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November 2008 Archives

Simulation of a treble beam splitter by Xiaofei Xu et al
By Hamish Johnston

Our very own New Journal of Physics has just published a special issue on cloaking and transformation optics — a subject dear to our hearts here on

The first article in issue — by cloaking wizards Ulf Leonhardt and David Smith — begins with a quote from the late Arthur C Clarke that sums the field up nicely. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

So, what kind of magic has been unveiled in the (virtual) pages of this special issue?

By Joao Medeiros

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell (Courtesy; Brooke Williams)

Malcolm Gladwell, the virtuoso author of Tipping Point (which covered the work of physicists like Duncan Watts and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi) and Blink, came to London for one day to present his new book, Outliers, to a packed audience at the Lyceum Theatre.

Gladwell is a maverick science journalist (or what “maverick” used to mean pre-Sarah Palin). He invented “pop economics” with his writing, spawning a whole new class of books like Freakonomics, The Long Tail, Here Comes Everybody, …. He works for the New Yorker, where he regularly writes about his niche subject: everything.

Gladwell is not a typical science journalist. He’s an original observer (not necessarily an original thinker — he defines himself as a communicator of science) that is driven by his own curiosity rather than following the agenda of scientists. Whereas most science journalists browse the scientific literature in search for the “what’s hot in science”, Gladwell follows his own instinct and curiosity. He starts his stories by asking by asking very simple questions about pretty much anything that crosses his way: “What is Cesar Milan ( from the TV show “The dog whisperer”) secret?”, “Why is there only one variety of Ketchup?”, “Why do we usually relate genius to precocity?”, etc etc These are questions that most people probably dismiss as random daydreaming divagations.

By Hamish Johnston

A report released yesterday by a group of US scientists including representatives of the American Physical Society urges president elect Obama to follow a “dual-track nuclear arms control and refurbishment/updating policy”.

This, says the report, is in line with Obama’s “vision of a nuclear-free world, and the continuing need to have a credible US deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist”.

Although this “I’ll drop mine when you drop yours” approach makes as much moral sense as mutually assured destruction, the pragmatist in me knows the best we can hope for is that the US and others refrain from developing any new weapons — something the report calls for. And of course, pray that no-one (government, terrorist or otherwise) is demented enough to actually use one.

On more cheery notes, the report urges Obama to address the challenge of boosting global reliance on nuclear energy while controlling the risks of weapons proliferation.

The report also calls for the US and Russia to come to a new agreement on the simultaneous reduction of their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Anton Zeilinger being interviewed in London

By Hamish Johnston

First it was Einstein and Eddington, then Leon Lederman …now, it’s Anton Zeilinger’s turn to hit the silver screen — or at least your computer screen.

Zeilinger was in London earlier this year to accept the inaugural Isaac Newton Medal from the Insititute of Physics .

He also delivered the 2008 Isaac Newton Lecture, which was recorded and can now be viewed on the IOP’s website.

Zeilinger, who is at the University of Vienna spoke on “Quantum Information and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics”. You can also view an interview with the medal-winner on the website.

Our physics on film series continues shortly when Margaret Harris reveals whether her universe will ever be the same after BLAST!

Fermilab on film

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Still the frontier? Bison graze at Fermilab. Credit: Fermilab

By Margaret Harris

What does it feel like to work for an organization that — despite its considerable fame and all the talent it has nurtured over the years — is frankly on the verge of being outclassed? This is among the many questions raised by The Atom Smashers, an oddly moving little film about life at Fermilab in the months before its European rival, CERN, switched on the Large Hadron Collider. It’s scheduled to air on American public television stations starting from 25 November as part of PBSIndependent Lens series, with repeats around 27 January; check local listings for specific dates and times.

The documentary focuses on the period between early 2006 and late 2007, and there is plenty of material for filmmakers Clayton Brown, Monica Long Ross and Andrew Suprenant to explore here. Over the course of the film, scientific enthusiasm collides with sharp budget cuts and promising results that don’t pan out — all while a neon “doomsday clock” marking the days, hours and minutes to LHC’s first collisions ticks down in the background.

And the winner is…September 2008
By Hamish Johnston

The results are in and your favourite Physics World cover comes from the September 2008 issue of the magazine (right). The collage of galaxies was inspired by an illustration in John D Barrow’s book Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science.

The cover, which garnered 13% of the 1303 votes in our recent survey to mark the 20th anniversary of Physics World, contains 56 striking images of galaxies that were derived from actual photos taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The cover highlights the Galaxy Zoo project, which recruits members of the public to help classify the thousands of galaxy images taken by the SDSS telescope in New Mexico.

March 1998 is done in John Richardson’s “Lichtenstyle”

My favourite cover – a brilliant homage to the late American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein – was runner up with 11% of the vote.

The cover of the March 1998 issue was created by the UK-based cartoonist John Richardson and shows “Alice and Bob, the central characters in many quantum information papers”. You can view a gallery of Richardson’s art here .

November 2001 is a salute to Andy Warhol

Pop art is also the theme of the third-place cover from November 2001, which uses eight slightly different “Schrödinger’s cats” to illustrate the concept of quantum cloning à la Andy Warhol.

The cat belonged to then features editor Val Jamieson (now at New Scientist), and I’m told it only had one eye – the other being cloned in our design studio. Sadly, the final measurement has been made on this cat.

The covers were voted on by our readers from a shortlist of 20 chosen by Matin Durrani and Dens Milne.

…and which cover was the least favourite? It’s the cover from July 2006 that illustrates an article on Hollywood physics – this attracted about 1% of the vote.

By Margaret Harris

Einstein and Eddington
Andy Serkis as Einstein and David Tennant as Eddington

Albert Einstein is certainly the most famous scientist of the 20th century, and probably one of the most important in all of human history. So great is Einstein’s reputation that it makes that of Arthur Stanley Eddington — a fine observational astronomer and a gifted popularizer of science — seem like footnote fodder. Yet without Eddington’s 1919 eclipse expedition, which provided early proof of general relativity, Einstein’s discoveries might have languished for years before becoming known outside the German-speaking scientific community, let alone amongst the general public.

The connections between Einstein and Eddington are the subject of a new film from the BBC, starring David Tennant of Doctor Who fame as a troubled, repressed Eddington and Andy Serkis (best known as the model for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films) as a flawed but likeable Einstein. Einstein and Eddington airs on BBC2 on 22 November at 21:10 and is well worth a watch — if mostly for the human drama, rather than the scientific content.

More UK pupils could soon be peering through telescopes (Courtesy: RAS).

By Hamish Johnston
In 1609 the Tuscan polymath Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to point a telescope skywards. He went on to discover sunspots, mountains on the Moon and four of the moons of Jupiter.

To mark this milestone in the development of modern science, the United Nations has declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy.

Now, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of telescope-based astronomy, 1000 secondary schools in the UK will be given telescopes — paid for by the Society for Popular Astronomy, the Royal Astronomical Society and the UK science-research funding body STFC.

High-speed photos of actual dancing droplets (grey left half of objects) along with the mathematical description of the normal modes (coloured right half of objects).

By Hamish Johnston

There’s a paper in the New Journal of Physics today about how to make droplets of oil “dance” on the surface of a vibrating bath.

As well as floating over the surface, the droplets also seem to deform periodically in a number of distinct normal modes. In my favourite example, a droplet literally goes pear-shaped before wobbling back to something resembling a doughnut.

The research suggests that it may be easier than previously thought to levitate tiny amounts of liquid.

You might be wondering why it is important to levitate droplets? Well, it could be used to manipulate tiny amounts of liquid without actually touching it — something that could be useful in chemical or biological analysis techniques that are very sensitive to contamination.

Movies of real-life droplets as well as computer simulations can be seen here. WARNING: Their lava-lamp-like oscillations can mesmerize!

By Jon Cartwright

De Regules: “Science is the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world”. (Credit: Sergio de Regules)

One of the best features of the web is that it allows readers to give their opinion freely on the news, and at we appreciate all your comments. In fact, it was while looking back at an article I wrote earlier this year that I came across an interesting comment by a reader called Sergio de Regules, who suggested we ought to have more “science commentators” to cover the history, philosophy, controversies and murkiness that make science so fascinating.

De Regules, 44, is a physicist, writer and musician living in Mexico City. As he tells me via e-mail, he has written a science column for the English-language newspaper The News (a selection of which are now archived on his blog), has edited at the Mexican science title Cómo Ves, has written several other books, and has appeared on radio shows and talks. Presently he is a science communicator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

I decided it would be worthwhile to ask him for his thoughts on science writing, and what academia is like in Mexico.

JC: What do mean by “science commentator”?

SdR: I like to think of science communication as a way of sharing science with the public. But we all know that science is not so much in the results of research as in the spirit of research, or in the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world. If the scientific results reported in the news can be viewed as newly conquered territories, science is the strategy by which they are conquered. Explaining the what in a scientific development is very good, but it is the how and the why which are memorable. The science commentator provides these.

By Jon Cartwright

Joran Moen waits to fire his rocket to investigate radio-transmission loss in the Arctic (Credit: Yngve Vogt)

Flying over the Arctic can be like being on the far side of the moon: if the Northern Lights are particularly active, they will sometimes block all radio signals, thus severing communications with aircraft.

Joran Moen, a physicist at the University of Oslo, might have the key to explaining this phenomenon. Over the next few weeks he will be waiting for the right moment to launch his rocket ICI-2 so that it can fly 350 km into the sky to find the origin of the radio blocking, or “high-frequency backscattering”.

Scientists think the backscattering is caused by turbulent structures in the ionosphere’s electron plasma, which are related to the Northern Lights, so Moen is going to investigate. “The formation mechanisms of the structures are not yet determined, not even the altitude range,” he writes in an e-mail. “We want to study the instability mechanisms that drive the electron plasma turbulent.”

By Jon Cartwright

In his first week as US president-elect, Barack Obama has faced a barrage of recommendations into how he should run office come 20 January next year. One of those firing the rounds is the American Physical Society (APS), which on Friday scheduled meetings with his transition team to discuss ways to improve the nation’s energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency plays a key role in climate change, an issue that Obama put near the top of the list during his election campaign. He promises to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80% by 2050 — an ambitious target that he aims to meet through investment in basic research, commercialization of hybrid cars and development of green technologies.

rotblatnew .jpg
(Courtesy: Willem Malten/Los Alamos Study Group).

By Hamish Johnston

This mural commemorating the life of Sir Joseph Rotblat is on the wall of the Cloud Cliff Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Rotblat — who was born 100 years ago this week — is the subject of a new book by Martin Underwood entitled Joseph Rotblat - A Man of Conscience in the Nuclear Age, which will be published early next year by Sussex Academic Press.

If you are intrigued by the brief description of Rotblat’s life on the mural, Underwood has written a preview of his book.

Rotblat was born to a Jewish family in Poland on 4 November, 1908. He studied physics and became assistant director of the Atomic Physics Institute of the Free University of Poland in 1937. He was fortunate to be in the UK when war broke out in 1939, but was unable to get his wife Tola out. She is believed to have died in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Ice fishing on the Ottawa River — no Periodic Hartree-Fock Calculations required. (Courtesy: AlainV).

By Hamish Johnston

One of my favourite memories of childhood is travelling across a frozen lake in the backseat of a circa-1975 Buick LeSabre (a very large car) on our way to do a bit of ice fishing.

The ice was over a foot thick, and we were secure in the knowledge that it would hold the LeSabre — and the hundreds of other cars on the lake.

What I didn’t know back then was just how complicated the stuff we were driving on is — and how much grief it has given to physicists brave enough to try to understand it.

For example, Andreas Hermann and Peter Schwerdtfeger of Massey University in New Zealand have just published a paper entitled Ground-State Properties of Crystalline Ice from Periodic Hartree-Fock Calculations and a Coupled-Cluster-Based Many-Body Decomposition of the Correlation Energy .

They say their result “hints at the possibility to accurately simulate ab initio water”. In other words, at some point in the future we may be able to understand why a seemingly simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen has myriad wonderous and life-giving properties.

Indeed, one of the most curious (alleged) properties of water is the Mpemba effect whereby hot water freezes faster than cold water. I’m guessing that it will be a while before this can be explained using Periodic Hartree-Fock Calculations.