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Recently by Matin Durrani

By Matin Durrani


It’s the first of the month so – as if by clockwork – the February issue of Physics World is now ready for your enjoyment, in print, online and through our apps.

Our lead news story this month is about how Barack Obama, who was sworn in for a second term as US president last month, deals with the US “fiscal cliff” and what impact any resolution has on funding for science.

Elsewhere, we examine the lasting impact of two famous astronomers – Fred Hoyle and Sir Bernard Lovell. The former’s impact is felt most acutely in the “Hoyle state” – a short-lived excited form of carbon-12 that holds the clue to life in the universe but is still baffling today’s best nuclear physicists. As for Lovell, his notorious visits to the Soviet Union in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War might have been frowned upon by authorities in the West, but they set the tone for international collaboration and helped to pave the way to today’s ITER fusion experiment.

There’s also a great feature on how researchers are gaining valuable information about the black hole Cygnus X-1. Plus don’t miss Peter Kenny’s lateral thoughts about the mysteries of mathematical subtraction and find out why friends hold the key to career success.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, 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.

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

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

Fiscal cliff leaves funding concerns – Impending cuts to science may temper the optimism that some physicists had over the re-election of Barack Obama, as Peter Gwynne reports

The rocky road to reform – A power struggle at one of Serbia’s largest and best known science institutes has led to its director being forced to resign after allegedly failing to restructure the lab, as Mićo Tatalović reports

Thinking big about the future – As the US eyes a manned mission to an asteroid or Mars, Kirstin Matthews and Padraig Moloney argue that NASA needs better support for basic research – especially nanotechnology – to realize such ambitions

Game-show physicsRobert P Crease explains why science is never an idealized process that operates following simple rules

The secret of life – Life as we know it would not be possible were it not for a particular nuclear energy level of carbon-12 predicted 60 years ago by Fred Hoyle. But the true nature of this energy level remains one of the biggest unsolved questions in nuclear physics, say David Jenkins and Oliver Kirsebom

A fusion of minds – Mystery still surrounds the visit of the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell to the Soviet Union in 1963. But his collaboration – and that of other British scientists – eased geopolitical tensions at the height of the Cold War and paved the way for today’s global ITER fusion project, as Richard Corfield explains

The swan’s dark heart – Astronomers discovered what they thought was the first black hole more than 40 years ago but have only recently verified its identity by establishing its distance, mass and spin. These fascinating observations are yielding new insights into Cygnus X-1’s past and future, as Ken Croswell explains

Another side of black holesKulvinder Singh Chadha reviews Gravity’s Engines: the Other Side of Black Holes by Caleb Scharf

Visible improvementsJames Davenport reviews Visual Strategies: a Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers by Felice Frenkel and Angela DePace

Forget about networkingMarc Kuchner argues that if scientists really want to advance their careers, they should concentrate on making friends instead of networking

Borrowing from nowhere – In this month’s Lateral Thoughts, Peter Kenny gets all mixed up with subtraction

By Matin Durrani

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons
event. (CC BY Fred Benenson)

It’s surprising the little nuggets of information that come our way here in the Physics World office.

A couple of weeks back, for example, we received an e-mail from Paul Ginsparg, the Cornell University physicist who set up the now-ubiquitous arXiv pre-print server more than 20 years ago.

Ginsparg had written a great article for us back in 2008, when Physics World celebrated its 20th anniversary, in which he reflected on the early days of the Web and examined how it has changed scientific communication.

At one point in that article, Ginsparg discussed the growing influence of blogs, describing how he watched someone at a scientific seminar blogging with seemingly expert ease.

“Glancing over my shoulder”, Ginsparg wrote, “I was struck by how a native laptop-user can navigate text and search windows faster than the eye can follow, and assemble references, photos and graphics from multiple sources, simultaneously replying to comments, and in the end spending far less time to assemble a set of useful pedagogic pages, accessible to the entire world, than I spend writing problem-set solutions for a small class.”

Ginsparg did not realize at the time who the person in question was, but he has now discovered that the mystery blogger was in fact the Internet activist and open-access advocate Aaron Swartz. Swartz had been arrested by US federal authorities in 2011 in connection with systematic downloading of journal papers form the JSTOR database and was tragically found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment on 11 January this year.

Ginsparg had been reading reports about Swartz’s death and realized, from photos of the SciFoo 2007 meeting, that Swartz was the person who had been “sitting next to me…blogging with unforgettable skill”.

“I didn’t know who he was,” Ginsparg wrote in an e-mail to me, “having missed introductions because I was going back and forth between sessions, and never did get to talk to him at all. [It was a] missed opportunity and only now I learn he was not the typical generic 20-something blogger as assumed. Oddly enough, 5.5 years later I see the precise text I’d presumably described him writing preserved here.”

You can read more about the meeting in this blog entry by the science writer George Dyson.

All together now

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Shirley Ann Jackson

Courtesy: Charles Glover

By Matin Durrani

How do you tackle the world’s biggest problems such as making sure everyone has enough food, clean water, a secure energy supply and access to proper medicine and healthcare?

According to Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US, the answer lies in a novel kind of research endeavour, which she dubs “the new polytechnic”.

Speaking at the 2013 ERA Foundation international lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London last night, Jackson spelled out the principles of such an endeavour, which would essentially involve bringing researchers from different subjects, countries, cultures and sectors together to work on important multidisciplinary problems. Exploiting computer technology, the Web and big data sets would be the key to tackling such challenges, she reckons.

Jackson, who trained as a particle theorist and is also a member of Barack Obama’s science advisory council discussed three interesting fields that, she thinks, could – indeed, already do – benefit from such an approach. They are using tissue-regeneration techniques to heal injured patients, incorporating solar panels and other forms of energy-saving devices into buildings, and exploiting the “data trails” we leave when we use social media.

I found Jackson a polished speaker, no doubt honed by her years in top positions in the US. Apart from being one of Obama’s science-policy wonks, she was boss of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission between 1995 and 1999 and is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Before that Jackson was part of the faculty at Rutgers University, spent 16 years at Bell Labs and had spells as a postdoc at Fermilab and CERN. Her impressive CV also includes a string of directorships at the likes of IBM and FedEx.

Jackson was less detailed on the nitty-gritty of setting up her “new polytechnic” or explaining who would fund such an enterprise. Last night was perhaps not the forum for those questions. But to me the elephant in the room was the whole concept of multidisciplinarity itself, which surely can only work if you have strong, vigorous disciplines in the first place. Jackson pointed to the likes of Cardinal Newman as advocates of the need for a broad education as long ago as the mid-19th century, but there are probably very valid reasons why so many of us prefer to hone our talents in a particular discipline and why the goal of multidisciplinarity can be so hard to put into practice.

Jackson hinted that leadership is the key in her new vision, highlighting Nelson Mandela as an example of the kind of bold, visionary thinker who is needed to get her blueprint off the ground. I found Mandela on odd choice given that he is not the first person you would associate with revolutions in higher education, but Jackson was right that managing, leading and encouraging multidisciplinary teams – particularly if they are spread over different continents and different time zones – is crucial.

Next stop for Jackson on her European tour is the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week. Whether she’s got time to pop in on her old haunt – CERN – I’m not sure.

By Matin Durrani

Facebook poll

It has become almost a cliché to call graphene the “wonder material”, but this super-thin 2D honeycomb array of carbon atoms boasts some enviable electronic and mechanical properties. Apart from being the strongest material ever measured, graphene is also the stiffest and has an electrical current density a million times that of copper. Hardly surprising then that companies and institutes around the world have been stumbling over themselves to carry out research into this material, which was first isolated through Nobel-prize-winning work at the University of Manchester in the UK in 2004.

But a new report from the intellectual-property consultancy CambridgeIP suggests that the UK might be losing out in the quest to commercialize this material. By the end of last year, companies and institutes in China had apparently applied for or won a total of 2204 graphene-related patents – more than any other nation – ahead of the US, with 1754, and South Korea with 1160.

The most prolific firm in the patent-filing business is the South Korean electronics giant Samsung, with 407 patents and patent applications, followed by the US tech company IBM in second, with 134. The whole of the UK, in contrast, has filed and applied for just 54 graphene patents, with only 16 of those coming from the University of Manchester. UK science minister David Willetts complained that this was “the classic problem of Britain inventing something and other countries developing it”.

But do patents tell the whole story? After all, not all patents applied for actually get granted and many graphene patents may be merely speculative applications either made as a kind of insurance policy, or as shots across the bow to ward off rival businesses from entering the same territory. And even if a company or institute has a particular patent granted, the technology still has to be exploited – plus there is always the danger of having to defend one’s patent, often at great cost.

In the University of Manchester’s case, it is therefore focusing its patent efforts on areas that are likely to be “most useful”, such as scalable manufacturing techniques, coatings and composites, and is seeking only a few patents related to applications of graphene, such as graphene-polymer composites and fluorographene. Continued research is the key, the university claims, because by the time reliable methods for making graphene have been developed, today’s patents may have in any case expired.

But is the huge number of patents on graphene a positive sign that this material could soon find its way into real products that will revolutionize our lives? Or is the fact that big business is snapping up patents likely to hamper the commercialization of graphene?

Let us know what you think by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll

Are patents hampering the commercialization of graphene?


Please feel free to explain your answer by posting a comment on the poll

In last week’s poll we asked you if you felt that university professors have one of the least stressful jobs. The question was inspired by a ranking exercise on the website, which suggested that being an academic researcher is one of the cushiest jobs around. That conclusion had got quite a few scientists pretty steamed up, so we wanted to find out what you thought.

Physics World’s Facebook followers proved to be fairly evenly split, with 47% of respondents agreeing that being a prof is an easy number and 53% saying no. One poll respondent – Leonardo Paulo Maia – felt our question was too broad-brush. For him, university professors who don’t actually do any research – and presumably are more involved in teaching and admin – definitely do have a relaxing time, even if they might be busy. He felt the really stressed-out people are the active researchers.

But another respondent – Lois Hoffer – was quite clear on her views. In a magnificent 250-word diatribe on the reality of a typical academic’s lot, Hoffer painted a picture of a life with far too much teaching, not enough money to hire a postdoc or student for research, no departmental administrators, complicated European grant applications, no office, plus poor students who jabber away during lectures, don’t know how to take exams and yet still have to be taught, marked and graded.

“Yes the money is good, and the job is for life,” Hoffer concluded. “But lack of stress?? You gotta be kidding.”

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

Welcome back

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By Matin Durrani

Hello everybody and welcome back to Physics World after the festive break.


If you’ve just got your hands on a brand new tablet device, the first thing you’ll want to do – apart from reading the latest issue of Physics World magazine, of course – is possibly to use it to write your latest scientific paper using every physicist’s favourite typesetting language – LaTeX.

Not so fast!

Unfortunately, making LaTeX function on a tablet device has been no easy task, as software developer Duncan Steele makes clear in a fascinating feature article in the January 2013 issue of Physics World. Thankfully, LaTeX is making the switch to tablets, but it’s not been plain sailing.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, 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.

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

Also in the January issue we look at promoting scientific entrepreneurism in the developing world, explore the new view of the universe as seen by the Herschel Space Observatory, find out how to eradicate experimental bias in science – plus much more besides.

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

Italy cancels €1bn SuperB colliderMichael Banks examines the repercussions of Italy’s decision to axe a new particle collider that would have produced copious amounts of B mesons

Fuelling innovation in Africa – Joining a team of entrepreneurs and technology-transfer experts in Addis Ababa, Joe Winters asks what role physics has to play in the economic growth of one of the world’s poorest nations

Identity physicsRobert P Crease calls for your new metaphors exploiting the Pauli exclusion principle and Bose–Einstein condensation

The blind physicist – Physicists might not like to admit it, but preconception and bias taint many of their experiments. Brian Clegg explores how this “experimenter bias” manifests itself, and looks at the measures some collaborations are taking to counter its effects

The revolution will be typeset – As the computing world shifts from desktops and laptops to tablet-style devices, one of the most widely used tools in physics – LaTeX – is struggling to follow. Software developer Duncan Steele explains how this typesetting program is now starting to catch up

Cool dust and baby stars – The helium that is cooling its camera is about to run out, but the data from the Herschel Space Observatory, which is designed to study how stars and galaxies form, is likely to keep sub-millimetre wavelength astronomers busy for years to come. Steve Eales explains

Fuelling the thorium dreamJess Gehin reviews Superfuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future by Richard Martin

Philosophical about space–timeClarissa Ai Ling Lee reviews Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time by Tim Maudlin

A clean solutionMichael Duncan, John Girkin and Tom McLeish describe how an unusual cross-disciplinary collaboration between Procter & Gamble and Durham University is generating benefits for both sides

Once a physicist – Meet Ted Hsu – member of parliament for Kingston and the Islands, Canada

The carbon-neutral gymMichael de Podesta wonders whether gym-goers could actually make a difference to the environment

By Matin Durrani


The latest Physics World special report, which examines the challenges for physicists in India, is ready for you to read online now.

The report contains a great mix of news, features and opinion, including a look at the work carried out a top research centres such as the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Raman Research Institute.

It also has a great podcast on “India’s physics rebels” – the students who resist the pressure to study engineering and let their passion for physics burn instead.

For the record, here’s a list of the main articles in the report.

Welcome to science city – Why is Bangalore home to so many top science institutes?

Igniting a passion for physics among India’s top students – What the Indian government is doing to get more students turned on to science

New horizons for the Tata institute – How one of Mumbai’s leading research centres has ambitious plans to expand into Hyderabad

Speaking up for women – An interview with Shobhana Narasimhan from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore

India sticks to the thorium trail – Why thorium is still so central to India’s energy plans

India sets its sight on Mars – Opinions are still divided over the country’s bold Martian plans

Digging deep for neutrinos – A look at India’s ambitious plans for a huge underground neutrino detector

Uniting Indian astronomy – An interview with Ajit Kembhavi from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune

Delivering on a promise – Shiraz Minwalla from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research says that India must urgently reform its education system.

The report reveals that money for India’s top physicists is thankfully not in short supply, but what India currently lacks is a critical concentration of highly capable scientists who can make the country a world leader in research and boost its innovation.

I hope you enjoy reading the report – and do let me have your comments by e-mailing

Love and physics on film

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By Matin Durrani

I wrote last week about the imminent launch of a new five-minute online film about particle physics, cosmology and love called The Theory of Everything.

I’d been to the launch in Covent Garden and quite liked the film, but some of my colleagues groaned that it sounded incredibly cheesy and that I might have been brainwashed in my judgement by meeting the cast and crew at the premiere.

Well, the film has just been released on YouTube so it’s now time for you to judge for yourself.

The company that made the film also has a Facebook competition to win a trip to see the Northern Lights.

By the way, the film wasn’t really filmed in Chile as the video suggests, but at an observatory in Mill Hill in London.

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 Matin Durrani


Ask a non-scientist what a theoretical physicist does and you’re likely get a shrug of the shoulders along with a guess such as “Scribbles equations all day?” Even most physics students probably don’t know what theorists really do.

In an attempt to shed light on how theoretical physicists work, the September 2012 issue of Physics World, which is now out, contains the first of an occasional series exploring the emotional challenges behind some of the most elegant, ingenious or important calculations in physics

Our plan is to look at calculations that theorists consider their own favourite or that represented a personal triumph – a reward for years of study or a moment of clarity into what science is all about. This month we examine the work of Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, Daniel Freedman and Sergio Ferrara in 1976 on the theory of “supergravity”, which combines supersymmetry with gravity.

Although there is not yet any experimental proof that supergravity is a valid description of the real world, the tale of how the theory was created – as told by science writer David Appell – is fascinating and gripping. You can read Appell’s feature “When supergravity was born” by clicking here.

Elsewhere in the issue, Magdolna Hargittai from Budapest University of Technology and Economics examines the long-standing question of whether the physicist Chien-Shiung Wu should have received a share in the 1957 Nobel Prize for Physics – or whether she missed out to theorists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang as a result of gender discrimination. Meanwhile, Henrik Melbéus and Tommy Ohlsson from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden look into whether CERN’s Large Hadron Collider could find evidence for “extra dimensions”. Plus reviews, careers, lateral thoughts, feedback and much more.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can access the entire new issue online through the free digital version of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.

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

Support mounts for ‘honeytrap’ physicistMichael Banks looks at the physics community’s attempts to support 68-year-old particle theorist Paul Frampton, who is languishing in an Argentine jail on drug-smuggling charges

Delivering on a promiseShiraz Minwalla says India’s education needs to be reformed before the country can realize its full scientific potential

Critical point: One amazing momentRobert P Crease wonders why physicists are not doing more to celebrate the centenary of one of the most important events in science – the discovery that crystals diffract X-rays

Credit where credit’s due?Magdolna Hargittai asks if physicist Chien-Shiung Wu should have received a share in the 1957 Nobel Prize for Physics – or whether she missed out to theorists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang as a result of gender discrimination

Delving into extra dimensionsHenrik Melbéus and Tommy Ohlsson describe three different theories of extra dimensions – universal, large and warped – and how these unseen dimensions could be observed, if they exist at all

Crackpots and consequencesMargaret Harris reviews Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Margaret Wertheim

Science in a dictatorshipGordon Fraser reviews The German Physical Society in the Third Reich: Physicists between Autonomy and Accommodation edited by Dieter Hoffmann and Mark Walker

Speak up – The role of spokespeople on international physics collaborations is important, complex and, as David Wark explains, requires skills that nobody ever taught you during your PhD

Once a physicist: Ralph Palmer – Meet the 12th Baron Lucas – a Conservative member of the House of Lords

Fiddling around with physics – In this month’s Lateral Thoughts column, Nicole Yunger Halpern muses on what would happen if great physics-loving musicians were to meet

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 IOPimember gives you a full year’s access to Physics World both online and through the apps.

Up, up and away

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By Matin Durrani

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

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

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

balloon fiesta

balloon fiesta

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

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

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

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

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

balloon fiesta

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

balloon fiesta

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

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

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

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

All pictures courtesy: Beth Cotterell