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October 2008 Archives

Hubble’s “perfect 10” (Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio)

By Jon Cartwright

After a month in “safety mode” following an error on its onboard data formatter, the Hubble is back online and taking photos again.

To evidence its good health, the grand old telescope has produced a “perfect 10” image of the galaxy pair Arp 147. According to a press release, the blue ring of the right galaxy formed its “0” shape when the left galaxy (the “1”) passed through. At the moment of impact a circular wave of dense material rippled through the right galaxy, colliding with material moving inwards from the galaxy’s gravitational pull. The resultant shockwaves and dense gas stimulated stars to form in a circle.

By Hamish Johnston

Pure knowledge isn’t enough these days and physicists often feel pressured to justify their work in terms of “practical applications”. You would think that dark-matter researchers would find this particularly difficult, given the esoteric nature of the stuff that they are looking for, but Leo Stodolsky at MPI-Munich begs to differ.

He has posted an article on the arXiv preprint server outlining how biology and materials science have benefitted from dark matter research in very different ways.

The former is the more straight forward application. Cryodetectors — developed to measure the tiny amounts of energy that dark-matter particles could impart to conventional matter — have been used to boost the sensitivity of mass spectrometers used to study large biological molecules.

The latter application is much more bizarre. In the early days of the CRESST dark matter search, strange signals were observed in the sapphire detector crystals. It turned out that the crystals were clamped too tightly and were cracking. However, because the detector was so sensitive, the signals represent some of the best data ever on microfractures — leading to a better understanding of this process.

The CRESST website also has a page describing these two applications.

The search for his successor is on.

By Matin Durrani

Now here’s a job that very few physicists can possibly have a chance of securing.

The University of Cambridge is inviting applications for the position of Lucasian professor of mathematics to succeed Stephen Hawking, who is set to retire next year at the age of 67.

According to the 22 October issue of the Cambridge University Reporter, candidates should be “working on mathematics applied to the physical world, with strong preference for the broad area of theoretical physics”. The successful candidate is expected to take up the appointment in October next year.

Quite who will get the job is anyone’s guess. Previous Lucasian professors include Paul Dirac, George Stokes, Charles Babbage, George Airy and, most famously, the great Isaac Newton himself.

Hawking has certainly made the job, created in 1663 by the then Cambridge member of parliament Henry Lucas, one of the most well-known academic positions in the world.

If you fancy following in Hawking’s footsteps as the next — and 19th — Lucasian professor, applying for the job sounds fairly easy. All you need to do is submit a CV, list of papers, details of current and future research plans and details of two referees. The deadline is 15 December.

But be warned - Hawking may be retiring but will still be hanging around as “emeritus Lucasian professor”. Stepping out of his shadow won’t be easy.

By Jon Cartwright

Awarding Nobel prizes, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) proved earlier this month, is no easy business. Sometimes the the prize-worthy research is the responsibility of one or two inspirational scientists. But, as is more and more often the case, the research is a joint effort among many.

Take the Higgs boson, predicted by Peter Higgs in 1963 and now the one of the most sought after particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN lab near Geneva. If the LHC does detect a Higgs boson, who deserves a Nobel? Just Higgs himself? Perhaps also the LHC project leader, Lyn Evans? Or maybe the entire LHC crew?

By Hamish Johnston

If you are like me and you struggle with the basics of quantum computing you might want to stop reading now because this blog entry is about “quantum robotics”.

According to Daoyi Dong and colleagues at the University of Science and Technology of China, “A quantum robot is essentially a complex quantum system which generally consists of three fundamental components: multi-quantum computing units (MQCU), quantum controller/actuator, and information acquisition units”.

And they should know, because they have just published a preprint that “proposes a brand-new paradigm of robots”.

So why would you want a quantum robot?

According to Dong and Co, they are better at learning than classical robots because they would use “quantum reinforcement learning algorithms”.

Of course, physicists are still struggling to make a just one practical quantum computing device, let alone a MQCU. So I’m guessing that you might have to wait a while for a robot that uses quantum mechanics to learn how to iron your shirts.

UPDATE 27 October: This preprint has been withdrawn by the authors.

su.jpg Huai Su’s fractal calligraphy

By Hamish Johnston

In the scientific world, fractals were first identified in the mid-1970s by the mathematican Benoît Mandelbrot.

However, it’s possible that artists and artisans have long been using the fragmented shapes in their work.

In 1999, two Australian physicists famously showed that the “paint-drip” canvasses of Jackson Pollock could be dated by computing their fractal dimension — which tended to increase as Pollock matured as an artist.

Now, Yuelin Li of Argonne National Lab in the US has posted a paper on the arXiv preprint server claiming that calligraphy done by the “maniac Buddist monk” Huai Su more than 1200 years ago contains fractals. Li analysed a request for “bitter bamboo shoots and tea” written by the monk and found that it can be characterized by two different fractal dimensions.

Li believes that the fractal nature of some artworks “can be attributed to the artist’s pursuit of the hidden order of [the] fractal”.

By Margaret Harris

I spent last Friday milling about with thousands of besuited young people and about a hundred potential employers at the National Graduate Recruitment Exhibition in London. My main goal was to sniff out companies or fields that are hiring physics graduates, so we can highlight these opportunities in the Careers section of Physics World. Along the way, I also talked to several recruiters and recruitees — and was even “recruited” myself by the Royal Air Force.

One big traditional physics employer, the nuclear industry, won my award for the most eye-catching stall at the exhibition: recruiters from spoke to a steady stream of would-be workers inside a huge, grey, inflatable dome. Both dome and recruiters were there to advertise a new “umbrella” graduate programme with links to more than 20 companies and government agencies, and designed to bring new talent to an industry that has experienced a “greying” of its workforce over the past decade.

By Michael Banks

Ever since the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced a £80m shortfall in its budget late last year — to the wide condemnation of physicists in the UK — here at Physics World we have been trying to cover every twist and turn.

In September — after an STFC programmatic review spelling out which programmes would be funded — we ran opinion pieces in the magazine about the debacle from Brian Foster, European director of the global design effort for the International Linear Collider (ILC), as well as Keith Mason, chief executive of the STFC itself.

We have known for a few months now which facilities would be funded by the STFC in full — and which, like the Gemini telescopes and the ILC, would see the UK’s involvement cut back. What was not known, though, was how much research grants would be slashed.

The STFC earlier in the year issued a warning that up to 25% of grants could be cancelled over the next three years and those that have been issued could even be recalled as a result of the budget deficit. As Foster underlined in his opinion piece: “never before have grants that have been already issued been recalled and cut.”

However, the STFC has now pulled a rabbit out of the hat and come up with £9m over the next two years to plough into the research grants programme. The extra cash will reduce the original shortfall in grants funding by a half. A spokesperson for the STFC told me the new money has come from within the budget allocation and not from any external source. “[It originated from] how we manage our risks and our exposure to foreign currency fluctuations,” the spokesperson added.

This seems surprising as exposure to currency fluctuations was one of the main reasons given by the STFC management for its woes. However, for the time being physicists seem happy. “The flexibility that STFC have employed in addressing the reduction in grants is very welcome,” says particle physicist Mark Lancaster from University College London, who has been campaigning against the STFC cuts.

The new money will be available for the next grants round, but the STFC do not yet know how it will be distributed across sub-disciplines.

(Credit: Stewart Francis)

By Hamish Johnston

Would you get the face of your favourite physicist tattooed on your leg?

Jack Newton spent six hours getting a portrait of cosmologist Stephen Hawking emblazoned on his leg after reading the physicist’s popular tome A Brief History of Time — according to the UK paper Metro.

Newton — 23 and apparently no relation to Hawking’s distant predecessor at Cambridge — admits that he didn’t understand Hawking’s book, but respected the 66-year old physicist.

By Hamish Johnston

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you dropped a sphere of jelly on floor?

The answer to this and other pressing questions in fluid dynamics have appeared on the arXiv preprint server as a series of videos that have been submitted to the Gallery of Fluid Motion — part of next month’s American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting .

In the movie I watched, drops of “viscoelastic” material — mixtures of gelatin and water — pancake onto the floor before rising phoenix-like back into the air.

But instead of coming back as a sphere, the jelly rises as a slowly-vibrating dumbell.

This particular video was posted by Federico Hernandez-Sanchez and colleagues at the National University of Mexico and you can read about their experiment here — where you can also link to their videos.

Other papers linking to videos include Dynamics of Water Entry, The Clapping Book, and Liquid Acrobatics .

By Jon Cartwright

A new instrument at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in the US proves that Europeans are not the only scientists equipped to study the Big Bang.

The Fundamental Neutron Physics Beamline (FNPB) has just become operational at the SNS, which is based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Although just one of 25 instruments that will eventually power up at the SNS, the FNBP will not be using neutrons to study other materials. Rather, scientists will use it to perform studies of the neutron itself.

By Michael Banks

Since the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded this week to three Japanese-born researchers, it seems like Japan has gone particle-physics crazy, or at least the Japanese government has.

So much so that Japan now wants to host the next big experiment in particle physics — the International Linear Collider (ILC). The ILC is the successor to the $8bn proton smasher the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva that switched on, and then off, following a magnet failure almost a month ago.

According to a design study unveiled in early 2007, the machine is estimated to cost $8bn with the host country expected to pay $1.8bn - around 22% of the total cost — to dig the 40 km tunnel and supply electricity and water. When operational, the ILC will smash together electrons and its anti-particle twin, positrons, as they are accelerated to near the speed of light.

After the Nobel Prize was announced on Tuesday, a Japanese government spokesman said they will use the prize as “a tailwind” to advance its involvement with physics research. This comes as good news to particle physicists who saw the US cut its funding for the ILC last year by 75% to $15m, and with the UK now only carrying out basic research into the project following a funding crisis at one of its main research councils.

Indeed, the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) — set up by the US Department of Energy last year to plan the next decade in high-energy physics — published a report in June saying the US should have “a significant role in the ILC wherever it is built”, but stopped short of saying that it should be constructed in the US.

“If the Japanese do make such a strong bid, I think it is highly unlikely to be opposed by the US, although it might catalyse other interest, potentially China or Russia,” says particle physicist Brian Foster from Oxford University. “However, I think the Japanese would be in a very strong position and, after ITER, in some sense they are ‘owed’ the next major international project.”

So maybe the time is right for
Japan to stake its claim.

Should Nicola Cabibbo have shared this year’s Nobel prize? (Credit: Marcella Bona)

By Jon Cartwright

There was a reason why science reporters like me groaned at the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics yesterday. “Drat,” we thought in synchrony. “Now I have to explain what symmetry breaking is.” Maybe that’s why we on all hoped for more fathomable research, like dark energy or neutrino oscillations.

For some particle physicists, there was a less selfish reason to be irritated. Two of the three new Japanese-born laureates, Toshihide Maskawa of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics and Makoto Kobayashi of the KEK lab, were awarded the prize for figuring out how to encompass so-called charge–parity violation in the Standard Model. The crucial part of their work was in describing the decays of quarks, for which they created the CKM matrix — “M” for Maskawa and “K” for Kobayashi. So why did the Nobel committee appear to disregard the first initial — “C” for the Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo?

arXiv thrives

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Paul Ginsparg, creator of the arXiv e-print server

By Jon Cartwright

The electronic dust may have only been settling on arXiv for 17 years or so, but the world’s favourite e-print server has already amassed half a million papers.

arXiv started out life in 1991 as, a server created by Paul Ginsparg, then at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, to share preprints among a small number of high-energy physicists. It was a simple yet surprisingly popular idea, receiving some 400 subscriptions in its first six months alone. By 1999 when had changed its name to arXiv, the repository was accumulating almost two thousand new articles every month. In 2001, when Ginsparg headed to Cornell University, arXiv went too, and continued to grow.

arXiv began its operations before the World Wide Web, search engines, online commerce and all the rest, but nonetheless anticipated many components of current ‘Web 2.0’ methodology,” said Ginsparg in a statement on Friday, when the server officially passed the 500,000 mark. “It continues to play a leading role at the forefront of new models for scientific communication.”

• If you are interested to read Ginsparg’s thoughts on the development of scientific communication on the Web, why not read Physics World’s online feature?

Some of Raymer and Smith’s knots — prepare yourself to laugh and then think. (Courtesy: UCSD).

By Hamish Johnston

Call me a killjoy, but I don’t find this year’s Ig Nobel prize in physics particularly amusing. It certainly doesn’t live up to to the award’s mandate of highlighting “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK”.

I didn’t laugh at Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith’s study of why knots form spontaneously in lengths of “agitated” string — which won them this year’s prize, and seems like a perfectly reasonable, even practical topic.

And all I could think was “I’m sure this sort of work has been done before”.

So I typed “knot” into our site search engine and sure enough this article came up. Now I’m no string theorist, but it looks like Jens Eggers at the University of Bristol published a similar study a year before Raymer and Smith. I tried to call Eggers to see if he was miffed about being passed over for the Ig Nobel, but there was no answer. I guess he was all tied up!

(Courtesy: Nobel Foundation).

By Hamish Johnston

The 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics is set to be announced at 10.45am BST on Tuesday 7 October and we are starting to get excited here at Physics World about who will scoop this year’s gong.

Here are a few of our picks…

News Editor Michael Banks is putting his money on Daniel Kleppner at MIT for inventing the hydrogen maser.

Reporter Jon Cartwright is tipping Berkeley’s Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt at the Australian National University for their discovery that the universe’s rate of expansion is increasing…leading to the concept of dark energy.

Artist’s impression of a possible KM3NeT detector configuration. (Courtesy: ASPERA).

By Hamish Johnston

In July 2007 Europe’s astroparticle physicists drew up a wish list of research projects that they would like to see funded.

Dubbed the “Magnificent Seven” by ASPERA — a consortium of national agencies that fund astroparticle physics research — the projects aim to answer the fundamental questions facing astroparticle physicists.

This wish list has been through the wringer of European consulation processes and earlier this week a final roadmap document was released. It’s a 61-page report and you can find the PDF here .

The document recommends that seven projects be supported by European funding agencies , and gives three projects “priority” status.

These three are the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) for detecting of cosmic high-energy gamma rays; KM3NeT, a cubic kilometre-scale neutrino telescope in the Mediterranean Sea; and the Pierre Auger North array for the detection of charged cosmic rays.

Artist’s impression of the GIOVE-A probe, which was launched three years ago. (Courtesy: ESA).

By Michael Banks

This morning, in the huge exhibition hall at this year’s International Astronautical Congress, I caught up with Martin Sweeting, chief executive of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and chairman of the local organizing committee for this year’s event.

The company that he founded in 1985 at Surrey University focuses on building and operating “micro” satellites, which are around 100 kg in mass. Sweeting recalled how, back in the 1980s, people laughed at the idea of having smaller satellites. At the time, satellites were getting ever bigger, with larger scientific payloads on board. But the sceptics soon turned silent: the market for small commercial satellites has seen year-on-year growth, with SSTL itself having a market turnover of £21m in 2006.

In his talk yesterday evening at the congress, Sweeting compared the traditional large satellites as “dinosaurs” having themselves evolved from smaller satellites. Indeed, Sputnik - the world’s first artificial satellite - was the size of a beach ball.

I asked Sweeting if the comparison was apt, given that large satellites are still needed for landers to the Moon and Mars as well as for possible manned missions.

Fly me to the Moon

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Michael Griffin

By Michael Banks

When Physics World talked to NASA boss Michael Griffin in July - on the occasion of NASA’s 50th birthday — he noted that the agency hoped to have manned missions to the Moon by 2020 and Mars by 2050. Griffin reiterated that view in a session yesterday at the International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow with heads of agency and industry space leaders. However, he also warned about putting too much priority on a potential Mars mission. “We have had only 27 Earth days on the Moon,” said Griffin, referring to the previous six Apollo manned lunar missions. “But our dependents will think we are idiots; that we don’t know enough about the Moon, if we don’t revisit it.”

For anyone who thinks a mission to Mars would be the space equivalent of a walk in the park, Griffin put the potential mission in context. “Mars is an interesting place for human beings,” he said, “but we have to show that astronauts can survive the mission time by first putting them for seven months on the International Space Station (ISS) then 9-12 months on the moon followed by another 7 months on the ISS.

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending day two of “Pendry Fest”, a series of lectures at Imperial College given in honour of the physicist Sir John Pendry, who recently turned 65.

Pendry is probably most famous for his prediction in 2000 of the negative refraction of electromagnetic radiation by new manmade materials called metamaterials. This was confirmed experimentally by Duke University’s David Smith, who spoke yesterday, and Pendry and Smith went on to use this property of metamaterials to create an invisibility cloak in 2006.

Although making such metamaterials is a significant challenge of electrical engineering, Pendry realized that the physics could be described rather elegantly by borrowing ideas from Einstein’s general theory of relativity — a concept he dubbed “Transformation Optics”. Indeed, in his talk Smith credited Pendry with encouraging a generation of electrical engineers to read-up on general relativity.