By Matin Durrani
For people afflicted by last month’s devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in London or for those caught up in recent terrorist atrocities, it can seem that many problems in this world are entirely of our own making.
Yes the modern world has benefited from our collective wisdom and creativity – especially through science and engineering – but often it feels as if irrational human behaviour lies at the root of many of our troubles.
Nevertheless, we should remember that our planet itself holds many natural hazards too, as the latest special issue of Physics World reminds us.
The issue starts by looking at wildfires, which are a growing threat especially as people move into fire-prone areas and build houses there. Only last month more than 60 people died in one of Portugal’s worst ever forest fires. What’s more, our ability to suppress fires is creating more trouble by leaving fuel on the ground, as Robert Kremens – who’s both a fire physicist and a firefighter – points out. One solution is to trigger deliberate, “prescribed” burns that remove the fuel in a controlled way, which researchers like Kremens are helping to study.
Tornadoes are another natural hazard. These violent, swirling storms may be short-lived but they can wreak havoc to people or property lying in their path. Atmospheric scientists know what makes a tornado – unstable air is shuttled quickly upwards along a spinning column of wind that connects the ground to a storm cloud – but they still don’t know why they occur. That’s the reason dedicated storm chasers are risking their own lives to get close enough to a tornado to gather data.
Elsewhere, we look at “slow” earthquakes – tiny, indiscernible tremors that often last for weeks as one part of a tectonic plate slowly and judderingly slips beneath another. These quiet temblors can release as much energy as a magnitude-7 earthquake and could help us to predict how some of deadliest “fast” earthquakes form.
Finally, we describe how drones equipped with scientific instruments can map active volcanoes and reveal the composition of the deadly ash they spew out.
For the record, here’s a rundown of what else is in the issue.
• Refugee scientists under the spotlight – Thousands of people are forced to flee war-torn regions every year, but the struggles of scientists who have to leave their homeland often goes under the radar. Andy Extance reports on initiatives to help
• A new approach – Michael Banks travels to Shanghai to hear how the physics department at the first Sino–US joint-venture university is looking to expand
• The power of role models – Ling-An Wu describes a Chinese Physical Society programme to inspire students in remote areas to pursue a career in physics
• Whose cave is it? – Robert P Crease reads Plato, and wishes physicists would do so as well
• Fighting fire with fire – Despite humans having seemingly “tamed” fire many millennia ago, there are still lots of open questions when it comes to the physics of wildfires, as Stephen Ornes discovers
• Predicting the whirlwind – Across the wide open plains of the central US and inside air-conditioned computer laboratories, scientists of different stripes are probing one of nature’s most devastating phenomena: tornadoes. Stephen Ornes offers a snapshot of their work
• Slipping slowly – “Slow earthquakes” are tiny, indiscernible tremors that last for weeks, but could these strange events precede or even cause the more familiar “fast” earthquakes? Sophia Chen investigates
• Spying on volcanoes – Active volcanoes can be incredibly dangerous, especially to those who live nearby, but how do you get close enough to observe one in action? Matthew Watson explains how artificial drones are providing volcanologists with insights that could one day save human lives
• Gedanken fictions – Kate Gardner reviews Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals edited by Rob Appleby and Ra Page
• Inferiority is complex – Jess Wade reviews Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini
• Top talent wanted, start from scratch – New research institutes and departments encounter unique challenges for attracting and recruiting talent from across the globe, reports Alaina G Levine
• Once a physicist – Meet Elina Berglund, who is chief technology officer and co-founder of Natural Cycles, a fertility app that helps women to prevent, plan and monitor pregnancies
• A chemist in physicists’ clothing – Matthew Partridge on being an interloper in a physics lab