The varied world of physics

By Marcus Wilson 17/10/2011 3

It was a very interesting day at the NZ Institute of Physics conference. I learned about some of the physics experiments done at the South Pole, how to trap, observe and count atoms (and that high school physics teachers who tell their students that you can’t see atoms need to update their knowledge), some results from heavy ion collisions at the Large Hadron Collider and what that tells us about that quark-gluon-soupy-thing , and why the cornea of the eye is transparent (yes, it’s to let light through – but what is it about its structure that allows it to do that?) Plus a whole lot more, including some fascinating statistical stuff relating to the NCEA Physics assessments, presented by an NZQA statistician (For you non-NZers, that’s the series of assessments that school students do here). Bascially, physics is an odd subject when it comes to the way students perform at NCEA – this is put down to its very quantitative nature.

Proceedings were kicked off by a short opening address by Sir Paul Callaghan. He talked about how industry based on physical science was growing fast in New Zealand – so fast that in ten years’ time it will be overtaking dairy and forestry. Wow! Physics really is important here. We are now entering what Sir Paul refers to as Stage Three of New Zealand Science. Stage One was back in Rutherford’s time, and a bit later than that, when, if you were a Kiwi who wanted to do science, you left the country. Stage Two, spearheaded by people like Dan Walls, was when NZ said "let’s have a go at doing this science thing ourselves". Stage Three (and this is probably a hopeless paraphrase of what SIr Paul said) is when  we stop apologizing to the rest of the country for being scientists.

Looking forward to an equally varied day tomorrow.



3 Responses to “The varied world of physics”

  • Hi Marcus,
    Finally catching up on some SciBlog posts and this one caught my eye with your reference to High School teachers. As a High School Chemistry teacher I would like to know a bit more about how to count atoms as you refer to, indeed it would be good to avoid teaching a misconception about seeing atoms or not.

  • You need to talk to Mikkel Andersen from the University of Otago. I’m sure you can track down his contact details from their website. Basically, you can use lasers first to cool atoms (“Doppler cooling” – quite a neat trick) then hold atoms in place with radiation pressure (“optical tweezers”) and then count them with an optical microscope by looking at the total light scattered. The physics theory isn’t particularly nasty – the practice, as always, is a bit more tricky.

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