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Everyday science

Everyday science

Climate change and chaos, the many faces of physics, spider-silk superlenses and more

06 May 2016 Tushna Commissariat


By Tushna Commissariat

In case you have ever wondered why so many theoretical physicists study climate change, physicist Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford in the UK has a simple answer: “because climate change is a problem in theoretical physics”. Indeed, Palmer, who won the Institute of Physics’ 2014 Dirac medal, studies the predictability and dynamics of weather and climate, in the hopes of developing accurate predictions of long-term climate change. The answer, according to Palmer, lies at the intersection between chaos theory and inexact computing – which requires us to stop thinking of computers as deterministic calculating machines and to instead “embrace inexactness” in computing. Palmer talked about all this and more in the latest public lecture from the Perimeter Institute in Canada – you can watch his full talk above.

When someone says the word “physicist”, what image or persona comes to mind? That is the question the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) was hoping to answer with its recent member survey based on diversity, titled “What Does a Physicist Look Like?” The Institute’s main aim with this diversity survey, which about 13% of its members responded to, was “to understand the profile of our members and gain some insights into who they are – diverse people with different ages, ethnicities, beliefs and much more”. You can read its entire results here.

And if you are in the mood for some more data and reports, take a look at this rather telling report from the White House on “Big Data: a Report on Algorithmic Systems, Opportunity,and Civil Rights“. According to the White House blog, the report was based on case studies of “credit lending, employment, higher education and criminal justice” and illustrates how big data techniques can be used to detect and prevent bias and discrimination, while also highlighting the specific risks involved when “technologies can deliberately or inadvertently perpetuate, exacerbate or mask discrimination”.

For those of you wondering exactly what the inside of a black hole looks like and how such a volatile environment would affect objects from everyday lives, take a look at this post on the JPhys+ blog by physicist Simone Taioli at the Charles University in Prague. Based on a recent paper in the Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter (published by IOP Publishing), he talks about how they use both crystallographic group theory and computer simulations to answer those questions without throwing themselves into the pits of a black hole.

For some light weekend reading, take a look at this MIT Technology Review blog post about how spider silk has been used to make the first ever biological superlens.

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