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Business and innovation

Name that column

10 Jan 2018 Margaret Harris
Photographs of laser cutting and solar-cell manufacturing
Two cultures

By Margaret Harris

Covering the commercial side of physics has its challenges. Because physics is such a diverse subject, people who train as physicists find their way into a host of different industries. Once there, they tend to blend in with graduates of other scientific disciplines, who are both more numerous and more likely to have their field in their job title: “physicist” is a relatively uncommon title compared to, say, “engineer”. It also doesn’t help that companies, unlike universities, almost never encourage employees to set up official, publicly accessible websites with contact info and details of what they’re working on right now.

But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, and one of Physics World’s resolutions for 2018 (right behind laying off the biscuits and getting more exercise) is to put more emphasis on covering industrial and applied physics. As part of that, we’re introducing a new column in the magazine that will explore the interactions between physics, industry and business in general. In this way, we hope to raise the profile of physicists in industry and, by extension, to emphasize the value that physicists bring to the commercial sector.

This new column has an author: step forward James McKenzie, a physicist and CEO of the smart-LED lighting manufacturer PhotonStar LED group who is also vice-president for business at the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World. After some discussions at last year’s IOP Business Innovation Awards (an annual event that honours businesses that have achieved success based on applications of physics), he kindly agreed to get the column off the ground.

What this column doesn’t have, though, is a name – and we’d like your help in choosing between ideas on our shortlist.

One possibility would be to name the column after a physics concept with links to business, industry or commerce. Many regular features in Physics World magazine already have names of this type, including Robert P Crease’s “Critical Point” column, which explores the relationships between physics, philosophy, art and society. Although “Critical Point” is named for the point on a pressure–temperature phase diagram where phase boundaries vanish, Crease (as regular readers know) also makes plenty of “critical points” in the more literary or philosophical sense.  In that spirit, we suggest the name Transactions – a word associated with database operations, exchanges of money or goods, and the published reports of scientific societies (plus a somewhat niche interpretation of quantum mechanics).

The alternative is to name the column after a notable physicist whose work spanned both fundamental and applied research, or whose career epitomized the relationship between physics and innovation. McKenzie’s suggestion in this category is Joseph Swan, who patented an electric light bulb 10 years before Thomas Edison, but then, for a range of reasons, failed to commercialize it, and is seldom now recognized as the device’s inventor. “Being first doesn’t mean success in business,” McKenzie observes. In fact, he adds, the process of starting a business is a bit like a swan taking off from a river or pond – “It looks graceful from a distance, but up close and under the water it’s a frantic struggle to get airborne.”

If you have a favourite of these two suggestions (or an idea of your own – but be warned, we’ve ruled out Physics McPhysicsface and its kin), please let us know by e-mail at Alternatively, you can simply vote for your preferred option on our Twitter poll. Finally, if names aren’t your thing, but you’d love to see McKenzie address a particular topic in a future column, get in touch. With your help, we’ll stick to our New Year’s industrial resolution.

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