This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film's multimedia channel features exclusive video interviews with leading figures in the physics community.

Visit our multimedia channel to see the latest video.

Matin Durrani: July 2011 Archives

By Matin Durrani

With the world’s leading particle physicists meeting in Grenoble right now to discuss the latest results from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Tevatron machine at Fermilab in the US, I couldn’t resist pointing out a great new video from Fermilab’s Don Lincoln about what the Higgs boson is all about and why it’s interesting.

Rather than launching straight into the nature of the Higgs boson, Lincoln begins quite rightly with the Higgs field – the energy field that permeates the entire universe and interacts with subatomic particles to give them their mass.

In doing so, Lincoln draws a comparison between a barracuda gliding effortlessly through water and Don’s rather rotund buddy “Eddie” who is “no stranger to doughnuts”.

The water serves the role of the Higgs field and the barracuda, “being supremely streamlined”, interacts – like a low-mass particle – only slightly with the field and can glide through it very easily. Eddie, in contrast, moves only very slowly through the water, being like a massive particle that interacts a lot with the water.

In other words, if the Higgs field didn’t exist, then neither the top quark nor the electron, for example, would have any mass at all.

To explain the Higgs boson itself, Lincoln continues his water theme – explaining how just as water is made of individual H2O molecules, so the Higgs field is made up of countless Higgs bosons.

Meanwhile, for the real news from the International Europhysics Conference on High Energy Physics in Grenoble, stay tuned to, where our reporter is prowling the conference halls and lecture rooms for the latest news.

And finally, if you want more on the hunt for the Higgs, don’t forget this great article from Physics World magazine by prolific blogger and CERN particle physicist Tommaso Dorigo or our own video. It’s from March but still well worth watching.

By Matin Durrani


It is perhaps a little-known fact that Griffin – the main character in H G Wells’ classic novel The Invisible Man – was a physicist. In the 1897 book, Griffin explains how he quit medicine for physics and developed a technique that made himself invisible by reducing his body’s refractive index to match that of air.

While Wells’ novel is obviously a work of fiction, the quest for invisibility has made real progress in recent years – and is the inspiration for this month’s special issue of Physics World, which you can download for free via this link.

Kicking off the issue is Sidney Perkowitz, who takes us on a whistle-stop tour of invisibility through the ages – from its appearance in Greek mythology to camouflaging tanks on the battlefield – before bringing us up to date with recent scientific developments.

Ulf Leonhardt then takes a light-hearted look at the top possible applications of invisibility science. Hold on to your hats for invisibility cloaks, perfect lenses and the ultimate anti-wrinkle cream.

Some of these applications might be years away, but primitive invisibility cloaks have already been built, with two independent groups of researchers having recently created cloaks operating with visible light that can conceal centimetre-scale objects, including a paper clip, a steel wedge and a piece of paper. But as Wenshan Cai and Vladimir Shalaev explain, these cloaks only work under certain conditions, namely with polarized light, in a 2D configuration and with the cloak immersed in a high-refractive-index liquid. It seems that the holy grail of hiding macroscopic objects viewed from any angle using unpolarized visible light is still some way off.

The special issue ends with a look at something even more fantastic-sounding – the possibility of creating a cloak that works not just in space but in space–time. Although no such “event cloak” has yet been built, Martin McCall and Paul Kinsler outline the principles of how it would work and describe what might be possible with a macroscopic, fully functioning device that conceals events from view. These applications range from the far-fetched, such as the illusion of a Star Trek-style transporter, to the more mundane, such as controlling signals in an optical routing system.

But, hey, that’s enough of me banging on about the special issue. Download it for free now and find out for yourself. And don’t forget to let us know what you think by e-mailing us at or via our Facebook or Twitter pages.

P.S. If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, you can in addition read the issue in digital form via this link, where you can also listen to, search, share, save, print, archive and even translate individual articles. How’s that for value?

Out in the outback

| | TrackBacks (0)
Out and about in Boolardy
Antony Schinckel (centre right) and Barry Turner (centre left) with a finished ASKAP dish

By Matin Durrani in Boolardy, Australia

Our eight-seater plane landed safely on the sandy red airstrip at the remote Boolardy homestead deep inside Western Australia.

There to meet us was Barry Turner, site manager for the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory, which is currently building two key astronomy facilities here in the Australian outback – the Murchsion Widefield Array and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) project.

ASKAP will, when complete next February, consist of 36 parabolic antennae, of which six are currently built. Apart from being 10 times more powerful than any existing radiotelescope in the world, ASKAP is also designed to show that Boolardy is a suitable location for Australia’s bid for the Square Kilometre Array – an even larger radiotelescope array that will, when complete, consist of some 3000 dishes.

ASKAP astronomers, including project director Antony Schinckel, naturally think their site is a worthy location for SKA, although they are at pains not to discuss or comment on the rival SKA bid from various nations in southern Africa.

After lunch and the obligatory safety briefing, which included warnings about possible venomous snakes, Schinckel drove us off by 4×4 van to the telescope site, which was bathed in pleasantly warm winter sunshine. (Summers, in contrast, can easily rocket above the 40 °C mark.)

On site were various constructions workers digging roads and levelling the site, but it was also interesting to see staff from the Chinese Electrical Technology Corporation, which is making the ASKAP dishes in China, shipping them to Australia and then building them here in the outback.

Their presence explains the Chinese menus in the Boolardy lunchroom, although quite what they make of Australia’s local delicacy – Vegemite – I am not sure.

The six completed dishes consist of a supporting structure that will house electroncs cables, topped by a steerable 12 m-diameter dish. So smooth are the dishes that they are no more than 0.6 mm out from a perfect parabolic shape.

Barry and Antony gave us a detailed run-down of the dishes, but with the Australian sun quickly setting, it was imperative that we did not hang around for too long so that we could fly away before sunset. By nightfall, the unlit landing strip would be so dark that taking off would be impossible.

And soon we were soaring above the ASKAP site for the 90-minute flight back to Perth. A fitting and illuminating end to my week-long trip to Australia.

Schinckel joined us on the flight. While my fellow European science journalists and I are to return to Europe, for Schinckel the work goes on. He and numerous other members of Australia’s SKA bid team are flying to Banff in Canada next week for a high-level discussion meeting where its bid – and that from southern Africa – are to be evaluated.

I get the feeling the Australian team is pretty confident of winning the SKA bid but, as I said earlier, they resolutely refuse to get drawn on the matter. We shall see who wins when the final decision is announced on 29 February next year.