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November 2012 Archives

Quiz of the year 2012 goes interactive

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By Margaret Harris

A quiz of the year’s events has been a regular feature of Physics World’s print edition since 2004, and in some years we’ve posted it on as well. This year, however, we’re doing something different. For the first time, we’ve created a fully interactive version of the quiz, dragging it kicking and screaming into the Web 2.0 era.

The 2012 quiz can be found here and you’ll be able to check your score once you’ve gone through all of the 24 questions. Each question is based on an event or story that Physics World magazine has reported on this year, although it’s fair to say that some stories (such as the probable discovery of the Higgs boson) got more publicity than others (such as the version of Monopoly based on the life of a certain UK scientist).

Sadly, there is no prize except the “bragging rights” of getting a higher score than your friends and colleagues, but we hope you enjoy taking part.

The December 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 December 2012 issue of Physics World, which contains a bumper reviews section with our pick of the best books for Christmas, including an extended Between the Lines.

We also take stock of the recent six-year jail sentences given to the seven Italian scientists and engineers who were members of the risk committee that gave advice to the public before the devastating 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP) you can access the entire new issue 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 highlights of the issue:

Jail terms rock seismologyJon Cartwright examines the fallout from the case of the seven earthquake experts who were recently jailed for making apparently misleading statements before a devastating earthquake hit the Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009

Putting science on trialWarner Marzocchi warns that the decision to sentence seven earthquake experts to six years in prison during the recent trial in L’Aquila could set a dangerous precedent for science

Physics and paintingRobert P Crease looks at several books that examine how physics influenced artistic movements

Unknown genius – A visionary who saw far ahead of his contemporaries, Edward Hutchinson Synge has been largely overlooked by the academic world, from which he worked in isolation before he was confined to a mental hospital at the age of 46. Denis Weaire, John F Donegan and Petros S Florides uncover his remarkable story

Voyager – a mission for life – There may be no such thing as a “job for life” these days, but NASA’s Voyager mission to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond has kept hundreds of scientists busy for as much as 35 years. Mark Williamson reveals how researchers stay motivated and scientifically productive during such a long-term project

Vital forcesRichard Jones reviews Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M Hoffmann

What made Bell Labs specialAndrew Gelman reviews The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

The why and how of it allTim Maudlin reviews Why Does the World Exist: an Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt and A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

Forming a critical mass of expertsGeoff Vaughan reviews The Neutron’s Children: Nuclear Engineers and the Shaping of Identity by Sean F Johnston

Von Neumann’s computerMartin Campbell-Kelly reviews Turing’s Cathedral: the Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

New beginnings for nuclearJeroen Veenstra describes how his enthusiasm for nuclear energy led him to a new country, a new language and a role in developing the energy future

Once a physicist – Meet Nick Dunbar – a financial journalist and editor of the Bloomberg Risk newsletter

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.

Prize-worthy books, part 2

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By Margaret Harris

Well-written. Scientifically interesting. Novel.

These are the criteria we established in 2009 when Physics World started picking the year’s best physics books; and thanks to the current renaissance in science writing, we’ve never had trouble finding books that qualify.

In fact, the magazine reviewed so many good books in 2012 that we’ve decided not to rank them in a rigid top 10 list this year. Instead, we’ve drawn up a 10-strong shortlist (see below). Over the next few weeks, my colleagues and I will be trying to decide which of these outstanding books should be Physics World’s Book of the Year for 2012.

We’ll announce the winner on 18 December during our regular books podcast, in which the genially impartial James Dacey will moderate while Physics World editor Matin Durrani and I champion a few of the books we like best.

In the meantime, though, we would love to hear your views on the shortlist. Is there a book that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest? Did we leave out your favourite among the books that Physics World reviewed this year? If so, let us know by e-mail at or vote for your favourite book from the shortlist below via our latest Facebook poll.

The shortlist for Physics World’s Book of the Year 2012 (including brief descriptions and links to reviews).

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher
After BP’s Macondo well blew out on 20 April 2010, company experts, government scientists and a “brain trust” of physicists assembled by US Energy Secretary Steve Chu spent months desperately trying to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Joel Achenbach’s book about the disaster is a fast-paced and even-handed account of how things went wrong and who did what to fix them.

The Science Magpie: A Hoard of Fascinating Facts
Books of science trivia are a dime a dozen here at Physics World’s reviews desk. Really good books of science trivia aren’t nearly as common. Simon Flynn’s grab-bag of stories from all branches of science exudes enthusiasm, breathing fresh life into a venerable format.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
In its heyday Bell Labs produced some of the most important and ubiquitous inventions of the modern era, from transistors and gas lasers to CCDs and wireless networks. Jon Gertner’s history of this “idea factory” describes what made Bell Labs special, and why none of today’s technological giants has replicated its success.

Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution
Acclaimed science writer John Gribbin has written about Schrödinger’s physics several times before, beginning in 1984 with In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. Now Gribbin is back with a biography of the man himself, skilfully combining Schrödinger’s scientific contributions with the quantum pioneer’s often complicated personal life and his legacy for both physicists and biologists.

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters
In this polemical book, science journalist Mark Henderson argues passionately that science and critical thinking should be at the heart of public life, and he urges readers not to wait for someone else to make it happen. His book offers plenty of concrete suggestions on ways that so-called geeks can make their views count.

Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos
Biophysics has mostly been left out of the boom in popular-physics writing, so we’re pleased to have Peter Hoffmann’s clearly written book about molecular motors and other nanoscale structures on our shortlist this year. Though not an easy read (particularly for physicists who haven’t studied biology since their schooldays), it does a very good job of capturing the excitement driving current research on this increasingly important topic.

How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture and the Quantum Revival
Quantum physics has always included some pretty trippy ideas, but its mind-blowing tendencies really came to the fore in the 1970s, thanks to a loose-knit group of physicists with a passion for Bell’s inequality and (in some cases) a penchant for psychedelic drugs. David Kaiser’s fascinating history of this unlikely bunch of insider-outsiders explains how they helped revive interest in the foundations of quantum mechanics.

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog
Chad Orzel’s first book, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, made it to No 2 on our list of 2010’s best physics books, thanks to its mixture of solid physics and gentle doggy humour. So it’s no surprise that its sequel has bounded into this year’s shortlist, ears cocked and positively slobbering with excitement at the prospect of a walk through Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity.

Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics and the 300-Year Journey to the Black–Scholes Equation
In the wake of the financial crisis, physicists on Wall Street have been harshly criticized, with no less an authority than Warren Buffet inveighing against “geeks bearing gifts” and the “financial weapons of mass destruction” they created. But how did physicists get into the financial industry in the first place? George Szpiro’s book brings the colourful history of econophysics to life.

Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything
Margaret Wertheim’s sociological study of physics crackpots is one of the year’s most thought-provoking books. Well argued and suffused with dry wit, this book asks important questions about what constitutes science and who gets to participate in it.

The LHCb team
Still from the upcoming short film The Theory of Everything. (Courtesy: Catsnake)

By Matin Durrani

The e-mail arrived out of the blue last week. Did I want to attend a “private screening” in Covent Garden, London, of a new short film about cosmology, particle physics and love?

It sounded interesting, particularly when writer/producer Stephen Follows from Catsnake said that he had made the film with “some of the world’s leading dark-matter physicists, both at Imperial College and at CERN”.

I was even more intrigued when Follows added that the film had been funded by the Lovestruck dating agency as a promotional tool – apparently, the company was happy for him to make any film he liked, so long as it featured love somewhere along the line.

Follows took for inspiration the book The 4% Universe by the US science writer Richard Panek, which he had just been reading and which incidentally was second in Physics World’s top 10 books of 2011. The title refers to the fact that “normal” matter makes up only 4% of the universe – the rest being dark matter (23%) and dark energy (73%).

What intrigued me was how exactly love could be brought into a story about cosmology.

Entitled The Theory of Everything, the film will be released online in early December so I won’t spoil the plot, such as it is. But suffice to say, the five-minute professionally produced film draws a parallel between the search for love and the search for dark matter. You know both are there even if you can’t see either for real. Love affects everyone just as dark matter and dark energy affect the universe.

If you think that sounds cheesy, well it could have been – in the wrong hands – but I was impressed with the film. It packs in a surprising amount of “real” science, which was accurate too, thanks to Imperial cosmologist Roberto Trotta, who acted as informal script adviser.

Visually, I liked the way the film tried to explain the expanding universe through the main character – an astronomer – dropping a jar of chocolate Smarties onto a table and showing them scatter in all directions. There’s also a nice touch where he uses the stem of a bunch of flowers as a measuring stick, snipping off the final 4% of the tip to illustrate just how small a fraction of the universe we really understand.

Both Follows and Trotta hope the film, which was made at an observatory in Mill Hill, London, reveals the human side of science. As Trotta told the audience before the screening, “There’s so much more to science and to creativity in science than meets the eye.”

Follows envisages the film being just the first in a series of projects carried out in partnership with Imperial. It will be released on YouTube and promoted on the London Underground and Facebook.

If you want some cosmic action before then, do check out our own film about a group of students trying to detect cosmic rays on a hot-air balloon.

By Margaret Harris

Last night’s awards ceremony for the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books highlighted the diversity of modern science writing, with six very different books competing for the prestigious £10,000 award.

Two of the shortlisted authors, James Gleick and Brian Greene, are well known in the physics community thanks to their earlier bestsellers on (respectively) chaos theory and string theory. However, they were not the only heavyweights competing, with Gleick’s book The Information and Greene’s The Hidden Reality up against Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein; Lone Frank’s My Beautiful Genome; Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature; and Nathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm. For those of you keeping track, that’s one book about information theory; one about multiple universes; one about the science of memory; one about genomics; one on the psychology of conflict; and one on emerging infectious diseases. Whew!

The ceremony’s host, comedian Ben Miller, began by riffing on some of the year’s big scientific events, including the summer’s (probable) discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN and the recent (rumoured) discovery of methane on Mars. The biggest laugh of the evening came later, though, when Miller was interviewing Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of five judges for the award. After Miller complained that studying science at school hadn’t offered him much in the way of “social lubrication”, Bell Burnell’s response was a deadpan, “Try being a female physicist!”

The bulk of the evening, however, belonged to the shortlisted authors themselves. After reading brief passages from their books, five of the authors (Wolfe was unable to attend) joined Miller onstage for a panel discussion, fielding questions about their books and the role of science communication. For me, this was a highlight of the evening; aside from The Hidden Reality, which was on Physics World’s list of the “best physics books of 2011”, I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted books, so it was great to learn a little more about each of them.

In his speech announcing the prize, Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse hailed the recent “renaissance” in science writing, adding that the shortlisted books were “all great contributions to that tradition”. But there could only be one winner – and it was James Gleick’s The Information, which the judges praised as an “audacious book” offering “remarkable insight” into how information is used, transmitted and stored. Gleick seemed genuinely surprised, thanking “all the very smart people who have helped me over the years” before being bundled into a live TV interview with Channel Four News.

By Hamish Johnston

In the spirit of a post-match analysis down the pub, this video features particle physicists Aidan Randle-Conde and Seth Zenz discussing the latest Higgs results that were presented last week at the Hadron Collider Physics conference in Kyoto, Japan.

The video looks as if it was filmed on a particularly gloomy day in Geneva and also features a chirping bird, the occasional aeroplane and somebody talking on their mobile phone. It’s 19 minutes long and jam-packed with analysis of all the relevant Higgs decay channels – so pop the headphones on and enjoy.

By James Dacey

Facebook poll

Speculation has been running wild this week after NASA scientist John Grotzinger told National Public Radio (NPR) that the agency’s Curiosity rover has helped uncover a “major” discovery about Mars. The mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Programme, which has a goal of determining whether life has ever arisen on Mars. Given that Grotzinger is the chief scientist of the Curiosity mission, people are naturally getting excited.

In the interview, broadcast on Tuesday, Grotzinger was talking with enthusiasm about the results coming in from Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a suite of instruments aboard the rover designed to collect soil and atmospheric samples. “We’re getting data from SAM,” he said. “These data are gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.” Grotzinger said that the mission scientists are eagerly analysing the data but that we should not expect an announcement for several weeks.

So when these findings do become public, what will they reveal? Let us know what you think by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll.

What do you think has been discovered on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover?

Conditions favourable for life
Evidence to suggest that life has never existed on Mars
A microscopic fossil
A living micro-organism
Something else (please share your suggestions as a comment)

To take part in the poll, please visit our Facebook page..

In last week’s poll we looked at the issue of physics education. We asked whether you believe that 16–18 year olds should be taught modern physics such as quantum mechanics? The question was inspired by the publication last week of an open letter to President Barack Obama lamenting state education in the US. The letter, in the form of a YouTube video, was bemoaning the fact that current curricula in the US focus almost exclusively on classical physics while excluding modern physics such as quantum mechanics almost entirely.

The poll had a lot of responses on Facebook, with 67% of respondents believing that these students should be exposed to quantum mechanics – but only the ideas not the complex mathematics. 28% disagree and believe that the students should be exposed to the “whole shebang”, including the maths. The remaining 5% believe that at this age, physics students should focus exclusively on classical principles.

Interestingly, the majority of comments that accompanied the poll came from the small group of people that believes that students should remained focused on classical physics. One respondent, David Peter Wallis Freeborn, wrote “There’s no point in teaching the maths of QM at the age of 16–18. They won’t have mastered linear algebra or any classical mechanics. You have to teach things from the base up, not just rush straight to ‘interesting’ modern theories.” Another commenter, Kristian Dominek Barajas, has a similar opinion: “My main concern is that students aren’t being engaged with the already complex and difficult topics in classical physics, which will ultimately stunt their growth in the field.”

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

A simulation of an ATLAS event
(Courtesy: CERN)

By Tushna Commissariat

After the rather disappointing news for SUSY researchers from the Hadron Collider Conference in Kyoto this week, it seems as if physicists at the conference have not had anything exciting to say about the Higgs boson either. While both the CMS and ATLAS collaborations did present their latest results, from data collected since the historic Higgs discovery in July, all the current results still point to a Standard Model Higgs.

As a number of other bloggers have already pointed out, what is probably most interesting about these latest results is what is missing – both CMS and ATLAS have only updated certain channels. Conspicuous by its absence was the diphoton (gamma–gamma) channel, which was not updated by either collaboration. The reason for this seems to be some discrepancy between the analysis done by the two experiments, with concerns regarding systematic errors and calibration. Adam Falkowski, who writes the Resonances blog, explains these discrepancies in some more depth.

Papers with the new results from both CMS and ATLAS are available, but the usual blog suspects – Peter Woit, Matt Strassler and the viXra – all agree that the results are anti-climactic. It seems as though we will have to wait until the mysterious diphoton channel gives up its secrets, hopefully by sometime next year, before there is Higgs euphoria again.

By James Dacey

Facebook poll

Earlier this week, my colleague Hamish Johnston wrote this blog entry about a new video that is highly critical of high-school physics education in the US. The video, presented as an open letter to President Barack Obama, bemoans the fact that current curricula in the US focus almost exclusively on classical physics and exclude modern physics such as quantum mechanics almost entirely. The narrator claims that the vast majority of high-school students are not required to learn about any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865 (presumably a reference to the year that James Clerk Maxwell published the first version of his famous equations).

The narrator, Henry Reich, is a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. Reich has released the video on his popular YouTube channel, Minute Physics, in the belief that physics education in the US needs a serious revamp. He argues that the US may lose its standing as the leading nation of innovation unless modern physics concepts such as photons and the structure of atoms are introduced into high-school curricula. He compares the present situation to a scenario in which high-school biology students were not taught about DNA, or geology students were not taught about plate tectonics. For those of you not familiar with the school system in the US, high school refers to students up to 18 years old.

But what do you think about Reich’s sentiments? In theory it would be lovely for all teenagers to be exposed to some of the wonderful ideas of modern physics such as the Higgs boson, antimatter or the cosmological models of how the universe evolved. But the reality is that truly getting to grips with some of these concepts requires an advanced level of maths, which has not always been reached by 18 year olds. The narrator addresses the maths question by saying that great communicators such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have triumphed at conveying the fundamental principles of physics in an engaging manner without the need for advanced maths. But, again, the reality is that these people are exceptional – one cannot expect all school teachers to be as gifted at communicating difficult physics as these celebrated TV presenters.

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

Should 16–18 year olds be taught modern physics such as quantum mechanics?

Yes, the whole shebang
Yes, but only the ideas not the complex mathematics
No, at this age students should focus on classical principles

To have your say please visit our Facebook page, and please feel free to post a comment to explain your decision.

In last week’s poll we asked another question relating to US politics. We asked you to grade Barack Obama’s governance of US science during his first presidential term? The spread of results was as follows.

A – Awesome 0%
B – Brave effort given the economic constraints 24%
C – Could have done better 44%
D – Dreadful 32%

So in the heads and hearts of our Facebook followers, Obama has his work cut out to meet their expectations in his second term. We hope to hear from you again in this week’s poll. And I’ll make you a promise now that next week’s poll will have nothing to do with US politics!

The LHCb team
Still looking for SUSY: the LHCb detector and its team of physicists. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

After the historic announcement of the Higgs discovery in July, things have gone very quiet at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Although the facility in Geneva has been colliding protons like gangbusters, there is very little buzz about what the next big discovery will be.

I was hoping that this would change this week at the Hadron Collider Conference in Kyoto, where the latest results are being discussed. However, a big disappointment – at least for fans of supersymmetry (SUSY) – came on Monday, when physicists working on the LHCb experiment announced that they have measured a rare decay of the Bs particle.

There was a hope that the decay of the Bs to a muon and antimuon would point towards SUSY – a collection of theories that go beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. SUSY is an attractive concept because it offers a solution to the “hierarchy problem” of particle physics, provides a way of unifying the strong and electroweak forces, and even contains a dark-matter particle.

But alas, the Bs decay seems to be best described by the Standard Model and SUSY remains as elusive as ever. Indeed, it looks like we might have to wait until the collision energy at the LHC is boosted from the current 8 TeV to 14 TeV – which will occur when the collider is shut down over 2013–2014.

The LHCb team has uploaded a preprint of its Bs paper to arXiv.

Bloggers are also chattering about the result. Peter Woit puts SUSY in intensive care, whereas Gordon Kane argues that the measurements are still compatible with some types of SUSY. Meanwhile, Matt Strassler can always be relied upon to take a more measured approach.

And what about the Higgs? The lack of gossip on this front seems to suggest that the new data are showing that the LHC’s Higgs particle is also best described by the Standard Model – more to come from Kyoto tomorrow on that front.

Fifty shades of purple

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US election map
Cartogram of 2012 US presidential election results. (Courtesy: Mark Newman)

By James Dacey

In the world of political punditry, the US election results are usually represented by a map of the nation with each of the 50 states coloured either blue for a Democrat victory or red for a Republican victory. The resulting map – this year, at least – can appear at odds with the overall election result, as large swathes of the sparsely populated centre were Republican red, whereas the geographically smaller but densely populated west coast and north-east regions were Democrat blue.

A more nuanced view has been offered up by Mark Newman, a physicist at the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan. In this cartogram he has broken down the regions into counties rather than states, and the shade of purple represents the balance between Republican and Democrat. The size of individual counties is proportional to its population, and subsequently its influence on the “electoral college” vote, which ultimately determines the outcome of the election.

You can see several other visualizations of the election result on Newman’s web page.

By Hamish Johnston

If you can get beyond the overuse of “awesome” and its derivatives, this video asks some important questions about how physics is taught in US schools – and in many other countries around the world.

Presented as a “letter” to President Barack Obama, the video claims that no physics developed after 1865 is included in standard curricula taught in American high schools. I say curricula, because education is the domain of the individual US states and not the responsibility of the president – but that’s a moot point.

Why 1865? The video doesn’t say, but my guess is that’s the year that James Clerk Maxwell published the first version of his famous equations.

The narrator points out that in other disciplines it would be ridiculous not to cover modern breakthroughs. Imagine a biology curriculum without DNA or geology without plate tectonics, for example.

The video rubbishes the idea that topics such as quantum mechanics and relativity cannot be taught without university-level mathematics. This, I agree with. Indeed, high-school students are taught aspects of quantum mechanics when they learn about chemical bonding without the need for advanced mathematics.

It also argues that pupils are missing out on making important connections between modern technology and modern physics – something that makes studying physics exciting and relevant.

Of course, if more high-school time is devoted to modern physics, then less will be spent on the “fundamentals”. This could lead to complaints from university educators that students are not prepared. But maybe that’s a price worth paying for more balanced and much more interesting high-school physics classes.

By James Dacey

Facebook poll As Barack Obama clears out the champagne bottles and faces the political and economic realities of another four years in the White House, the time is ripe to reflect on his first term in office. I think it is fair to say that there has not exactly been a lot of money sloshing around over the past few years, and the current election campaigning focused strongly on how the presidential candidates plan to fix the economy. But, considering the economic context of the past four years, we want you to consider how well you think Obama has handled science: its funding, its priorities and whether his general approach has been informed by science. Please let us know what you think via this week’s Facebook poll.

How would you grade Barack Obama’s governance of US science during his first presidential term?

A – Awesome
B – Brave effort given the economic constraints
C – Could have done better
D – Dreadful

To cast your vote please visit our Facebook page, and please feel free to post a comment to explain your decision.

Last week’s poll also had a political theme. We asked you to select from a list of scientist-turned-politicians the one that you believe has been the best political leader. The most popular choice was Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany, who has a background in physical chemistry. The least popular on our list was the former Greek prime minister Lucas Papademos, who gained a Bachelor’s degree in physics before holding office for little more than six months between 2011 and 2012.

Thank you for taking part and we hope to hear from you again this week.

Lovell telescope
Careful where you point that thing, Brian: the Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank.
(Courtesy: Jodrell Bank)

By Hamish Johnston

Two things that draw ire in the UK’s Daily Telegraph are the BBC and the “health and safety culture”. It’s no surprise, therefore, that this story about Brian Cox and an aborted search for alien life has appeared in that venerable newspaper’s science section.

Cox claims that while filming a television programme at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester, he was told by BBC bosses that he could not point a radio telescope at an exoplanet in case he detected signals from alien life.


“The BBC actually said ‘You can’t do that. We need to go through the regulations, and health and safety, and everything in case we discover a signal from an alien civilization’,” Cox is reported to have said in a radio interview.

Animal magic

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By Matin Durrani


If you’re lucky enough to be a member of the Institute of Physics, you’ll have had access for almost a week now to the November 2012 issue of Physics World – either in print or through our digital issue, which you can access online or via our apps for smartphone and tablet devices.

But as the November issue is a special issue devoted to “animal physics”, we felt we wanted to share the issue more widely because we know how much everyone loves animals. So from today we’re making the issue available in free downloadable PDF form.

Of course, the PDF doesn’t have all the goodies of the digital issue, which this month includes some fantastic videos and audio of animals in action. But nevertheless the PDF is packed with a series of fascinating photos and features on a selection of animals all of which have some interesting physics involved in their daily lives.

So you can read how mosquitoes survive collisions with raindrops, find out why a certain species of hornet has an in-built solar cell, and discover why lions – strange as it may seem – roar like babies cry. You can also examine the age-old question of why zebras have stripes and ask whether cats and dogs drink in the same way.

Plus there is a series of seven fabulous images each devoted to a particular animal with some amazing physics powers. Download the PDF now.

Remember that if you want to read Physics World every month you can join the Institute of Physics as an IOPimember quickly and easily online by visiting the Institute’s website. IOPimember includes an annual digital subscription to Physics World.

And while I’m on animals, don’t forget to register – if you haven’t already – for our free online lecture on animal physics, which will be given by David Hu from the “laboratory for biolocomotion” at Georgia Institute of Technology at 3.00 p.m GMT on Thursday 8 November. You can register via this link.

Which scientist has been the best political leader?

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By James Dacey

Facebook poll With the US presidential election now just a few days away, it got us talking here at the Physics World offices about politics and the qualities required for effective political leadership. We were all in agreement that the decision-making process in politics is very different from that in science: in politics decisions often need to be made quickly before all the facts are known. Solutions in politics also tend to be more controversial, with opposing interest groups vying for different outcomes. (Though that’s not to say that science is devoid of politics!) These differences are discussed in a much more nuanced way in this recent article by the philosopher and historian Robert P Crease.

We were also in agreement on two other points. First, that there are not enough top politicians with science backgrounds, and second, that a government made up entirely of scientists would more than likely be a disastrous one. There have, however, been several notable exceptions of scientists who have been political leaders of countries. In this week’s Facebook poll we want you to let us know how effective you think these leaders were.

Which of these scientists has been the best political leader?

Angela Merkel (Germany, physics)
Margaret Thatcher (UK, chemistry)
Yukio Hatoyama (Japan, engineering)
Abdul Kalam (India, physics)
Lucas Papademos (Greece, physics)

To cast your vote please visit our Facebook page, and please feel free to post a comment to explain your decision.

In last week’s poll we looked at the issue of gender bias in the job market. It followed a recent psychological study that found that a set of researchers assessing the employability of early-career scientists subconsciously favoured male students over female candidates. We asked if you believe that physics employers have a subconscious bias towards male job applicants. 67% of respondents replied “yes”.

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

Share your photos of animal physics

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By James Dacey


(Courtesy: Nowack, Dickerson, Hu/Georgia Tech)

All animals obey the laws of physics but some creatures do so with more panache than others. The November issue of Physics World reveals the extraordinary physics behind animal activities from the everyday – such as how cats and dogs drink – to the otherworldly, such as the super shrimp that can fracture aquarium glass with its clubs.

For the latest Physics World photo challenge we want you to share your photos of animal physics. As always we encourage you to be creative in the way you interpret the theme. But if you are looking for inspiration you might want to think about some of the animal behaviour that has dazzled and intrigued scientists over the years. How the peacock’s feathers have structures that produce beautiful shimmering colours to attract female mates, or how pond skaters can skip so effortlessly across water, for example.

To take part please upload your images to our Flickr page by Friday 4 January, and after this date we will showcase a selection of the best animal physics photos on Happy snapping!

Members of the Institute of Physics can access the digital version of the November animal physics issue of Physics World via this link. It’s packed with a series of fascinating photos, videos and features on a selection of animals, all of which have some interesting physics involved in their daily lives.

The November 2012 issue of Physics World is out now

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By Matin Durrani

PWNov12cover-200.jpg If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, it’s time to tuck into the November 2012 issue of Physics World, which is a special issue devoted to the facinating field of “animal physics”. It’s packed with a series of fascinating photos, videos and features on a selection of animals all of which have some interesting physics involved in their daily lives.

Read – and watch – how mosquitoes survive collisions with raindrops, find out why a certain species of hornet has a in-built solar cell, and listen to why lions – strange as it may seem – roar like babies. We also examine the age-old question of why zebras have stripes and ask whether cats and dogs drink in the same way.

Plus, we have a series of seven fabulous images each devoted to a particular animal with some amazing physics powers.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can access the entire new issue online free of charge through the digital edition of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto an 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.

The industrial academyIBM’s Zurich Research Centre opened its doors 50 years ago, quickly becoming one of the world’s top research institutions. But does it still live up to its illustrious past? Philip Ball reports

The benefits of reaching out – Publicizing research is becoming more important as part of a physicist’s job. Pablo Jensen argues that rather than just take time away from research, outreach can actually foster it

Primate physics – Having recently discussed in this column whether skateboarders and other athletes really “know” physics, here Robert P Crease wonders if primates do as well

How the zebra got its stripes – Biophysicists are offering new clues to this age-old mystery, as Jon Cartwright reports

Lapping it up – Cats are slow and elegant, dogs are quick and messy – but is the physics of their drinking all that different? Jon Cartwright reports

Vespan voltageTushna Commissariat explains why Oriental hornets are masters of solar power

Fly away home – Far from being “bird brained”, members of the avian family have an amazing array of techniques to help them navigate their way across vast oceans and continents. Mark Denny examines the physics of bird navigation

Riding raindriops – Mosquitoes regularly collide with raindrops up to 50 times their own body mass and yet, remarkably, they live on to bite another victim. Stephen Ornes explains how scientists have figured out how these insects survive such a violent impact

Walking on water – Why can pond skaters skip so effortlessly across water? Stephen Ornes explains how these creatures’ secrets were revealed using dyed water and a high-speed video camera

Why lions roar like babies cry – When an angry lion roars, the sounds it emits can terrify anyone within earshot. But, as Ingo Titze explains, the properties of a lion’s roar have some surprising similarities with those of a crying baby

A strange cat in Dublin’Cormac O’Raifeartaigh reviews Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin

Soft matter’s charismatic pioneerTom McLeish reviews Pierre-Gilles de Gennes: a Life in Science by Laurence Plévert

Starting from scratchMehdi Yazdanpanah describes how he turned his PhD research into a successful small business, despite starting off with just $500 in his bank account

Consider a spherical cow – In this month’s Lateral Thoughts column, Margaret Harris wonders just what a spherical bovine animal would really be like

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.