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  1. All the cogs

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    Complex systems. (NASA)

    Some of you may remember a TV advertisement featuring a Rube Goldberg machine (or, if you’re British, a Heath Robinson contraption) made out of car parts. In the ad, known as “Cog”, a dizzying array of components – wheels, transmission bearings, windscreen wipers, an exhaust system and so on – combine to perform nearly 50 separate actions. At the end, as a Honda banner unfurls and “Rapper’s Delight” plays in the background, a calm voice asks, “Isn’t it nice when things just…work?”

    “Cog” was a sensation when it was broadcast in 2003, sweeping the board at media award ceremonies and attracting millions of online viewers at a time when viral videos were much less common (YouTube didn’t exist until 2005). So maybe it’s not surprising that this classic advert popped into my head as I was finishing up this Physics World focus issue on vacuum and instruments. Like the car parts in “Cog” (or indeed in an actual car), physics experiments rely on many different systems working together. Take any one of them away, and you’ll rapidly discover that things just…don’t work.

    This idea of different systems working together lies behind a small but important shift in editorial direction. Physics World has produced focus issues on vacuum technology every year since 2003, but this year, for the series’ 15th anniversary, we’re expanding the remit to include some of the other technologies that make physics research and advanced manufacturing possible. So alongside Jon Cartwright’s report on futuristic vacuum-based transport systems (“From hype to hyperloop”), you’ll also find articles about cryogenics and helium and an overview of what instrument designers need to know about intellectual property. Then there’s our cover story, which examines how instruments bound for the harsh environment of space are tested in specialized vacuum and high-pressure chambers. And finally, our latest “start-up story” features a Dutch firm, Janssen Precision Engineering, which began by designing equipment for ambient environments, but now specializes in vacuum and cryogenics, too. As it turns out, no system operates in a vacuum – not even vacuum itself.

    If you’d like to share your own stories about getting complex technologies to work together, or just comment on the issue generally, you can reach us at

  2. on the cover

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    On the cover

    Preparing the GEER chamber at NASA’s Glenn Research Center for use in simulating the conditions on Venus. (NASA)

  3. flannel

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  4. biog

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    Bethan Halliwell is an associate and Nick Wallin is a partner at the European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers LLP, where they are patent attorneys working in the electronics, computing and physics team, e-mail