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Physics World Stories Podcast

Physics is full of captivating stories, from ongoing endeavours to explain the cosmos to ingenious innovations that shape the world around us. In the Physics World Stories podcast, Andrew Glester talks to the people behind some of the most intriguing and inspiring scientific stories. Listen to the podcast to hear from a diverse mix of scientists, engineers, artists and other commentators. Find out more about the stories in this podcast by visiting the Physics World website. If you enjoy what you hear, then also check out the Physics World Weekly podcast, a science-news podcast presented by our award-winning science journalists.

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We need to talk about quantum mechanics

Along with learning about the most up-to-date and exciting advances in the field, the group discussed everything from the inherent complexity that arises because of the many interpretations of quantum mechanics to helping people discern the actual science from the “quantum woo” to all the good science communication that is already being done. In this podcast, you will hear from Commissariat and a selection of her fellow boot-campers, including quantum physicist and science-communication enthusiast Raymond Laflamme, director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada; conference organizer, blogger and NORDITA physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, and author, blogger and researcher Chad Orzel. She also chats to journalist and author Michael Brooks; New Scientist features editor Valerie Jamieson and blogger and freelance journalist Sedeer el-Showk about how journalists can crack the code to crafting the perfect quantum tale. Listen to the podcast to discover their strategies for bringing quantum mechanics out from behind closed laboratory doors and into the mainstay of our everyday lives.

16mins

19 Nov 2014

Rank #1

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Artificial intelligence: is there anything to fear?

Artificial intelligence (AI) bots are going to replace our jobs. AI cars are not to be trusted, they will drive us off a cliff AI machines will inevitably conspire to kill us all. These are exaggerated versions of three fears commonly associated artificial intelligence (AI). Even the late Stephen Hawking spoke about a potential future in which humans could be superseded by advanced forms of artificial intelligence. But these concerns are not so present in the mind of Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft who once worked in Hawking’s theoretical physics group at the University of Cambridge. "Some fear that AI robots will supersede humans (Courtesy: iStock\/chombosan)"Some fear that AI robots will supersede humans (Courtesy: iStock/chombosan)Myhrvold is the co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, which develops and licenses intellectual property. Having also written a several tomes about modernist cooking techniques, Myhrvold does not shy away from lofty academic pursuits. Earlier this year, the Seattle-born polymath presented the annual Tacitus Lecture in London with a talk entitled “Cyber-Trade: Will AI Displace or Enhance our Work?” In our latest podcast, Andrew Glester reports from the event where he spoke to Myhrvold, who explained why he is optimistic that AI can be a force for good in the world. You will also hear clips from that lecture, a few words on the topic from Hawking himself, and a fruity anecdote from Prue Leith one of the judges from the popular TV show The Great British Bakeoff. All will be revealed!

29mins

21 Mar 2018

Rank #2

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Physics in 2018

Fortunately for scientific soothsayers, some developments in 2018 are entirely predictable, not least the space missions scheduled for the next 12 months. Physics World managing editor Matin Durrani introduces a few of these, starting with BepiColombo, the European Space Agency mission to Mercury, scheduled for October. He also talks about China’s Chang’e 4 mission to the far side of the Moon, as well as the two asteroid-sampling missions – Japan’s Hayabusa 2 and NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex – that will reach their targets in July and August respectively. Closer to home, Physics World will complete its own launch in the form of a new website, which will go live in the next month or so. One of the changes is that we’ll be expanding to incorporate three existing websites in the fields of environment and energy, nanotechnology and biomedical physics. Journalists James Dacey and Liz Kalaugher focus on the environmental side of things, discussing the type of coverage you can expect in that area, including climate studies, renewable energy and natural hazards. You’ll hear about the launch of a new video series for 2018 focusing on environmental challenges and the possible technology solutions. Of course, any look to the year ahead can’t avoid a mention of how science interacts with political situations around the world. Physics World journalists share their views on the continued emergence of Chinese science, the likely impacts of Brexit and whether the March for Science events in 2017 can pave the way for a more unified global movement in 2018. For a quick dip into some of the news and analysis likely to feature on the Physics World website in the coming year, look no further than this podcast.

28mins

23 Jan 2018

Rank #3

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A quantum leap for industry

In the July edition of Physics World Stories, Andrew Glester looks at the latest developments in technologies based on quantum mechanics. While quantum computing often steals the headlines, there is a whole world of other quantum-based devices in the pipeline for a range of applications. Glester speaks first with Raphael Clifford and Ashley Montanaro at the University of Bristol about quantum computing. They are interested in the prospects of achieving “quantum supremacy” – the point at which quantum computers can outperform classical computers at specific tasks. Next, Glester hands the reigns over to Physics World’s Margaret Harris who recently attended the 2018 Photonics West conference in San Francisco. At that event, Harris caught up with Anke Lohmann, the director of ESP Central Ltd, which supports the transfer technology form academic settings to the marketplace. Lohmann gives her opinion on the quantum innovations most likely to have the most significant impacts in the coming years, among them is quantum key distribution for secure communication. Finally, Glester heads to the University of Birmingham, the site of one of the UK Quantum Technology Hubs. He is given a tour of the lab by Kai Bongs who explains how the goal is to transform scientific concepts in practical applications that are economically viable. The focus at the Birmingham hub is on developing sensors and metrology techniques. Targeted applications include gravity-mapping beneath the Earth’s surface and highly precise optical clocks.

44mins

24 Jul 2018

Rank #4

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Nuclear diamonds: the ultimate long-life battery?

The proposal comes from a group of researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK, who say they have a practical way of dealing with some of the nearly 95,000 tonnes of radioactive graphite that was used as a moderator in the UK’s nuclear reactors. Applications of such devices could include long-lasting power supplies for pacemakers and even a lightweight power supply for space missions. Unsurprisingly, this eye-catching research captured the attention of specialist and mainstream media publications alike when it was announced towards the end of 2016. In this podcast, we probe deeper into the science behind the headlines. The episode is presented and produced by Andrew Glester, a science communicator based in Bristol, who says he takes a “sceptical optimism” to such bold scientific claims. Glester visits the research team at the University of Bristol to find out more about the proposal – its applications, nuclear safety concerns, and the challenges that stand in the way of this idea becoming a practical reality.

29mins

9 Feb 2017

Rank #5

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Exploring the cosmos with gravitational waves

To say the past couple of years have been a whirlwind for scientists engaged in gravitational-wave research would something of a cosmic understatement. After detecting its first gravitational waves in 2015, the LIGO experiment in the US went on to announce three more detections, all of them from the merger of two black holes. One of these was also detected by the Virgo experiment in Italy. This October Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne shared the shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for their pioneering contributions to the field and to the LIGO detector itself. Less than two weeks after the Nobel announcement, astronomers gathered at the Royal Society for the announcement of arguably the most significant breakthrough of all. The merger of two neutron stars was observed by the LIGO–Virgo collaboration, while gamma rays from the same event were picked up by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. This prompted the global astronomical community to point up to 70 different telescopes and detectors around the world, and in space, at the origin of the signals in a distant galaxy – building a detailed picture of the collision and its aftermath. Glester was at that latest announcement at the Royal Society to soak up the atmosphere and learn all about multimessenger astronomy. Among the people he met was the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, whose CV also includes terms as president of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. Rees hails the latest result as “sociologically very important” because it demonstrates international collaboration between teams of scientists and engineers to achieve measurements of phenomenal precision. “It illustrates how astronomy is a very broadly based international and multi-technique subject,” he says. As the editor of physicsworld.com, Hamish Johnston, pointed out shortly after the Nobel prize announcement, we should not forget that for millennia, humans could only see visible light from the cosmos. It is only during the last century that we have been able to view the universe across much more of the electromagnetic spectrum – as well as through the arrival of high-energy particles such as cosmic rays and neutrinos. Adding gravitational waves to the mix now brings a new way of seeing the heavens that could reveal astronomical events that had been beyond the view – and even beyond the imagination – of astrophysicists. For a more in-depth look at the significance of these latest discoveries, take a look at Multimessenger Astronomy by Imre Bartos of the University of Florida and Marek Kowalski of Humboldt University and DESY. Part of the Physics World Discovery series, this free-to-read ebook explores the scientific questions surrounding these new messengers and the detectors and observational techniques used to study them. It also provides an overview of current and future directions in the field. Neutron-star collision artwork courtesy of the University of Warwick and Mark Garlick

38mins

9 Nov 2017

Rank #6

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The story of neutrinos

The story of neutrinos began in 1930, when Wolfgang Pauli suggested that an unknown neutral particle could account for some puzzling behaviour in radioactive decay. At the time, the idea was speculative at best, and Pauli knew it, joking to a friend he said “I have done a terrible thing. I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected.” A pair of experimentalists, Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines, would eventually prove Pauli wrong, but subsequent efforts to study this new particle – which Enrico Fermi dubbed the neutrino, or “little neutral one” – seemed to raise more questions than they answered. These stories – and others from the neutrino’s rich history – are the subject of Ray Jayawardhana’s book The Neutrino Hunters. Currently an astronomer at the University of Toronto, Jayawardhana is due to join Canada’s York University as Dean of Science in July 2014. In this podcast he talks to reviews editor Margaret Harris about the history of neutrinos, the experiments being done to study them and what we might learn from these “pathologically shy” particles about the nature of our universe.

10mins

23 Jun 2014

Rank #7

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The monk and the multiverse

Robert Grosseteste was born sometime around the year 1170. By the time he died in 1253, he had gained a reputation as one of the leading scholars and philosophers of his age. However, some modern researchers have gone even further, calling him “the most brilliant scientist you’ve never heard of”. “One idea he’s very famous for is a theory for the physical origin of the universe that, believe it or not, starts with a flash of light and expands out with a giant rapidly moving sphere – it’s a big bang theory of the universe,” says Tom McLeish, a physicist at Durham University. McLeish is a member of the Ordered Universe Project, an interdisciplinary group of scientists and historians who are re-examining Grosseteste’s writings and, in many cases, “translating” his ideas into a modern mathematical form. This process has led the group in some unexpected and fruitful directions. For example, while the details of Grosseteste’s “big bang” are not compatible with modern theories – like other ancient and medieval scholars, he believed that the Earth was at the centre of the universe – McLeish notes that “physicists love playing with alternate realities and counterfactuals and toy models”. And as it turns out, analysing Grosseteste’s equations poses some interesting computational problems. In this podcast, you’ll hear from McLeish and other members of the Ordered Universe Project, including: medieval historian Giles Gasper on who Grosseteste was and the difficulties of reading early copies of his works; physicist Brian Tanner on putting Grosseteste’s ideas into modern mathematical form, and on the differences between observing natural phenomena and conducting experiments; psychologist Hannah Smithson on Grosseteste’s ideas about colour and the rainbow, and what they tell us about how people perceive the world around them.

13mins

23 Aug 2016

Rank #8

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Art McDonald explains why neutrinos continue to amaze physicists

The neutrino was first proposed in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli to explain a mysterious deficit of energy that was observed in the study of nuclear decay. Pauli famously joked that he had done a terrible thing by postulating a particle that could not be detected. But the particle was detected in 1956, and since then just about every discovery in neutrino physics has thrown up more questions than answers. Because it does not fit in with the Standard Model, the neutrino is a prime target for the discovery of new physics. There have already been four Nobel prizes awarded for neutrino physics and thousands of physicists are working on experiments worldwide hoping to make the next big discovery. In this podcast, Nobel laureate Art McDonald talks about the new SNO+ experiment that is located more than 2 km underground in a Canadian mine and which will look for hypothetical process called neutrinoless double-beta decay. Its discovery would be another bombshell in the history of neutrino physics because it would mean that the neutrino is its own antiparticle. Knowing the decay rate would also provide a direct measurement of the mass of the neutrino – a poorly known and much sought after quantity. As well as being a laboratory for fundamental physics, SNO+ will also be an important tool for geophysicists studying the Earth’s crust – as McDonald explains. Other, more practical, applications of neutrino physics include fusion energy, says McDonald, who makes it very clear that the mysterious neutrino still has a lot more to give to science.

10mins

25 May 2016

Rank #9

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Why information grows

It is a novel approach and one that has led to some interesting ideas, including Hidalgo’s notion of the “personbyte”, which is the total amount of information that any one individual can hold. He also extends that idea to businesses, leading him to introduce the concept of a “firmbyte”. Economies, in Hidalgo’s vision, are essentially networks of interacting people and firms – and what those systems can do depends on the skill people have and how those skills fit together. Now, if you think it is unusual that a physicist should be straying into such territory, you are not wrong. But then César Hidalgo is no ordinary physicist. As he explains in the podcast, “I’m not very comfortable with labels. I try to borrow knowledge from whatever discipline is available to get the best possible answer. So sometimes physics inspires me. Sometimes economic sociology inspires. Sometimes I draw inspiration from design. I’m not picky. As long as it gets the job done, I’m up for it.” If you want to find out more about Hidalgo’s new book Why Information Grows, check out the October 2015 issue of Physics World magazine, which contains a review of the book by the science journalist Mark Buchanan. The review can be read online at physicsworld.com or through our digital magazine by downloading the Physics World app to your smartphone or tablet.

11mins

22 Sep 2015

Rank #10

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Is there life on Mars?

In this November episode of the Physics World podcast, astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell addresses these big questions in a conversation with journalist James Dacey. Dartnell’s own research is concerned with examining the micro-organisms that can survive in some of the most extreme conditions here on Earth. By studying the physiology and survival tactics of these so-called extremophiles, astrobiologists hope to gain an understanding of the type of life that could survive in a place like the Martian surface – and where to look for these hardy little creatures on alien worlds. Dartnell was speaking ahead of a public lecture he gave in London about the possibilities of life beyond the Earth. As well as discussing what we already know about the Martian surface, Dartnell talked about the new possibilities that will come with ExoMars, a mission by the European Space Agency (ESA) set for launch in 2018. Dartnell is working on the design of a Raman-spectroscopy instrument for that mission that will help examine the mineralogy of Mars and identify potential signs of life inside Martian rocks. The talk was held in an underground tunnel near King’s Cross Station – a venue that resembles the kind of provisional habitat that humans would have to create should we attempt to live on Mars. Watch some highlights from that talk, along with reaction from the audience, in the video above. In addition, the November issue of Physics World is a special issue about extremes in physics, including a feature about how physicists are helping to uncover some of the mysteries of extremophiles on Earth. It includes more about Lewis’ favourite little critter: Deinococcus radiodurrans. Find out how to access that issue here.

15mins

17 Nov 2015

Rank #11

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A quantum sense of smell

On the face of it, Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili make unlikely collaborators. McFadden is a molecular geneticist who specializes in the study of tuberculosis. He thinks in pictures and concepts, and his laboratory at the University of Surrey in the UK is full of machines oscillating flasks and people monitoring colonies of bacteria. Al-Khalili, meanwhile, is a theoretical nuclear physicist. He thinks in mathematics and equations, and for the most part his work requires only a whiteboard and a computer. What unites this apples-and-oranges pair of scientists is their interest in quantum biology – a new and growing field where practitioners seek to understand how quantum-mechanical processes affect biological systems. Biological systems such as the human nose. In this podcast, you will hear McFadden and Al-Khalili discuss a possible quantum solution to a long-standing biological puzzle: how does the nose “know” the difference between scent molecules? One of the most intriguing theories, developed by the biophysicist Luca Turin, is that it might come down to a process called inelastic quantum tunnelling. As Al-Khalili explains in the podcast, inelastic quantum tunnelling occurs when an electron dumps a bit of excess energy in order to tunnel to an empty energy level in a nearby atom. Turin’s theory is that this type of tunnelling event is what triggers the firing of olfactory neurons in the nose, thus sending a signal to our brains that gives us the “experience” of smelling something. However, such tunnelling can only take place when a scent molecule is present and able to absorb the electron’s excess energy – and that will only happen if one of the chemical bonds in the scent molecule has the right vibrational frequency. So when we slice into an orange and take a sniff, our noses may actually be sensing the vibrations of chemical bonds in a molecule called limonene, which is responsible for most of the orange’s citrusy scent. The nose isn’t the only biological system with a possible quantum connection, though. If this podcast whets your appetite for some more examples, you might want to check out McFadden and Al-Khalili’s new book Life on the Edge. The book is written for a popular-science audience, and at the end of the podcast, you’ll hear the pair discussing some of the challenges they faced in writing it.

11mins

24 Mar 2015

Rank #12

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Physics World 30th anniversary podcast series – fusion energy

Physics World has recently turned 30 and we are celebrating with a 5-part series podcast series exploring key areas of physics. This third episode in the series explores the prospects for fusion energy ­­– a carbon-free form of energy generation that may finally be on the cusp of becoming practical. For the past few decades, the running joke has been that despite the excitement, fusion energy is “always 30 years away.” In the January episode of Physics World Stories, Andrew Glester meets fusion researchers at the UK company Tokamak Energy to learn about the practical challenges and the technology that could make fusion a reality within the next 15 years. Melanie Windridge, a communication consultant (and adventurer), explains the science behind the two main approaches to achieving fusion. The first is known as inertial confinement fusion and its feasibility is being investigated at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the US. The alternative involves using intense magnetic fields to confine hot plasma inside a device known as a tokamak. This is the approach taken at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an international collaboration based in southern France. In contrast to the much larger tokamak ITER tokamak, the technology being developed by Tokamak Energy could lead to a compact tokamak that can run at much higher plasma pressure. Glester visits the company in Oxfordshire to meet the company’s chief executive David Kingham, who believes this smaller-scale approach could make fusion energy more economically viable. Both Kingham and Windridge believe that practical fusion energy has become more realistic due to two key factors – the growing global consensus that we need to act on climate change coupled with the arrival of private enterprise in this space. If you enjoy the podcast, then take a listen to the first two podcasts in the 30th anniversary series. Glester began in October by looking at the past and future of particle physics. Then in November he explored gravitational waves by looking at the exciting future for multimessenger astronomy. Don’t forget you can also subscribe to Physics World Stories via the Apple podcast app or your chosen podcast host.

48mins

22 Jan 2019

Rank #13

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The story behind the first ever black hole image

In the May edition of the Physics World Stories podcast, Andrew Glester reflects on the biggest astronomy story of the year – the first ever image of a black hole and its “shadow”. Unless you’ve been living in a black hole yourself, you will have seen the glowing donut/eye of Sauron/smiley face, which is actually the supermassive black hole at the centre of the M87 elliptical galaxy, some 55 million light-years from Earth. The image represents an incredible feat of science and engineering, produced from petabytes of data captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of individual radio telescopes and telescopic arrays scattered across the globe. The EHT team reported the results in six papers in a special issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, which is published by the Institute of Physics on behalf of the American Astronomical Society. To find out more about the story behind the discovery, Glester catches up with three scientists from the EHT team who also hold positions at Radboud University in the Netherlands. First up is Monika Mościbrodzka, a member of EHT’s data analysis team who speaks about the significance of the discovery and the future prospects for the project. “Black holes are no longer just a theory. It’s now reality”, she says. "Global networking: the Event Horizon Telescope combines the signals of eight radio telescope observatories including the Atacama Large Millimeter\/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the South Pole Telescope (SPT) in Antarctica. (Courtesy: Akiyama \u003Ci\u003Eet al\u003C\/i\u003E and \u003Ci\u003EApJL\u003C\/i\u003E)"Global networking: the Event Horizon Telescope combines the signals of eight radio telescope observatories including the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the South Pole Telescope (SPT) in Antarctica. (Courtesy: Akiyama et al and ApJL)Meanwhile, Freek Roelof explains how the group generated the image from all the raw radio wave data. He worked on data collection at the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) on Mount Graham, Arizona. When not doing cutting edge science Roelof plays the guitar and you can hear some of his black-hole-inspired songs in the podcast. Since the publication of the image, many people have asked the question: “Why did these astronomers look all the way to the M87 galaxy, when we have a black hole – Sagittarius A* – at the centre of our own galaxy?” The reason comes down to scale. Despite being a thousand times further away, the black hole at the centre of M87 is a whopping 0.7 billion solar masses, a thousand times more massive than Sagittarius A*. But now that the EHT has proved its capability, you wouldn’t bet against the collaboration capturing an image our Sagittarius A* at some point. In the meantime, you can take a look at this virtual reality simulation based on best-fit models of observations of Sagittarius A*. Its creator, Jordy Davelaar, joins the podcast to explain how and why he created it. If you enjoy what you hear, then you can subscribe to Physics World Stories via your chosen podcast host. Also check out our other podcast Physics World Weekly, which brings you regular updates on the latest research developments in the physical sciences.

36mins

22 May 2019

Rank #14

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Bees and their magnetic superpower

Scientists are aware that many different animals appear sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field lines. But what is not so well understood are the underlying mechanisms that make navigation possible. In this latest work at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, researchers have identified particles of magnetite – a ferromagnetic material – within the abdomen of honey bees. In the podcast, Glester speaks with biologist Veronika Lambinet and physicist Michael Hayden who describe the group’s experiments with bees. They describe studying the reaction of live bees exposed to magnetic fields stronger than the Earth’s field. Another experiment involved placing bee body parts within a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) to study the magnetization effects. Glester also meets with Heather Lampard, a science communicator and beekeeper in Bristol, UK, where Andrew and Physics World are based. Clearly a huge admirer of her stripy friends, Lampard gives a crash course in the science of bees, explaining how they detect plants’ electric fields and why honeycombs are hexagonal-shaped. You can watch Lampard explain how bees produce honey, in this video she produced for the Bristol Nature Channel. https://youtu.be/4-zb9bmZ5Ls

27mins

11 May 2017

Rank #15

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Falcon Heavy and Humanity Star: trailblazers or space junk?

When the SpaceX Falcon Heavy made its maiden launch on 6 February, the overwhelming reaction was one of awe. Its widely reported payload – Elon Musk’s personal cherry red Tesla Roadster sportscar – added to the audaciousness of the mission and reaffirmed Musk’s rock-star status. No doubt, vast numbers of students around the globe will have had their imaginations lit up, some may even have started thinking about the exciting opportunities of a career in engineering. However, there have been a few voices of dissent. Some critics have suggested that the rocket payload is merely adding to the growing problem of space junk. Perhaps an even stronger criticism is that firing a flashy sportscar into space is a symbol of the distain the super-rich have for the many people on Earth who live in poverty. The controversy around the Falcon Heavy launch is the subject of the Physics World monthly podcast, which is presented as always by Andrew Glester. Joining Andrew in the busy café at Physics World HQ is Physics World careers editor Tushna Commissariat and special guest Tim Gregory who recently appeared on the BBC show Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? "Elon Musk's personal Tesla roadster being 'driven' through space by a mannequin. (Courtesy: SpaceX) "Elon Musk’s personal Tesla roadster being ‘driven’ through space by a mannequin. (Courtesy: SpaceX)Andrew and crew also discuss the recently launched Humanity Star, which has also generated some controversy in the astronomical community. Launched in January by the private company Rocket Lab, the mission’s payload is described as “a highly reflective satellite that blinks brightly across the night sky to create a shared experience for everyone on the planet.” However, some astronauts fear that this “giant disco ball” is frivolous and might even interfere with their view of the night sky. Andrew puts some of these concerns to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck and debates the issue at length with Tushna and Tim, asking whether they see a fundamental difference in the ethos and impact of these two high-profile private launches.

32mins

15 Mar 2018

Rank #16