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Rank #184 in Natural Sciences category

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Natural Sciences

Physics World Stories Podcast

Updated 7 days ago

Rank #184 in Natural Sciences category

Technology
Science
Natural Sciences
Read more

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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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.

iTunes Ratings

50 Ratings
Average Ratings
27
10
5
3
5

Dr. Jessica Barker

By BandwagonR - Apr 25 2019
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She’s also interviewed about security in the episode of the internet of things

Good, but the host needs to stop wispering.

By Mormon Person - Jun 10 2017
Read more
Please speak up. I can only hear your guests.

iTunes Ratings

50 Ratings
Average Ratings
27
10
5
3
5

Dr. Jessica Barker

By BandwagonR - Apr 25 2019
Read more
She’s also interviewed about security in the episode of the internet of things

Good, but the host needs to stop wispering.

By Mormon Person - Jun 10 2017
Read more
Please speak up. I can only hear your guests.
Cover image of Physics World Stories Podcast

Physics World Stories Podcast

Updated 7 days ago

Rank #184 in Natural Sciences category

Read more

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.

Rank #1: Quantum mechanics in popular-science books

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As usual, the podcast is hosted by James Dacey, who is joined by Physics World‘s editor Matin Durrani and the magazine’s reviews editor Margaret Harris. The first part of the podcast addresses the question of why so many authors decide to write these books. The Physics World hosts are joined by physicist Chad Orzel, author of the bestselling book How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, which was released in 2010.

The middle section of the podcast looks in more detail at the process of writing these books. It features the established popular-science writer Marcus Chown, who describes his experience of writing the book Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, which was published in 2007. Chown admits that he found the Pauli exclusion principle to be the most challenging aspect of quantum mechanics to explain in everyday language. This leads on to an interesting debate about the pros and potential pitfalls of using metaphors to describe complex science and mathematics.

If scientists and science writers go through such pain to describe these features of the quantum world, then surely somebody without a scientific background should run a mile. But they don’t, instead they keep buying these books. In the final section of the podcast, the historian and philosopher Robert P Crease shares his thoughts on why the counterintuitive nature of quantum physics holds such a fascinating appeal for readers.

Apr 11 2012
16 mins
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Rank #2: Lee Smolin on the nature of time

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The concept of time has puzzled human beings for centuries. Many physicists have suggested that the problem is that time is not actually real but a property that emerges from something more fundamental – just as an object can feel solid even though it is mostly made up of empty space. Lee Smolin, who is a researcher at Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, takes the opposite view. He thinks time is real – so real, in fact, that even the supposedly timeless laws of physics – are subject to it. Having published numerous scientific papers about his theories of time, Smolin has now put his main ideas into a new popular-science book called Time Reborn, the thinking behind which he explains in this podcast.

Listen to the podcast now to hear more of Smolin’s views on the nature of time.

Sep 23 2013
9 mins
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Rank #3: Artificial intelligence: is there anything to fear?

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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.

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!

Mar 21 2018
29 mins
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Rank #4: Still not even wrong

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Disillusioned by the charms of string theory, he began writing a book detailing the history and the “overwhelming triumph” of the Standard Model of particle physics, the birth of string theory and its subsequent “overwhelming failure to find any way to make further progress on fundamental questions”. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that book – Not Even Wrong: the Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics.

Not Even Wrong coincided with the publication of another book – The Trouble with Physics – that had a similar theme and tone, penned by Woit’s friend and renowned physicist Lee Smolin. Together, the two books put the theory and its practitioners under a critical spotlight and took string theory’s supposed inadequacies to task. The books sparked a sensation both in the string-theory community and in the wider media, which until then had heard only glowing reports of the theory’s successes.

To mark the anniversary of Not Even Wrong, Physics World reporter Tushna Commissariat caught up with Woit to talk about the book, the subsequent “string wars” and the sociology of science. In the resulting podcast, you can also find out what has happened in fundamental and particle physics over the past decade – including the discovery of the Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but the lack of any supersymmetric particles until now. Woit also explains what he thinks needs to happen in the field to propel it into the future.

Both scientists and philosophers have long hunted for the ultimate theory – one that perfectly explains the universe we observe, from a quark to a quasar. In the mid-1980s string theory emerged at the top of the pile as the most promising candidate in this quest for a “theory of everything”, or more specifically, a theory that unified quantum mechanics and general relativity.

The original theory was a framework in which the point-like particles were replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings. It emerged that for the theory to work and to be mathematically consistent, it would require at least 10 dimensions of space–time, rather than our usually observed four dimensions. The extra dimensions, according to the theory, are “compactified” or fold in on themselves. Each extra dimension can be of a variety of “shapes” and there exist a myriad ways in which they can be compactified, meaning that there are too many possible solutions to be able to make a clear prediction.

Not being able to make clear predictions, combined with the lack of falsifiability, are the major deficiencies of string theory, according to Woit, Smolin and others such as the Nobel-prize-winner Sheldon Glashow, who once said “Sadly, I cannot imagine a single experimental result that would falsify string theory. I have been brought up to believe that systems of belief that cannot be falsified are not in the realm of science.”

String theory still polarizes opinion, but its advocates remain firm and deem it a beautiful and mathematically rigorous framework. As Woit explains in the podcast, “For many years, I’d been thinking that the situation with string theory was really pretty odd…this junction between the public perception of it, the way it had been portrayed and what was actually going on.”

Sep 23 2016
19 mins
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Rank #5: The masters of antimatter

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Physics World reporter Tushna Commissariat recently visited the ALPHA antimatter experiment at CERN and caught up with its spokesperson Jeffrey Hangst. In this podcast, they talk about the perfect recipe for making antihydrogen, they discuss dealing with the fact and fiction that surrounds the field, and reveal the everyday realties of being an antimatter architect.

Housed within CERN’s Antimatter Factory, which includes the Antiproton Decelerator (AD) (the source that provides low-energy antiprotons), ALPHA and the other antimatter experiments – ACE, AEGIS, ATRAP and ASACUSA – all study the many puzzling facets of antimatter. From its interaction with regular matter to the biological effects of antiprotons to how it falls under gravity, the various experimental teams hope that all will be revealed about antimatter’s true nature in the coming years.

In particular, the ALPHA experiment – which won the Physics World Breakthrough of the Year in 2010 for trapping 38 antihydrogen atoms for about one-fifth of a second – is gearing up to scrutinize the stuff, as it will begin an experimental run this summer with the newly updated ALPHA2 device, which uses lasers to spectroscopically study the internal structure of the antihydrogen atom.

In addition to finding out how exactly one makes and holds a few thousand atoms of the most volatile stuff in the universe, listen to this podcast to find out why Hangst thinks he has the coolest job in the world and what it is like to visit the one place in the universe where, as far as we know, antimatter is actively being produced.

Apr 21 2015
21 mins
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Rank #6: Physics in 2018

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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.

Jan 23 2018
28 mins
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Rank #7: Physics for all – building a more inclusive discipline

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The issue generated a lot of reaction, ranging from e-mails and letters to comments on the website, in person and on social media. In this podcast, Physics World editor Matin Durrani and careers editor Margaret Harris address some of the responses from the physics community – both good and bad – to that special issue in the company of Andrew Glester from The Cosmic Shed podcast.

Much of that reaction was in response to Louise Mayor’s feature “Where people and particles collide” on what it is like to be in a gender or sexual minority at the CERN particle-physics lab, which got picked up widely elsewhere in the media. But we also discuss reader thoughts on the article on unconscious bias, on the feature on “microaggressions” in the workplace and why Physics World devoted a whole issue to this topic in the first place.

Apr 20 2016
28 mins
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Rank #8: A quantum leap for industry

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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.

Jul 24 2018
44 mins
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Rank #9: A quantum sense of smell

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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.

Mar 24 2015
11 mins
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Rank #10: Nuclear diamonds: the ultimate long-life battery?

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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.

Feb 09 2017
29 mins
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Rank #11: The enigmatic life of J Robert Oppenheimer

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Monk is a philosopher at the University of Southampton in the UK, and in the podcast you will hear him discuss the efforts he made to get to grips with Oppenheimer’s physics – including his theoretical work on mesons and the gravitational collapse of neutron stars – as well as the atomic-bomb project. You will also hear Monk’s views on the events that led to Oppenheimer having his security clearance revoked by the US government and the aspects of “Oppie’s” character that made him such a charismatic leader.

Listen to the podcast now to learn more about this pivotal figure in the history of modern physics.

Jun 24 2013
13 mins
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Rank #12: How to succeed at networking in science

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Imagine you are a student attending your first science conference. It’s going pretty well. You went to a great talk this morning, and when you asked the speaker a question, their answer was really helpful – in fact, you think it might help crack the problem you’ve been working on. Now you’ve got a couple of hours before the evening poster session, so you pull out the conference programme, check your schedule – and let out an involuntary groan. It’s time for the conference’s official “networking” session.

You know that networking is important. In fact, you’ve probably been told that it’s vital for your career. But as you approach a room full of people chatting over drinks and nibbles, you find yourself wondering, how is this going to help me?

For many scientists, networking does not come naturally. In some cases, this is simply because we’re shy. But it’s also easy to confuse networking with schmoozing, sucking up in order to get a job, or “selling” one’s work – tactics that are frowned upon by many scientists, who believe the quality of research should speak for itself. Whatever the reasons, though, this edition of the Physics World podcast will explain what networking really is and convince novices to give it their best shot – while also suggesting a few tips to help more experienced networkers make the most of their next conference.

In this podcast, you will hear from a number of top networking specialists:

  • Alaina Levine, science careers consultant and author of the book Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere;
  • Margaret Harris, Physics World‘s careers and reviews editor, who tried some of Levine’s tips at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS);
  • Rush Holt, physicist, former US congressman and chief executive officer of the AAAS; and
  • Geri Richmond, physical chemist and president of the AAAS.
Mar 30 2016
11 mins
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Rank #13: The story of neutrinos

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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.

Jun 23 2014
10 mins
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Rank #14: Physics World 30th anniversary podcast series – fusion energy

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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.

Jan 22 2019
48 mins
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Rank #15: Book of the Year 2015

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Each year, Physics World reviews a shedload of great physics books, and in 2015 we’re taking that turn of phrase literally, teaming up with The Cosmic Shed podcast to record our “Book of the Year” announcement in – yes – a garden shed.

In this podcast, you will hear Physics World‘s editor Matin Durrani and reviews editor Margaret Harris being quizzed on some of their favourite shortlisted books by The Cosmic Shed‘s Andrew Glester, a Bristol-based science communicator who loves to debate “science fiction, science fact and everything in between” from the comfort of his garden shed. For the most part, this podcast sticks with science fact, but with several of 2015’s shortlisted books having decidedly cosmic overtones, you never know where the discussion might lead….

We hope you enjoy hearing about these books as much as we enjoyed reading and talking about them. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors!

Shortlist for Physics World‘s Book of the Year 2015 (alphabetical by author)

Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden

Physics on Your Feet: Ninety Minutes of Shame but a PhD for the Rest of Your Life Dmitry Budker and Alexander Sushkov

Half-Life: the Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy Frank Close

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: a Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing and the Beginning of Everything Amanda Gefter

Beyond: Our Future in Space Chris Impey

The Water Book: the Extraordinary Story of Our Most Ordinary Substance Alok Jha

Monsters: the Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology Ed Regis

Tunnel Visions: the Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider Michael Riordan, Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne Kolb

The Copernicus Complex: the Quest for our Cosmic (In)Significance Caleb Scharf

Atoms Under the Floorboards: the Surprising Science Hidden in Your Home Chris Woodford

Dec 15 2015
27 mins
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Rank #16: Exploring the cosmos with gravitational waves

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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
Nov 09 2017
38 mins
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Rank #17: Going beyond 'shut up and calculate'

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As a teenager, the science journalist Amanda Gefter had a “conscientious objection” to mathematics. She often slept through her high school class on meteorology – a class that, incidentally, she only took because she wanted to avoid physics – and when she went to university, she studied creative writing and philosophy rather than science. At the same time, though, Gefter was also reading pretty much every popular-physics book she could find, as part of a private quest in which she and her father sought to understand what science tells us about the nature of reality.

One of the most important figures in Gefter’s quest was the late John Wheeler, who popularized the term “black hole” and also wrote extensively about physics and philosophy. Wheeler’s ideas included the “participatory universe”, which he represented with cartoons like the one shown above. In the cartoon, an observer looks out upon the universe, but its perspective can never be totally independent because it is, itself, a part of the universe it is observing.

In this podcast, you’ll hear Gefter talking about Wheeler, the role of observers and the complex relationship between mathematics and meaning.

Jun 24 2015
12 mins
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Rank #18: Is there life on Mars?

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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.

Nov 17 2015
15 mins
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Rank #19: Plutonium’s toxic legacy

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The cities of Richland and Ozersk were on opposing sides during the Cold War, but they have a lot in common. Richland, in eastern Washington state, was built as a “company town” for the Hanford nuclear reactor, America’s main plutonium-production facility. Ozersk, in the southern Ural Mountains, is its Russian counterpart – a “closed city” where, even today, most residents are connected in some way to the nearby Maiak plutonium plant.

Because these plants were vital to the US and Soviet nuclear-weapons programmes, workers at Hanford and Maiak got paid extremely well, and they and their families enjoyed a wide range of benefits. But as Kate Brown reveals in her book Plutopia, these privileges came at a terrible cost. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, the Hanford and Maiak reactors each released at least 200 million curies of radioactivity into the environment – twice as much as caused by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The areas nearby are now some of the most polluted places on Earth.

In this podcast, you will hear Brown – an historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County – talking to Physics World reviews editor Margaret Harris about her research on these two “atomic cities” and what she hopes physicists will learn from their stories.

Mar 24 2014
12 mins
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Rank #20: Searching for life on other planets

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The search for signs of extraterrestrial life looks set to be one of the most exciting scientific endeavours of the 21st century and scientists have no shortage of places to look. Astronomers have already discovered nearly 2000 exoplanets and they look set to find many more. While most of these known exoplanets are gas giants that appear to be inhospitable to life, the discovery of Earth-like rocky exoplanets could come courtesy of the next generation of telescopes.

In this podcast recorded at the Canadian Association of Physicists Congress in Edmonton, Sara Seager tells physicsworld.com editor Hamish Johnston how astronomers are gearing up to use the James Webb Space Telescope – due to launch in 2018 – and other ground- and space-based facilities to look for water vapour, oxygen and other gases in the atmospheres of rocky exoplanets. These and other gases such as methane could indicate the presence of life on these distant worlds, but Seager points out that many measurements on many different exoplanets will be needed before we can say with reasonable certainty that life exists.

Jul 22 2015
11 mins
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