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Samuel Goudsmit and the 1970 Split of Physical Review

By: Hannah Pell
“Every time you turn around it seems that someone has published a new physics journal,” begins a Special Report in the August 1970 issue Physics Today. The report goes on to list more than 30 new physics and astronomy journals that started in 1968 and had been mentioned in the magazine within the past two years. “Should we, as physicists, welcome these additions to our reading lists? Or should we bemoan the extra contents pages that must be scanned…?” the author asks.

The American Physical Society’s Physical Review journal was no exception to this observation. That same year — exactly fifty years ago now — Physical Review split into four subsidiaries: Physical Review A (atomic, molecular, and optical physics; quantum information), Physical Review B (condensed matter and materials science), Physical Review C (experimental and theoretical nuclear physics), and Physical Review D (theoretical and experimental elementary particle physics, field theory, gravitation, and c…
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Next Steps Taken Toward the Future of Particle Physics in Europe

By: Hannah Pell
Since the discovery of the Higgs Boson (or, more infamously, the “God Particle”) in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) based at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), particle physicists have sought to expand their ability to probe Nature’s deepest secrets. Although the Higgs was the last missing piece of the Standard Model — a well-tested physical theory describing fundamental particles and their interactions — some physical phenomena still remain unexplained, notably the existence of dark matter. In order to search for new physics beyond the Standard Model, physicists have argued that they will need tools to smash particles together at unprecedented energies and scales. (The alternative, that the LHC finds nothing new or unexpected regardless of upgrades, is commonly referred to as the “nightmare scenario”). 
 On June 19th, 2020, after more than two years of debate, the CERN Council unanimously approved and published the 2020 Update of the European Strat…

A newly discovered supermassive black hole opens a window to the early Universe

By Leah Poffenberger

Looking up at the night sky stars is a bit like going to a history museum: The light we see is giving us a glimpse into the past. When light is emitted from a star, it has to travel across the galaxy at 186,000 miles per second—or lightspeed—before it reaches us here on Earth. Depending on how far away a star is from us, its light might have to travel anywhere from four years (as is the case for the star in our closest neighboring solar system) to billions of years. The lights we see twinkling in the night sky are actually snapshots of the star as it was years in the past.

When astronomers discover new objects in space, the further away from Earth they are, the longer back in the Universe they allow us to study. And recently, they’ve discovered the second most distant quasar—a bright center of an ancient galaxy—ever detected. Light from this quasar traveled 13 billion years, giving researchers a glimpse into an early era of the Universe. This newly discovered quas…

arXiv-ing the History of Preprints in Physics”

By: Hannah Pell

“The American Physical Society (APS) has a vision of the future of physics publishing, in 2020 or so.” So begins a 1993 Science article titled “Publication by Electronic Mail Takes Physics by Storm.” Burton Richter, then-president of APS and former head of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), elaborated: “Any physicist, any place in the country, can turn on his computer and for free browse through the table of contents of any APS journal. [The browser] can select those things about which he wants to see an abstract, and then, after deciding what he might read, ask for the article itself and eventually pay for it like you pay your telephone bill.”

What was then a vision would in fact be our reality in 2020. In the early 1990s, physicists were on the cutting edge of revolutionizing how academic papers were shared and published. Scientists were then working within a context of seismic shifts in computational technology and seeing the early foundations of the int…

Engagement and Activism in Modern Physics Education

By Korena Di Roma Howley

As a young girl growing up in Sacramento, California, Ximena Cid would sit on her roof and stare at the night sky. “I always had a love of the stars, of the universe,” she says. Today, Cid is chair of the physics department at California State University Dominguez Hills and has pivoted from a focus in space science to one in physics education research (PER).

“In grad school, I became more and more fascinated with the way people learn [and how] the ways in which we present ideas impacts how people understand them,” she says.

She looks at how topics in physics might be rendered to better support students, noting that teaching in the introductory sequence hasn’t changed significantly in decades. “We’re still teaching in that very standard way,” she says. “What are the ways in which we can actually improve this so that more students feel engaged with the field early on?”

As a Chicana and Indigenous person of Yaqui descent, Cid is particularly interested in how t…

Fahrenheit is Good for Humans

The Case for Fahrenheit vs Celsius in terms of human comfort. 
By Allison Kubo Hutchison
Scientists have to know how to speak the languages of many units. Improper unit conversions have caused much heartache and suffering in the past, including the loss of a $125 million dollar Mars orbiter. In general, peer-reviewed science journals only accept units that are laid out in the International System of Units (SI). SI lays out seven base units that other derived units are based on. The base unit for temperature is Kelvin (K) which was first laid out by William Thomson also known as Lord Kelvin in On the Absolute Thermometric Scale in 1848. Thomson wanted a scale that started at “infinite cold” or absolute zero where molecules have a minimum vibrational motion which is theoretically the lowest possible temperature. The increments of Kelvin were set to be equal to the increments of Celcius (°C) a system which defined 0 °C to be the freezing point of water and 100 °C. Celsius had been laid o…

On Physics Identity and Culture

By: Hannah Pell

Recently I started rereading When Physics Became King by Iwan Rhys Morus, a historian of science at Aberystwyth University in Wales. Published in 2005, Morus traces the development of physics through the nineteenth century, as the field gradually evolved from its roots in natural philosophy and mathematics to later becoming regarded as the “ultimate key to unlocking nature’s secrets.” He does so emphasizing the critical roles that institution-building and identity- and community-formation have played in the professionalization of the field, tackling the questions: what did it used to mean to “be a physicist” or to “do physics,” and how have these meanings changed over time?

I wondered about the unique lessons that examining the history and culture of physics offers us. After all, physics is about exploring behaviors and phenomena within our universe that act and exist independently from us. Morus notes that, “it is central to the view of science—and of physics as the p…