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Margaret Harris: August 2011 Archives

Test match physics

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A cricket ball sitting in grass

A cricket ball at rest

By Margaret Harris

Late yesterday afternoon, I was pottering around with the BBC’s Test Match Special on in the background when something in the cricket commentary caught my attention. In-between the usual chatter about English bowling (good), Indian batting (bad) and the latest cakes delivered to the TMS commentary box (excellent), the conversation suddenly turned to physics – specifically, to the question of whether a ball could gain speed after nicking the edge of a bat.

The matter was raised after an Indian batsman, V V S Laxman, edged a delivery from Jimmy Anderson, an English bowler. The ball spurted off towards England’s captain, Andrew Strauss, who couldn’t quite catch it. After lamenting the missed opportunity, one of the TMS commentators suggested that Strauss might have mistimed his catch because the ball gained speed after glancing off Laxman’s bat. The commentators then spent the next several minutes talking a load of old rubbish about whether this was physically possible.

Then, shortly after 6 p.m., a secondary-school physics student, Laurence Copson, sent a message to the BBC’s online commentary team claiming that no, it wasn’t possible. “Removing all external forces on the ball, under no circumstance would the ball gain speed after a nick…as [the] bat would be slightly hitting the ball in the opposite direction,” he wrote. However, he did add a caveat: “What may be deceiving is if the batsmen swipes, catches an edge and then the ball gains top-spin and seems to reach the ground quicker than usual.”

This analysis was quickly contradicted by Rob, a university astrophysics student, who pointed out that Copson was neglecting both the elastic coefficients of ball and bat, and (more importantly) “the spin on the ball before it hits the bat which, if very fine, may accelerate the ball…in the direction of spin (like a car with its wheels spinning hitting the ground goes forward)”.

This seemed fair enough, but Rob’s parting shot – ”this is the real world, external forces on the ball can’t be discounted!” – struck me as rather snide, so I decided to do some analysis of my own.

By Margaret Harris

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Today is the day when hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive the results of their A-level exams, which will determine where (and whether) they go to university in the coming academic year. The subsequent flood of exam statistics will keep education-policy experts busy for the next few days, but it’s already emerged that the number of students taking the physics A-level exam has gone up, rising 6.1% since 2010 and 19.6% over the past five years.

This is welcome news, and it’s the inspiration behind this week’s Facebook poll, which asks:

What is the main benefit of studying physics at university?

As usual, you can cast your vote on our Facebook page.

Now, as for the reasons behind the increase in physics A-level students, several commentators have cited the improving image of physics in pop culture, as evidenced by television shows like Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe and the US comedy The Big Bang Theory. Even the IOP’s president, Peter Knight, has suggested that the “Brian Cox effect” and publicity surrounding CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may have helped propel physics back into the list of the 10 most popular A-level subjects for the first time since 2002.

But with all due respect to Knight, I’m personally dubious about the influence of pop culture in this case. The UK’s education system forces students to specialize early, so the current crop of A-level students will have begun narrowing down their options at least three years ago. Back then, The Big Bang Theory had only been on UK television for a few months, the LHC was still under construction and the two Wonders programmes were but gleams in Cox’s eye. So it’ll be a few years before we’ll know the true extent of their impact.

I’d place more weight on the second half of Knight’s statement, in which he noted that “Many students are also responding to calls from university leaders, businesses and the government to choose subjects which will provide the skills our country needs.” Campaigns by all these groups to boost science have been going on for years, and economic uncertainty (which, in the UK, dates back to 2007, when the bank Northern Rock collapsed) has probably made students more receptive to them. It’s worth noting that the last time the UK had so many physics students was in 2002, when the world economy was still recovering from the dot-com bust.

Anyway, regardless of the reasons behind physics’ new-found semi-popularity, we wish all students luck with their results – and those who plan to continue their physics education at university should watch this space next week, when we’ll discuss your views on the benefits of studying physics.

What physicists do

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By Margaret Harris

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Last week’s Facebook poll asked a pretty straightforward question:

If you have a physics degree, what do you do for a living?

The options we offered were engineering, finance, IT, research and teaching, and voters could also add their own choices. Among the 161 people who voted, “research” was by far the most popular category, accounting for 45% of the total (N.B. we went ahead and classed the three people who said they were graduate students under “research”). The runner-up was engineering, with 16% of the vote, closely followed by teaching (15%) and IT (13%).

The only user-generated option to attract more than two votes was “science communication”, which picked up six – just shy of 4%. That’s more than finance got, but maybe most physicists in finance are too busy dealing with the financial crisis to vote in Facebook polls.

One final note: could the person who said they were an “inflatable entertainment company owner” please e-mail us at We publish a column in Physics World called Once a physicist that profiles physicists with unusual jobs and, frankly, you’re a shoo-in for a future edition.

Space shuttle rap

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By Michael Banks

It had to come didn’t it? With the launch of the last and final flight of the Space Shuttle Programme last month when NASA’s Atlantis shuttle landed back on Earth after an 11-day mission to the International Space Station, the rap video couldn’t be too far off.

So yesterday a tweet from @NASAKennedy – the official Twitter stream of NASA’s Kennedy Space Flight Center – allayed any fears that the rap wouldn’t emerge when it posted a link to the video saying “You know your curiosity will get the better of you so you might as well click.”

Featuring a group of youths dressed in NASA jump suits rapping about the history of the Space Shuttle Programme, I will leave it up to you to decide whether the rap beats the likes of the Climate Change Rap, the Hubble Rap or the Large Hadron Rap.

By Margaret Harris

In last week’s Facebook poll we asked

Do you consider yourself a physicist?

This proved to be one of our most popular polls yet, with 214 responses. Of these, a narrow majority (55%) said that yes, they considered themselves physicists, while 15% chose “no” and 30% agreed that for them, “it’s complicated”.

A number of people were kind enough to explain their responses in the poll’s comments section. We really appreciate this, because it tells us a lot more than the raw numbers can. For example, judging from the comments, there seems to be some difference of opinion over the question of what makes a physicist a physicist.

For some, it’s primarily down to training or education. “I feel that I really can’t call myself a physicist because I don’t have anything hanging on the wall saying ‘Tom Sullivan is hereby granted and honoured as a physicist’, “ wrote, er, Tom Sullivan, who answered “it’s complicated”. Another who mentioned training was Kate Oliver, a science writer who regularly contributes to Physics World’s “Lateral Thoughts” humour column. “I like to consider myself a physicist as I have the relevant training, read about it and think like it,” she wrote, explaining her “yes” vote. However, she added, “since I haven’t been in the lab for three years, my ‘physicistique’ may have expired”.

The idea that physicist-hood might carry an expiry date suggests an alternative definition – one that focuses not on who you are or what you know, but on what you do. (The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who believed that “to do is to be”, would love this definition.) Like Oliver, Bruce Etherington is a science communicator with a physics degree, but he answered “it’s complicated” because “Most practising physicists would probably not consider me to be one.” Another in the “it’s complicated” camp, Steve Douglas, wrote “I think to be a physicist you’ve got to specialize in it, rather than just be pretty good at it.”

At, we tend towards a pretty broad definition of physicist – one that encompasses, at minimum, those who have studied physics at degree level (or higher) and who remain interested in learning about it.

But since these Facebook polls are about your views, not ours, we’ll leave the last word to Michael Eliachevitch, a soon-to-be physics student who wrote that “being a physicist means [being] part of a large adventure to discover the world we are living in”. Good luck on your adventure, Michael!

By Margaret Harris

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We had so many responses to last week’s Facebook poll – which asked “Do you consider yourself a physicist?” – that we’re giving everyone a few more hours to respond before we blog about the results. So if you haven’t yet answered yes, no or it’s complicated, there’s still time to do so via our Facebook page.

In the meantime, I’d like to conclude this round of career-related polls with a somewhat less metaphysical question:

If you have a degree in physics, which option best describes what you do for a living?

We’re interested in sectors here, not specific job titles, so to get you started, we’ve listed five options – engineering, finance, IT, research and teaching – that more rigorous surveys suggest are popular among physics graduates. However, if you don’t fit in any of these boxes, you’re more than welcome to add your own category (legal? medicine/health? communications?).

Speaking of being rigorous, we at are well aware that Facebook polls aren’t. However, that does not mean they’re useless, or even “just a bit of fun”. We’re interested in hearing from you and we take your opinions seriously – they help us keep in touch with what individual members of the physics community think and care about. So treat these polls like the office water cooler, departmental common room or anywhere else that people gather to share their views – and if you want proper statistics on physics education and research, try the Institute of Physics’ policy department instead.

By Margaret Harris

Women in science are more likely than men to have smaller families than they would like because of their demanding academic careers – but men are more likely to be unhappy about it. This is the striking conclusion of a new study that also demonstrated a strong link between concerns about family size and a desire among junior researchers of both sexes to leave science altogether.

The study, which was conducted by two Texas-based sociologists, Elaine Ecklund and Anne Lincoln, is unusual in that it examines the effect of scientific careers on men as well as women. Some of the similarities they found are as intriguing as the differences. For example, although scientists who have children work fewer hours per week than those who do not, the mothers in the data set were working as long as the fathers, averaging 54.5 and 53.9 hours per week respectively. Male and female faculty members were also equally likely (16.6% vs 17.1%) to report being somewhat or strongly dissatisfied with their lives outside work. Among graduate students and postdocs, Ecklund and Lincoln found no significant gender differences in respondents’ career satisfaction or the number of children they had.

However, some of their other results make sobering reading for those concerned about the “leaky pipeline” for women in science. Although male and female grad students and postdocs reported similar levels of career satisfaction, and were almost equally likely to seek jobs in industry or as research scientists, a gender gap opened up in the numbers seeking a tenure-track academic position. While 66.5% of male students said they wanted a faculty role, only 60.1% of women agreed; for postdocs, the gap was larger, 84% to 69.2%. And among survey respondents who had already made it to the top of the academic pyramid, women were somewhat more likely than men (15.% to 11.5%) to report being dissatisfied with their working lives.

By Margaret Harris

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A fortnight ago our weekly Facebook poll asked:

How often do you use physics at work?

The most common answer by far, with 62 out of 80 votes (about 78%) was “a lot – practically every day”.

Given our readership, such a response was hardly surprising, but a few of those who voted with the majority wondered if the poll even made sense. As a reader with the intriguing alias of “Grannie Cool” observed, “Everything is physics, so that’s a loaded question!” while Ahmed Al Bashir pointed out that even human behaviour seems to obey the laws of action and reaction. The most creative response came from the Twitter user @Timewrapper, who claimed that they use the principle of energy conservation every day – by sleeping all day long. Let’s hope their boss isn’t reading this.

Some of the minority responses were also interesting. We particularly liked the one from someone at a company that makes merino outdoor gear, who informed us that one of the company’s partners has an MPhys, “but on a day-to-day basis, it hasn’t much relevance”.

Which leads us nicely into this week’s poll, which is:

Do you consider yourself a physicist?

You can vote here and in the best Facebook tradition, the possible answers are “yes”, “no” and “it’s complicated”. (If you place yourself in the third category, we’d really like to know why!) We’ll discuss the answers next week, and they’ll also help inform our October special section on careers for physics graduates.