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The history of Physics Update

15 February 2011
When Physics Today surveys its print readers and logs the habits of its online readers, the Physics Update department routinely comes top or near the top in popularity. Many online readers evidently like the department so much they bypass the homepage and go directly to the Physics Update page.

When Physics Today surveys its print readers and logs the habits of its online readers, the Physics Update department routinely comes top or near the top in popularity. Many online readers evidently like the department so much they bypass the homepage and go directly to the Physics Update page.

In its current incarnation Physics Update serves 250-word summaries of research papers. The summaries appear online on Mondays and Thursdays as soon as they emerge from editing. Not all the online summaries appear later in the monthly print issue, the exceptions being summaries of papers written up at greater length in the Search and Discovery department.

Physics Update has always striven to cover interesting research, but its format, audience, and editorial home have all changed over the years. You might be surprised to learn that the department made its debut in 1990—not as part of Physics Today, but as a service for science journalists.

Devised and written by Phil Schewe of the American Institute of Physics's media relations department, Physics News Update, as it was called, came out once a week and featured 50-word summaries of news stories about physics. Here's the first issue, dated 28 September 1990.

FIFTH FORCE experiments are increasingly giving negative results. New measurements have demonstrated that a fifth force could be no more than about a trillionth as strong as gravity. (Science News, 22 September, p. 183)
THE MAGELLAN SPACECRAFT map of Venus (2% of the surface so far) provides images 10 to 100 better than previous radar surveys. Strange tectonics--plentiful volcanoes and weird fracture systems--are at work. (NY Times, 26 September, p. A1)
SUPERCONDUCTORS BEYOND 123: Robert Cava of AT&T Bell Labs reviews recent research on the thallium and bismuth superconductors and discusses prospects for higher critical temperatures. (Scientific American, August 1990)
GRAVITATIONAL-WAVE ASTRONOMY may truly come into being in the next few years with the advent of new facilities such as the Caltech-MIT Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. So far only indirect evidence for gravitational waves can be inferred, in this case from the decaying mutual orbit of the two neutron stars in the pulsar system PSR 1913+16. (Mosaic Magazine, Summer 1990, published by the NSF)
SOLAR CELLS may be better at converting sunlight into heat than into electricity, some researchers believe. The record efficiency for conversion to electricity, a tandem GaAs and Si cell at Sandia, is 31%. The theoretical limit is thought to be 40%. But thermal conversion may be more efficient and, besides, a great deal of the world's energy consumption goes toward the production of heating anyway. (New Scientist, 22 September, p. 48)
METEOR COMPOSITION: unlike earth rocks which in the course of time have been melted and recrystallized into different forms, meteors have remained largely unchanged from when the solar system began and even before. Diamonds found in some meteors may have been produced by chemical vapor deposition, a process (also used in making diamonds artificially) that might occur in the outer layers of stars and supernovas. (New Scientist, 15 September, p. 46)

The first issue was exceptional in that all the items came from the popular press. But within a year, papers in Physical Review Letters, Nature, and other journals provided the raw material, along with press releases from labs and talks at meetings.

The distribution method also changed. The first issues were sent by fax to a modest number of science journalists. Later ones were sent by e-mail to the journalists and to an increasing number of scientists in the physical sciences who appreciated the short, punchy summaries.


Physics Update first appeared in the pages of Physics Today in the magazine's February 1995 issue, whose cover is reproduced above. The issue was the fourth produced under editor-in-chief Steve Benka. Wanting to provide his readers with more physics news, Steve took Phil's Physics News Update, edited the items for the magazine's readership, and ran them on one yellow-tinted page up front.

The new department proved popular with readers and also with advertisers, who'd pay extra to appear on the facing page. Phil and his colleague, Ben Stein, wrote most of the items. Steve wrote some, too. Physics Update ran on page 9 for nearly 10 years.

For the June 2006 issue, Physics Today underwent a major redesign, acquiring not just a facelift but also two new departments, Quick Study and Back Scatter. As part of the redesign, Physics Update migrated to the end of the Search and Discovery department. Introducing the redesign in an editorial, Steve wrote

Thus, all the current research news coverage is logically brought together in one place: In-depth stories of results deemed important by the community are followed by brief notices of research deemed interesting by our editors.

The last significant changes to Physics Update occurred two years ago. In June 2008, Physics Update became the truly online department it is today, accessible to all and updated twice a week. Around the same time, AIP's media relations department decided Phil's and Ben's outreach efforts were best spent doing other things, among them AIP's Inside Science News Service. Since August 2008, all Physics Update items have been written by Physics Today editors.

In chatting with Phil today, we both realized that his very first Physics News Update of 21 years ago resembled a modern blog. All it lacks are links. If you visit the website of the American Physical Society, you'll spot, on the left-hand side, a list of short items that could well be called Physics News Update.

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