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Matin Durrani: August 2012 Archives

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

By Matin Durrani

It’s probably because he was born and raised in Bristol, UK – the city where Physics World is based – that my colleagues and I perhaps give a disproportionate amount of coverage to Paul Dirac compared with other great theoretical physicists of the 20th century.


But although Dirac did his most famous work at the University of Cambridge, where he was Lucasian professor for more than 35 years, it is nevertheless true to say that his approach to science was forged by his educational experiences in Bristol, as Graham Farmelo’s classic 2009 biography makes clear.

Dirac studied for two separate degrees in engineering and mathematics at the University of Bristol and before that gained a wealth of practical experience, particularly in the art of technical drawing, when he was a pupil at Merchant Venturers’ Technical College – an institution that was the forerunner of today’s Cotham School.

Given that 8 August is the day on which Dirac was born back in 1902, I thought today an appropriate moment to mention an interesting new artwork (see right, click to enlarge) that is currently on show at Cotham School.

Created by Eric Hardy, the work is an alternative version of the traditional end-of-year school photograph and consists of a pixelated image of Dirac himself. All the pixels, however, have been replaced by photos taken in 2010 – when Hardy was still at Cotham School – of fellow pupils, teachers and other members of staff.

“As such it connects the past to the present, the individual to the collective,” says Hardy’s father Tim.

The original artwork, which is printed on a canvas about 100 × 90 cm in size, was on display at the school in May when its other great former pupil – the University of Edinburgh theorist Peter Higgspaid a visit.

If you can’t make out Dirac in the image, try scrunching up your eyeballs.

And talking of Dirac, don’t forget that today is also the day that the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste awards its annual Dirac prize, which this year went to Duncan Haldane, Charles Kane and Shoucheng Zhang for their work on a new class of exotic materials called “topological insulators”.