take part by visiting our Facebook page and please feel free to post a comment to explain your response.

In last week’s poll we asked you about the trial of the seven scientists in Italy who were being charged with falsely reassuring the public ahead of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake that left 308 people dead. We asked whether you think the L’Aquila trial will discourage scientists from being involved in public safety decisions. Since asking this question last Thursday all seven scientists have been sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter – two years longer than even the prosecutors had demanded.

The sentencing on Monday has sent shockwaves through the science community, if you will excuse the pun. Bloggers and tweeters have been speaking out in furious condemnation of the Italian authorities for setting what they believe is an incredibly dangerous precedent of imprisoning scientists for “getting it wrong”. Earlier today the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement in support of the Italian geophysicists. “If it becomes a precedent in law, it could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal,” it states.

It seems that our Facebook followers also agree with this sentiment as 97% of responses were that “yes” the L’Aquila trial will discourage scientists involved in public risk tasks.

Thank you for your responses and we hope to hear from you again in this week’s poll.

The ESA Cheops mission

Cheap as Cheops: the exoplanet hunter is the ESA’s first “quick-turnaround mission”. (Courtesy: ESA)

By Hamish Johnston

In 2017 the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch a space mission called Cheops, which will take a closer look at nearby bright stars that are already known to have exoplanets orbiting around them.

The mission will measure the brightness of the stars, looking for tiny dips associated with a transit – when an exoplanet passes in front of its star, blocking some of the light that reaches Earth.

“By concentrating on specific known exoplanet host stars, Cheops will enable scientists to conduct comparative studies of planets down to the mass of Earth with a precision that simply cannot be achieved from the ground,” said Alvaro Giménez-Cañete who is ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration.

“The mission was selected from 26 proposals submitted in response to the Call for Small Missions in March, highlighting the strong interest of the scientific community in dedicated, quick-turnaround missions focusing on key open issues in space science,” added Giménez-Cañete.

Cheops is an acronym – any guesses for what it stands for?

Its full name is “CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite”!

Academics and the other 96%

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Climbing the academic pyramid

By Margaret Harris

Like most physics students, I initially thought that getting a PhD would lead me to a career in academia. But also like most physics students, that isn’t how it worked out. In fact, data collected by the Royal Society in 2010 show that more than 96% of PhD-qualified scientists pursue careers outside academic research, with most finding work in the wider, non-research economy, while a significant minority are employed in government labs or industrial R&D.

The implications of that 96% figure – including how it affects the prospects and plans of early-career researchers; what it says about advice and training for PhD students; and its likely effects on science as a whole – are the subject of an in-depth article in this month’s Physics World graduate careers focus. You can also download an entire special section on graduate careers (including more than 10 pages of adverts for jobs both inside and outside the university environment).

As I learned while researching the article, the real problem with that 96% figure is that it conflicts so sharply with another statistic: 46% of new physics PhD students want to work in a university. Put those two numbers together, and they add up to a lot of disappointed and frustrated early-career physicists. And let’s be absolutely clear: these are not, by and large, people who “couldn’t cut it” in a research environment; it’s just that, statistically, not everyone can climb to the top of the academic pyramid.

Opinions are, naturally, divided over what (if anything) should be done about the apparent oversupply of PhD physicists relative to the number of long-term jobs in academic physics. If you have suggestions or if you want to share your experiences, please do so via the article’s comments area.

Royal Mail Stamps: Sun

By Tushna Commissariat

Earlier this week, the UK’s Royal Mail issued a set of six special stamps to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Britain’s first satellite – Ariel 1 – that was launched on 26 April 1962. While the Royal Mail has issued stamps with space images on them in the past, the new set “takes the theme forward, exploring the solar system in greater depth than ever before”, according to the company.

All six images are taken from missions conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) and include the cavernous craters of Mars, the dizzying rings of Saturn, a close-up image of the Sun and a filament, a green-tinged picture of Titan – Saturn’s largest moon, the Lutetia asteroid and a shimmery picture of the south pole of Venus. Andrew Hammond, the Royal Mail stamps spokesperson, said “Britain has played an important role in space exploration over the last half a century and our Space Science issue is a fitting tribute.”

You can buy the set at the Royal Mail website.

Royal Mail Stamps: Saturn

Royal Mail Stamps: Titan

Royal Mail Stamps: Venus

Royal Mail Stamps: Mars

Royal Mail Stamps: Lutetia

Facebook poll

By James Dacey

On Tuesday 23 October a single judge in Italy is expected to decide the fate of seven men who have been charged in relation to the risk assessment that preceded the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila that left 300 dead. On trial are four scientists, two engineers and a government official, who were all part of an expert panel affiliated with Italy’s Civil Protection Department.

This panel had met six days before the quake to discuss the level of risk posed by a recent cluster of seismic tremors. Following the meeting, two members of the commission gave a press conference during which – the prosecutors say – the accused gave false reassurances to the public that a major earthquake would not occur.

The seven commission members are not accused of failing to predict the earthquake. More specifically, they are charged with negligence regarding the risk assessment, as well as falsely reassuring the public that it was safe for people to remain in their homes because an earthquake would not occur. As part of their defence, the accused make it clear that it is incredibly difficult to predict precisely when and where an earthquake will strike.

If found guilty, they could each face up to four years in prison. You can read about the L’Aquila case as well as some of the latest research in latest in earthquake forecasting in this article published earlier this year in Physics World.

Clearly, the L’Aquila case is an incredibly complex mesh of science, politics and communication issues. It would be foolish to jump to any hasty conclusions before the verdict is announced, particularly without an in-depth knowledge of the cultures of both seismology and this small city perched on a hill in the Abruzzo region of central Italy.

But we want to know what effect this trial might have on scientists around the world, regardless of the outcome. In this week’s Facebook poll we want you to respond to the following question:

Will the L’Aquila trial discourage scientists from being involved in public safety decisions?


Please feel free to accompany your response with a comment to explain your answer.

In last week’s poll we asked if you agreed with the decision to award this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics to Serge Haroche and David Wineland for their experimental work on trapping and manipulating quantum systems. The outcome was that 87% of respondents do agree with the decision while the remaining 13% do not. A resounding seal of approval for the Nobel Committee. Thanks for all your responses and we hope you take part in this week’s poll.

Artist's impression of 55 Cancri e

Artist’s impression of 55 Cancri e – graphite surrounding diamond, then silicon and a molten iron core. (Courtesy: Haven Giguere, Yale University)

By Tushna Commissariat

There’s nothing quite like a planet made mostly of diamond to get everybody’s attention, and that is what a team of astronomers from Yale says it might have found. The researchers say that 55 Cancri e, a rocky super-Earth, is mainly made of carbon – in the form of diamond and graphite.

This is not the first time a “diamond planet” has hit the headlines. Last year an international team of researchers found a pulsar, with an orbiting planet about the mass of Jupiter, that seemed to be made entirely of diamond. Further research revealed that “the planet” was, in fact, the pulsar’s companion star – an ultralow-mass carbon white dwarf that just about survived being completely destroyed by the pulsar. The core of the remnant would mostly be carbon and some oxygen, but thanks to the near-Jupiter mass of the companion star, its own gravity could crystallize it to form diamond – just how carbon is transformed into diamond deep within the Earth. You can take a look at the paper about that research here.

This time, astronomers seem much more certain that what they are dealing with is indeed a planet. 55 Cancri e belongs to the 55 Cancri star system, which is a mere hop, skip and jump away from Earth in astronomical terms at a distance of 41 light-years. Indeed, the system – with five known planets that orbit a parent star – can be seen with the naked eye on a clear, dark night. Interestingly, 55 Cancri e is the closest planet to its parent star, with a dizzying 18-hour orbit – the shortest orbit known for an exoplanet – and is tidally locked, so one side always faces the star. Until now, it was thought to have a substantial amount of super-heated water on its surface and was believed to have a similar chemical composition to Earth.

However, new data and research have shown that the planet contains no water at all, and appears to be composed primarily of carbon, iron, silicon carbide and, possibly, some silicates. The study, led by Yale postdoctoral researcher Nikku Madhusudhan and colleagues, estimates that at least a third of the planet’s mass – the equivalent of about three Earth masses – could be diamond.

“This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth,” says Madhusudhan. “The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite.” In 2011 Madhusudhan revealed the first discovery of a carbon-rich atmosphere in a distant gas-giant planet, opening the possibility of long-theorized carbon-rich rocky planets or “diamond planets”.

The conformation of this carbon-rich super-Earth now means that the many rocky exoplanets thought to exist can no longer be assumed to have chemical constituents, interiors, atmospheres or biologies similar to those of Earth, according to Madhusudhan. A carbon-rich composition could influence the planet’s thermal evolution and plate tectonics, for example, with implications for volcanism, seismic activity and mountain formation.

This is the first time astronomers have identified a likely diamond planet around a Sun-like star and specified its chemical make-up. Further spectroscopic analysis of the planet’s atmosphere and its parent star’s composition will be necessary to ascertain 55 Cancri e’s “priceless” composition.

A paper on the work has been accepted for publication in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters and an arXiv preprint is available here.

Do you agree with this year’s Nobel decision?

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Facebook poll

By James Dacey

So another year goes by and we have two new Nobel physics laureates who join the pantheon of scientific idols. Just in case you have been confined in the Utah desert in some kind of Mars-simulation experiment for the past couple of days, this year’s prize went to Serge Haroche and David Wineland for their nifty experimental work on trapping and manipulating quantum systems.

What do you make of the choice? Let us know by visiting our Facebook page and taking part in our poll.

In truth, the decision of the Nobel committee has proved largely uncontroversial in the physics community, with tributes to the pair flying in from all quarters. Among the congratulators was Sir Peter Knight, president of the UK Institute of Physics, who hailed Haroche and Wineland for bringing “tremendous advances in our understanding of quantum entanglement, with beautiful experiments to show how atomic systems can be manipulated to exhibit the most extraordinary coherence properties”.

The only murmuring of a controversy is the suggestion that the Caltech researcher Jeff Kimble was overlooked as a third recipient of the prize. Kimble was one of the pioneers of cavity quantum electrodynamics (CQED) – a technique whereby the properties of an atom are controlled by placing it in an optical or microwave cavity. It was for developing the field of CQED that Haroche won his half of this year’s prize.

Interestingly, there has been no official congratulation from CERN on either its homepage or Twitter feed. Some people, including the editor of Hamish Johnston, had argued that the confirmed discovery of a new boson at the LHC was enough to secure this year’s Nobel prize. That was also the sentiment of Physics World readers who took part in last week’s poll, with 63% of them selecting the discovery of the Higgs boson as their choice for the prize.

In fairness, though, Wineland and Haroche’s work on quantum optics was not one of the options in our poll. In customary style, the Nobel committee managed to identify a perfectly sensible choice of winner that had not been widely predicted beforehand.

So let us know what you think of this year’s prize by taking part in this week’s poll.

Neil Turok

An analogue Neil Turok dreams of a quantum life. (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute)

By Hamish Johnston

Years ago when I lived in Canada I used to love listening to a CBC radio programme called Ideas, which devotes one hour to the in-depth discussion of a concept, event or idea. Incredibly, there are five episodes a week and the show has been running for 47 years – and still hasn’t run out of ideas!

Recently, the programme’s host Paul Kennedy was at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario to chat with its director, the mathematical physicist Neil Turok.

Turok has just written a book called The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, which is based on his series of Massey Lectures that form part of the Ideas schedule (if you are in the UK, think Reith Lectures).

You can watch Kennedy and Turok talk about the book here – and find out why he thinks we can look forward to living a quantum life.

And stay tuned for a review of The Universe Within in our upcoming Christmas books special.

Serge Haroche's cat states

The time evolution of a Schrödinger’s cat state realized by Serge Haroche and colleagues.

By Hamish Johnston

To celebrate the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics, IOP Publishing has collected 30 papers published in its journals by winners Serge Haroche and David Wineland. Articles in this collection are free to read until the end of February 2013.

The above image is taken from a paper by Haroche and colleagues entitled “Manipulating and probing microwave fields in a cavity by quantum non-demolition photon counting” (Phys. Scr. T137 014014). You can read it here.

By Hamish Johnston

Our Facebook followers have spoken – when I last checked, about 63% of respondents to last week’s poll believe that scientists involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson should share the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics.

I agree. The Nobel committee should reward the fantastic work done by those who built the Large Hadron Collider and those who designed and ran the ATLAS and CMS experiments while the discovery is fresh in the minds of the public. A public, I should add, who will be left scratching their heads if and when a breakthrough made 30 years ago trumps the Higgs and bags the Nobel.

Some of you may be shouting “But they don’t yet know if it is the Higgs” at your screen. I would argue that the act of building such a colossal facility, getting it to work, analysing vast quantities of data, and finding something, is worthy of a Nobel – regardless of what that something is.

But alas, I don’t think that a Higgs-related prize with come this year – it’s likely to be a shoe-in for 2013, when we will have a much clearer idea of what has been found at the LHC.

So what other topics have our readers tipped for the prize? Runner-up in our poll with 9% is a Nobel related to the first experimental test of Bell’s theorem. Because this pioneering work – done in 1981 by Alain Aspect and others – marks the beginning of the burgeoning experimental field of quantum information, I’d say it’s a frontrunner for tomorrow’s prize.

Just behind at 8% is the discovery of neutrino mass, which could see my fellow Canadian Art McDonald making the trip to Stockholm.

The prize will be announced tomorrow at 10:30 BST, so stay tuned to for comprehensive coverage of the 2012 physics Nobel.

Sir Peter Knight

IOP president, Sir Peter Knight. (Courtesy: IOP/Mark Earthy)

By Tushna Commissariat

Yesterday, I was in London attending the annual awards dinner of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, as well as the first ever IOP Innovation Awards, held earlier in the afternoon. It proved to be an exciting and jam-packed day to say in the least.

The IOP Innovation Awards have been set up to recognize and celebrate businesses from the UK and Ireland that have achieved significant commercial success by finding a niche in the market and developing physics-based applications to fill it. This year, the four inaugural awards went to a wide range of products.

All afternoon long, the Innovation Awards room was full to the brim with scientists, developers, students and recruiters keen on finding out what the companies did and the products they had to offer. In fact, the room was so busy that IOP president, Sir Peter Kinght, who came along to address the ceremony, found it hard to make his way to each event desk and promised a larger space for next year’s meet. He was keen to show the world the “vibrancy of investment in the technology” the various companies had developed. “Physics is not just about cosmology or particle physics – that’s great too – but it’s about making a difference in the world,” he told visitors. Knight finished by promising that next year, the Innovation Awards would be “bigger and better”.

Attendees at the Innovation Awards

Visitors at the Innovation Awards. (Courtesy: IOP/Mark Earthy)

One winner was a small, noiseless, high-volume pump that has many applications in medical devices, developed by Technology Partnership, based at the Melbourn Science Park in Hertfordshire. The tiny pump runs at 20 kHz and is already being used for wound therapy devices and in an electronic atomizer that is used for more efficient drug delivery. The device has only been on the market for 18 months, but has already earned the company more than £1m in additional revenue.

Another award went to Canterbury-based Naneum, which has developed a portable and easy-to-operate particle monitor to detect and identify nanoparticles pollutants, with applications in environmental monitoring, occupational health and atmospheric physics. The company was keen to develop a device that was easy to transport and could be used by any engineer, rather than someone trained to specifically do so. The device – the Nano-ID NPS 500 – is forecast to earn the company more than £1.5m over the next two years.

“Personal confocal” is how the next award winner, Aurox, describes its microscope attachment that lets researchers take 3D high-resolution images without the costs of investing in a confocal laser scanning microscope. Spun out from the University of Oxford, the firm has now partnered with Andor and Carl Zeiss to develop the Viva Tome imaging system. Having developed the new technology three years ago, it has already earned the company almost £1m in additional revenue. Aurox also won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation earlier this year.

Samples of ZBD's e-paper

Some of ZBD’s e-paper supermarket labelling. (Courtesy: Physics World/Tushna Commissariat)

The final company to be lauded was ZBD Solutions, which has spent the past 12 years perfecting a novel e-paper display that makes shelf-edge labelling easier. The Malvern-based company was spun out from the liquid-crystal research centre at DERA, formerly the UK Ministry of Defence’s research arm. The current avatar of their e-paper (pictured above) was developed four years ago and has created 62 jobs and earned the company an additional £20m. ZBD Solutions was ranked 5th on this year’s Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 league table.

The IOP Awards dinner took place later in the evening and 600 of the “who’s who” of the UK physics community were out in their finest clothes. IOP medals span the entire spectrum of physics research, physics education and outreach as well as the application of physics and physics-based technologies. They are given to “identify and honour physicists who are today making remarkable contributions and to encourage younger members of our community to greater success in the future”. A complete list of all the many awards and their winners of the 2012 medals can be found here.

In Knight’s address to the gathering he highlighted, among other issues, the lack of girls in physics, after it was noted that only 20% of girls have been taking physics A-levels over the past 20 years. His comments were made in the light of a new report published by the Institute on the same day entitled It’s Different for Girls. The report looks at changing the attitude of school teachers in all subjects, as well as parents, to encourage girls to take up A-level physics.

Professor Brian Cox, who was awarded the President’s Medal 2012 for his “achievements in promoting science to the general public and inspiring the next generation of physicists”, was the guest speaker at the dinner. In his witty and engaging speech, a video of which you can watch below, he addressed the excitement of the Higgs discovery made earlier this year as well as the sophistication of the Large Hadron Collider. But he also had some strong words to say about promoting bad science and how it was not acceptable – he highlighted homeopathy and some ill-advised comments made by Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary, on the issue.

To much laughter, Cox followed that up with some amusing comments about “faith-based aviation” or the serious lack thereof by saying, “There is a reason why we don’t have…homeopathic aircraft that run on the memory of petrol.” He also spoke of how it was important for the government to invest in increasing the number of STEM graduates in the UK. He ended his address by thanking the physics community, saying “Without you, I would have nothing to say the next time I stand on a mountain!”

All in all, it was an entertaining and illuminating evening for the people in the UK who are involved in physics…and the raspberry and chilli ice-cream for desert was excellent too!

Facebook poll

By Hamish Johnston

Bright and early on the morning of Tuesday 9 October, a small group of physicists will meet in Stockholm to make the final decision about who will win the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics.

While I have no way of knowing, I’m hoping that the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider will be on the table. I know that there are many good reasons why Higgs hunters won’t bag the prize this year: the discovery came after nominations were closed; it would be too difficult to decide which individuals should share the prize; and physicists are still not 100% certain that the particle discovered at the LHC is the same boson that was first predicted in 1964.

However, my understanding is that the committee could cast aside the various historical conventions conspiring against a Higgs prize, and award the Nobel to those responsible for what surely is the most important physics breakthrough so far of the 21st century.

That’s my hope, now what about you?

In this week’s Facebook poll we ask:

What breakthrough should be awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics?

Discovery of the Higgs boson
Inflationary cosmology
Discovery of exoplanets
Aharonov–Bohm effect/Berry phase
Discovery of neutrino mass
Invention of the LED laser
Invisibility/transformation optics
Slow light/electromagnetically induced transparency
First experimental test of Bell’s theorem

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

Last week we asked “Physicists in Japan have discovered element 113. What should they call it?” Your favourite name was “nishinium”, with 37% of respondents in favour of honouring the Japanese nuclear-physics pioneer Yoshio Nishina.

Several people asked why we included “japonium” instead of “nipponium” – pointing out that Nippon is the transliteration preferred by the Japanese. Japonium is actually a name put forward by physicists at RIKEN, though I’m not sure why they have chosen the French spelling.

A look at physics in Japan

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By Michael Banks

If you have ever thought about studying or working in Japan, or are just curious about the high-profile international research facilities the country has, then make sure you don’t miss a special online lecture next week given by Adarsh Sandhu from the Toyohashi University of Technology (right).

Sandhu has spent around 25 years working in Japan and he will give his personal take on physics in the country, including outlining key international research centres as well as what careers there are for researchers.

Indeed, there are both challenges and opportunities for physicists from abroad to go and work in Japan or to collaborate with Japanese researchers and Sandhu will address these as well as answer any questions you have.

The lecture is on Wednesday 10 October 2012 at 2.00 p.m. BST (9.00 a.m. EDT) and you can register for the free event via this link.

Also, make sure you don’t miss our special report on Japan, which you can view online here. The report draws together a selection of our recent articles about physics in Japan looking at, for example, the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser as well as a major upgrade to Japan’s famous KEKB collider.

Venus as you’ve not seen it before

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Transit of Venus 2012 from Lightcurve Films on Vimeo.

By Matin Durrani

You could be forgiven for thinking that we here at Physics World have a slightly obsession with that astronomical phenomenon known as the transit of Venus.

First we published a great feature by Jay Pasachoff that explained the science and history of this rare astronomical event, in which the planet Venus passes across the face of the Sun, as seen from the Earth. Pasachoff’s article appeared just before this year’s transit, which took place on 5 and 6 June, but the transits are so rare that the next one won’t occur until December 2117.

Then Physics World columnist Robert P Crease examined the question of whether the great Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov did – or did not – see the atmosphere of Venus during the 1761 transit. This piece was followed a few months later by Crease’s account of various attempts this summer to carry out historical recreations of Lomonosov’s work. (Crease’s conclusion: yes Lomonosov probably did see Venus’s atmosphere.)

We also ran a photo challenge on Flickr, where we invited you to send us your images of this year’s transit. You can see a selection of the best in this article here.

Anyway, now we’re happy to bring you the above video, which shows this year’s transit as seen from Svalbard (Norway, 78ºN) and Canberra (Australia, 35ºS) using images obtained by members of the European Space Astronomy Centre, just outside Madrid. Nothing beats seeing the transit for real (actually I’m ashamed to admit I was lying in bed when it occured although, to be fair, it was raining in Bristol at the time), but the above video is a pretty good next-best-thing.

And if you want to watch a quick overview of why the transit of Venus occurs, then check out Physics World’s own video below, featuring Zoe Leinhardt from the University of Bristol.

The October 2012 issue of Physics World is out now

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By Matin Durrani


If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, it’s time to tuck into the October 2012 issue of Physics World, which sees Michael Riordan continue his story of the search for the Higgs boson, taking us from the closure of the Large Electron–Positron collider at CERN in 2000 to the final, joyous days in July this year when the particle – or something like it – finally appeared at the Geneva lab. Elsewhere, PhD student Ashley Dale gives a riveting account of his two-week stay in the Utah desert, where he was part of a mission seeking to simulate a trip to Mars, which saw him do everything from riding on quad bikes to eating dehydrated food.

Don’t miss either our latest graduate special, where Physics World careers editor Margaret Harris examines the pitfalls and positives of doing a postdoc. Finally, we have a brilliant Lateral Thoughts article this month, in which Stephanie Walton describes her attempts to take a break from her PhD studies – and try her hand at writing a fully fledged crime novel. Physicists are a bright bunch; how hard could penning some fiction possibly be?

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

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

Astronomy’s golden future – One year on from sharing the Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, Brian Schmidt tells Jude Dineley why he thinks the future is bright for physics in Australia

Courting controversy – A new independent analysis of global temperature records, led by Richard Muller, has found that humans are indeed contributing to climate change, but the result has proved contentious, as Philip Ball reports

Critical point: How to vote – Ahead of the upcoming US elections, Robert P Crease describes his tactic for determining the qualifications of candidates

Is the ‘Cox effect’ good for us? – Some claim that recent increases in the number of students studying physics in the UK are due to the TV appearances of physicist Brian Cox. But, as Felicity Mellor warns, the “Cox effect” may not be all good news

My life on Mars – In December 2011 Ashley Dale spent two weeks in the Utah desert as part of a simulated Mars mission. This is his account of the experience

Britain and the bomb – On the 60th anniversary of Britain’s first nuclear test, Richard Corfield explores how Operation Hurricane – the British effort to develop the atomic bomb in the 1940s and 1950s compares with states such as Iran that today wish to have such devices

Cornering the Higgs bosonMichael Riordan continues his look back on the Higgs boson search with the early attempts to hunt it down at the Tevatron and the Large Hadron Collider

Hans Bethe’s early life’Jeremy Bernstein reviews Nuclear Forces: the Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe by Silvan Schweber

The science of Prometheus’Seymour Mauskopf reviews Roald Hoffmann: On the Philosophy, Art, and Science of Chemistry edited by Jeffrey Kovac and Michael Weisberg

The academic pyramid – With the world economy struggling, physics graduates might be tempted to ride out the recession by doing a PhD or postdoctoral research. But as Margaret Harris reports, the academic sector has its own career problems

My career as a crime novelist – In this month’s Lateral Thoughts column, Stephanie Walton muses on just how hard it could be to write a crime novel

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.

Focus on: Big Science

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By Michael Banks


Just a couple of weeks ago the European Commission kick-started the Extreme Light Infrastructure Nuclear Physics Facility (ELI-NP) project by announcing €180m towards its construction.

ELI-NP, costing €350m and to be built near Bucharest in Romania, will generate laser pulses with a power of some 10 petawatts (1016 W) – intense enough to study nuclear transitions in unprecedented detail.

The facility is one of four centres planned as part of the huge ELI project – the others being a centre in Hungary for attosecond physics, a third working on laser-based particle-beam production in the Czech Republic, and a fourth on ultrahigh-powered lasers. The latter’s location is still up for grabs.

Along with the ITER experimental fusion reactor in Cadarache, France, and the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, ELI is just one of a whole host of “big science” facilities set to come online in the coming decade. Indeed, the Square Kilometre Array is now nearer to construction following a decision in May to split the facility between Australia and southern Africa.

It doesn’t stop there, with physicists looking even further ahead such as to a successor to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a muon collider, as well as an electron–ion collider that would be able to study gluons in unprecedented detail.

In a special focus issue accompanying the October edition of Physics World, and available to view free here, we take a look at the technical challenges in building and designing some of these big science facilities.

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

Here’s a rundown of what’s inside:

• A phased approach – Jon Cartwright looks at the technology behind phased arrays – a key part of the planned Square Kilometre Array

• Planning the world’s next collider – An interview with linear collider director Lyn Evans on what comes next after CERN’s Large Hadron Collider

• The attraction of superconductors – Development of a magnet built from high-temperature superconductors will be at the heart of a proposed muon collider, as Tim Wogan reports

• Exploring “the mass that matters” – Peter Gwynne describes plans for an electron–ion collider – a new kind of facility that would study the properties of gluons

• New eyes for a dark world – Technology based on superconducting circuits will allow astronomers to detect every photon that arrives at a telescope’s lens, as David Appell explains

• Turkey accelerates ahead – Michael Banks travels to Ankara to hear plans for a Turkish Accelerator Centre

• Illuminating new frontiers – Brian Stephenson, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source, gives his opinion on why the future is bright for light sources

Read the Focus on Big Science now