Opening this special issue marking the 20th anniversary of the launch of Physics World, Matin Durrani says that the magazine still has a vital role to play in the electronic age
Sitting on the shelves of the Physics World office is a line of green, bound volumes, looking a bit like PhD theses, each containing a whole set of back issues of this magazine from a particular year. It is a strange and rather sobering feeling to take down the first volume and look back at that very first issue of Physics World in October 1988. What is striking is just how much — and yet how little — physics has changed over the last 20 years.
Back then physicists in the UK were grumbling about subscription fees to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva. Members of the House of Lords were calling for an underground repository for nuclear waste that has still not been built (under the great headline “Lords opt for deep dumps”), while researchers were desperately trying to understand high-temperature superconductors, which had been discovered just two years earlier. Yet who then could have foreseen the rise of the Internet, the discovery of dark energy, or the incredible progress in quantum computing and communication?
As for Physics World itself, we too have changed in those 20 years, although our core values and principles remain essentially unchanged. Articles are now, as then, timely, accurate, well written and global in outlook. Some articles are by practising physicists, while others are written by our own editorial staff or by freelance science correspondents. But thanks in part to advances in desktop-publishing software, Physics World now looks far better visually and typographically, with colour images throughout.
What has also changed is that feature articles, though still rigorous, are easier to understand than they were 20 years ago. Through careful editing, our aim is to ensure that a physicist from one field of the subject can understand a feature on another area from beginning to end — no easy task given that medical physicists and cosmologists, say, are worlds apart.
Challenged by the Web
But in this age of the Web, what is the purpose of a monthly magazine like Physics World? Does it still have a function when the Internet can provide more information than one might want, or even care, to have? Who needs Physics World when Wikipedia, say, has perfectly adequate introductions to Bose–Einstein condensation, magnetic resonance imaging or superfluidity?
Back in the early days, we had the luxury of knowing that Physics World was one of the few sources of reliable, timely and easily understandable information about physics. As a specialist magazine, we could provide access to physics news that would be difficult, or even impossible, for the average reader to gain otherwise. Readers could, in principle, demand that press releases be faxed to them from physics labs or sift through every new journal in the library, but in practice that was a difficult, if not Sisyphean task.
We still do, of course, pride ourselves in being a key source of information — be it details of this year’s Nobel prize or the latest grants from the European Research Council — but physicists, should they so wish, could find such material from other sources at the click of a mouse. Press releases, journal papers, gossip, views, opinion and debate can all be found in an instant on the Web. There are physics blogs, wikis, podcasts, videos, all of which are easily — and usually freely — available to anyone.
We, as one might expect, are convinced that Physics World still has a vital role to play. While it is true that information is now a commodity that can be easily and rapidly accessed online, there is simply so much stuff out there that it can be hard for anyone — physicists included — to know who or what to trust. What Physics World can do is provide sane, balanced, independent analyses of what is going in physics. We can filter all that excessive material on your behalf — ignoring, say, many of the scientifically dubious preprints on arXiv — and package the essential stuff into informative, entertaining and well edited articles.
We can provide great graphics and visuals, top-name authors and lucid science writing. We can report on trends, provide forward looks, and, occasionally, unearth scoops, like our news story about a Russian firm that mysteriously wanted to look for oil in the English Midlands using “microleptons”. We can provide information about developments around the globe and insights into fields that you might not otherwise come across.
And, of course, we have our own website physicsworld.com too. Our team has been providing daily reports on the latest research papers in physics for over a decade now, but we used not to pay as much attention to more general science news. That is now changing. While we still do provide timely coverage of the most important papers from the likes of Nature, Science and Physical Review Letters, in recent months we have, for example, also looked at the US presidential candidates’ policies on science and had detailed coverage of the start-up of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.
Users of physicsworld.com can comment on articles, search for jobs via the dedicated careers channel, read our regularly updated blog, or access specialist industry focuses. There is also a “digital” version of the print magazine that can be read for free by members of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. Identical to the print issue, it allows copies of the magazine, back to May last year, to be accessed any time, anywhere via the Web.
The next 20 years
As for the future, without a doubt the Web will grow ever more important. Physics World has always been a benefit to members of the Institute but already from this month all new student members will only get free access to the digital version of the magazine, but not a print copy. Who knows, perhaps one day Physics World will only exist in a digital form, downloadable to your $5 flexible, polymer-based electronic paper.
The challenge for us is how to ensure that as the demand for instant information and comment grows, the values of Physics World — clarity, accuracy and timeliness — remain true. That can be tricky if we want to write a 500-word story about, say, the discovery of the Higgs boson if we only have a few hours to get it up on our website before all other rival media outlets have reported on it first. That is where a monthly magazine has the edge over a website, by allowing more time to get under the skin of stories and provide a deeper analysis.
As you would expect, we are not resting on our laurels. We need to do more to boost our coverage of physics in industry, which is not easy when many potential authors are too busy, unwilling or not permitted to write for us — or are simply prevented from doing so because of commercial confidentiality. There is much going in the emerging superpowers of physics — China and India — that we need to unearth. And, of course, we have to remain vigilant that all areas of physics are covered, not just the more “sexy” areas of particle physics and cosmology.
It will be intriguing to think what my successor in 20 years’ time — assuming that Physics World still exists — will make of this status report. By then, practical quantum computers could well be used for research and high-temperature superconductors will be common in power cables. The International Linear Collider is likely to be up and running, and fusion power should be nearing as a commercial reality. Computing and the Internet will have infiltrated even more into our everyday lives. But it is safe to say that those green, bound volumes of Physics World will still be sitting on the shelves; and that physicists will still be grumbling about CERN subscriptions.
Physics World milestones
- October 1988
- Physics World launched as a successor to Physics Bulletin
- November 1994
- Launch of the Physics World Electronic News e-mail service
- September 1995
- Peter Rodgers replaces founding editor Philip Campbell
- January 1997
- 100th issue special
- November 1997
- Physics World is redesigned and its website physicsweb.org is launched
- December 1999
- 104-page “millennium issue”
- January 2005
- Einstein special issue marks International Year of Physics
- September 2005
- Second major redesign
- March 2006
- Matin Durrani appointed editor; Archive of all past articles made available to institutions
- July 2007
- Redesign and relaunch of website as physicsworld.com; Launch of a digital version of the magazine
To celebrate Physics World’s 20th anniversary, we have nominated our favourite 20 magazine covers. Now it’s your turn to let us know what you think. Cast your vote for the best Physics World cover.