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September 2009 Archives

Nobel predictions

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Albert Fert: who will be the next winner?

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week I was at a Royal Society meeting on spintronics to film the latest in our series of interviews with high-profile physicists.

My first interviewee was the Nobel laureate Albert Fert, who shared the 2007 prize for his work on giant magnetoresistance. I asked Prof Fert for his predictions for this year’s prize — which will be awarded next Tuesday — and he tipped his Orsay colleague Alain Aspect.

In 1981, Aspect and colleagues were the first to demonstrate quantum entanglement at a distance — as defined by the violation of Bell’s inequality. Since then physicists including David Wineland, Peter Zoller, Juan Ignacio Cirac and Anton Zeilinger have invented ways of using entanglement as the basis of quantum cryptography and nascent quantum processors.

Indeed, Zoller and Cirac have been tipped by Thomson Reuters for the prize.

So how about Aspect plus two of Zoller, Cirac, Zeilinger or Wineland for this year’s award? But how to choose — and is it too early for a quantum-information prize, which will surely be given some day?

Another suggestion that came up in London is a prize for the 1995 discovery of the first planet orbiting a star other than the Sun. A long shot — but it would have exoplanet pioneers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz packing their DJs for Stockholm.

What do folks around here think?

James Dacey predicts quantum cryptography — and Anton Zeilinger in particular.

Michael Banks says “Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt for discovering that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Outside bet is Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for the discovery of graphene.”

“Yakir Aharanov for the Aharanov-Bohm effect and Michael Berry for the Berry phase,” says Physics World supremo Matin Durrani. “If I keep saying it often enough, it surely will happen. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the AB effect and 25 years since Berry’s paper so the timing is appropriate.”

So, what do you think?

Sociology of the Galaxy Zoo

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Stampede Galaxy Zoo has recruited 200 000 citizen scientists in its two year history

By James Dacey

Since its launch in 2007, the project known as Galaxy Zoo can only really be described as a roaring success. Its basic premise is that any “citizen scientist” with an internet connection can help professional scientists by classifying images of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

As of April 2009, more than 200,000 volunteers had made more than 100 million galaxy classifications.

In practice the would-be “Zooites” are asked to follow a quick tutorial which describes the basic structures of spirals, ellipticals etc, before they are tested with some extra pictures. Get enough correct answers and they can join.

So what is it that attracts non-specialists to pass their spare time by sitting at a computer and classifying galaxies? This is a question explored by a group of public outreach specialists from the UK and the US, in a new paper on the arXiv preprint server.

22 Zooites volunteered themselves for an interview in which they were asked a series of questions including their impressions of the Galaxy Zoo website, their motivations for participating, and their experiences with and definition of science.

Following a series of analysis and discussions, the research team arrived at 12 motivational categories:


For elaboration on each category, check out the paper — it’s very “social-sciency”, but well worth a look if you’re into this kind of thing.

For more info on the purpose of the Galaxy Zoo, check out this feature written by two of the project’s founders.

The pirate physicist: Jens Seipenbusch, third from left, with other members of the Piratenpartei

By Matin Durrani

It was all smiles for Angela Merkel in Germany’s general election as she won another term as chancellor. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), scooped 239 seats in the Bundestag — enough for Merkel to hold on to power through a new coalition with the pro-business free democrats (FDP). Her former partners, the social democrats (SPD), now face a spell in opposition.

Yes, all very interesting but what’s this got to do with physics? Well, as I’m sure you know, Merkel is one of the few political leaders to be a physicist too.

The 55-year-old Merkel studied physics at Leipzig University, in the former East Germany, between 1973 and 1978, before obtaining a PhD from the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1986 for a thesis entitled “The calculation of speed constants of reactions of simple hydrocarbons”. She is also married to Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

Merkel’s background in physics is well known, but did you know that another German political leader is a physicist too?

Let’s say hello to Jens Seipenbusch , 40, who is founder and leader of the fringe Piratenpartei (Pirate Party), which was campaigning for increased freedom of speech, copyright reform and less intrusive government surveillance, particularly of the internet.

Seipenbusch studied physics at the University of Münster. He founded the party in 2006, serving as leader until 2007 before taking the top job again earlier this year.

I haven’t been able to find out too much about his physics career, but it appears that he was a research assistant at Münster from 1994 to 1998, having studied physics at the Ruhr University in Bochum from 1987 to 1989. From one website I stumbled upon, it looks like he used to be involved in non-linear and quantum optics.

Sadly for Jens, his party didn’t cross the 5% hurdle that you need to get seats in the Bundestag. The pirates ended up with about 2% of the vote, although they reached the giddy heights of 2.6% in Munich and 3.5% in Tübingen.

But that’s not even the end of the matter. I have been reliably informed by my wife, who is German, that the leader of the left-wing Die Linke (The Left) party, Oskar Lafontaine, is a physicist too. According to his party’s website , he has a master’s degree in physics from the universities of Bonn and Saarbrücken. His party got 76 seats from 11.9% of the vote.

It seems as if the Germans have a thing about physics political leaders.

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Who’s who of science and engineering

By Matin Durrani

This will be my last blog entry during my visit to KAUST — Saudi Arabia’s new research university, which opened on Wednesday.

The highlight of yesterday was the inaugural symposium entitled “Sustainability in a changing climate”, which is a key part of KAUST’s mission.

First to speak was George W Bush’s former energy secretary Samuel Bodman, who outlined four priorities for tackling climate change — increased energy efficiency, new-generation nuclear reactors, growing use of renewables and advanced biofuels, and better exploitation of fossil fuels such as clean coal.

Next up was Alec Broers, former president of the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, who discussed the importance of engineers in sustainability. “Scientists have sounded the alarm. Engineers need to find the solution”; he said. Mind you, he would say that — Broers trained as a physicist at the University of Melbourne before a career in engineering.

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Madly perfect?

After words from a couple of other heavyweights — Imperial College rector Sir Roy Anderson and University of Southern California president Steven Sample — on to the stage came Chen Ning Yang, the 87-year-old physicist who shared the 1957 Nobel prize with Tsung-dao Lee.

Remarkably young looking, Yang stressed the importance of basic research, pointing out how quantum theory in the early decades of the 20th century led to semiconductors, which led to transistors, which led to chips — without which computers, TV and the rest of modern life — would not exist.

Yang’s view, widely held, is that basic research leads to applied research in a linear path. Actually, things are a lot more complicated than that, but cosily ensconsed in my leather seat high up in KAUST’s vast auditorium, I kept quiet.

As I stepped out of the symposium into the warm evening air, the angular, university buildings were lit up beautifully and a troupe of singers could be heard singing in the main square where small tables lay with cold drinks. Guests pressed forwards to the music, and there, above the scene, as if by arrangement, was a half-crescent moon, the symbol of Islam. Like KAUST itself, the whole scene seemed madly perfect — and almost too good to be true.

Cue fireworks…

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Are the KAUST celebrations getting a bit too sweet?

By Matin Durrani

I mentioned in my two blog entries yesterday that the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia is not exactly short of cash - it has a $10bn endowment from the man himself.

One US physicist said he’d heard that the whole inauguration has cost $80m - flying in thousands of guests (including physics Nobel laureates Gerard ‘t Hooft and Chen Ning Yang) putting them up in the best hotels in Jeddah, and giving them all, myself included, nice little luggage tags with the KAUST logo.

A fair whack must have also gone on the fireworks that concluded the official launch party last night, which were probably enough to have kept most physics departments in business for a few years at least.

The event took place in what was dubbed “the tent” - a temporary structure about two football pitches in size with an exhibition hall, auditorium and vast dining area. Air-conditioned to the hilt, the plastic windows dripped with condensation on the outside. A troupe of drummers lined the stage as we waited for the king’s jet to land.

Once settled in his seat, there followed speeches from the likes of the minister for petroleum and KAUST’s president Choon Fong Shih, and then specially recorded films beamed onto the huge backdrop to the stage. One featured a boy on the sunlit beach, picking up stones - presumably a nod to Newton’s comment about just being like a boy on the shores of discovery - backed by rousingly cheesy music.

With the heads of state of Bahrain, Jordan, Malaysia and elsewhere — not to mention the Duke of York (aka Prince Andrew) — sitting alongside him, the King then mounted the stage, delivering a thankfully short address, which should soon be available here.

The drummers marched off stage right while the king pressed his hand into a weird tablet that shot out a puff of smoke in green-and-white Saudi colours. The back wall of the stage parted - and there, through the windows, was the university and its iconic tower lit up against the night sky

Cue fireworks.

“It’s like Disneyland” muttered one physicist later to me.

Tony Eastham shows off his new facilities

By Matin Durrani

I wrote yesterday about whether the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia will attract researchers to the new venture.

One thing is clear: the facilities are second to none.

Tony Eastham, KAUST’s lab director, greeted me as I stepped off the media bus into the melting heat. First stop was the visualization “cave” — basically a white, walk-in room onto which colour images are beamed by four cinema-quality projectors. Put on a pair of goggles and the cave lets you see images of, say, protein molecules to look for possible binding sites or to view 3D fly-through of archaeological sites. Although such rooms exist elsewhere, this has apparently a better resolution than any other; it can even play sound, should you wish.

As we headed down to the nanotech facilities, Eastham, who used to be based at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told me that KAUST has a whopping $1.5bn over its first five years for lab equipment. Tasty.

In one of the downstairs labs a total of 10 NMR spectrometers stood sentry, all unused so far. Then it was through a side door and down a corridor with tall doors leading off. Eastham opened one to reveal a state-of-the art electron microscope and then a second and then a third. Each boasted another microscope - five TEMs and five SEMs in all, each barely out of its packaging. Another room had a suite of confocal and Raman microscopes.

And so into the clean rooms - a total of 2000 square metres in all. All spotless so far. “KAUST,” claimed Eastham, “is the most exciting thing happening in academia anywhere in the world.”

Whether all the new toys can be used for anything useful, however, remains to be seen.

Newton’s wars

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By Hamish Johnston

The BBC’s Melvin Bragg can’t get enough of Isaac Newton and the great physicist’s battles with his fellow scientists.

This morning Bragg gathered a cabal of Oxbridge historians to chat about the invention of calculus — which was claimed independently by both Newton and Gottfried Leibniz and the subject of a longstanding feud between the two and their respective supporters.

Describing what Newton and Leibniz had in common, Cambridge’s Simon Schaffer began by saying they both have biscuits named after them. I don’t know which one invented calculus, but I do know which biscuit I would rather have with my afternoon coffee!

Shaffer was joined by Cambridge’s Patricia Fara and Jackie Stedall of the University of Oxford in a lively discussion about the characters of Newton and Leibniz and their contributions to calculus.


So who invented what? I came away with the impression that Newton dreamt up calculus in order to study rates of change with respect to time. Therefore his focus was on what we now call differential calculus. Leibniz, on the other hand, was interested in how space is filled — and therefore his focus was on integral calculus.

The panellists seemed to agree that Leibniz was the first to publish his work — but were quick to point out that in the 17th century this didn’t have the kudos it does today. There is also some evidence that Newton had developed his ideas of calculus long before he published them.

However, when the row broke out over who was first, Newton shouted the loudest and appears to have used his influence within the Royal Society to have himself declared the originator of calculus — at least in England.

You can listen to the programme here


By Matin Durrani

If you’ve read my news story and blog entry earlier today, you will have realized that I am spending a couple of days at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

The question on my lips is can the university fulfil its ambitions and become a world-leading institution, carrying out research into solar power, nanotechnology, clean water and everything else the country has its eyes on. Can it simply “buy success” by building a new university, pouring in oodles of cash, paying for lots of top-notch equipment and recruiting what are reported to be some of the world’s top scientists in their fields. (Or so I am told — I haven’t actually met any yet).

It’s a bit like Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea football club and snapping up the world’s best players, the only difference being he already had a football club with a 100-year tradition to buy.

I caught up with Choon Fong Shih, KAUST’s president, shortly before the king himself was due to attend the official launch party in a vast “tent” filled with the great and the good from Saudi Arabia and beyond.

As far as Shih is concerned, failure is not an option. Speaking to me near the front of the vast indoor arena, he brushed aside suggestions that KAUST might not work. “We are free of legacies and traditional boxes”, he said, referring to the fact that the university is starting from scratch and with interdisciplinary being the key.

CERN boss Rolf-Dieter Heuer, who is on KAUST’s board of trustees, was a bit more cautious, talking to me about the “challenges” of encouraging researchers to stay beyond just a few years and of making sure that the university has good links with the rest of the country.

“But it’s a new way of doing things and this is what I like,” says Heuer.

KAUST may do good work, but can it meet the standards set by, say, Bologna, Cambridge or Oxford universities, which have taken centuries to reach the top?

This is probably a cop-out, but only time will tell. Still, it makes an interesting experiment - and if KAUST works, it may encourage other emerging nations to do likewise, which is surely a good thing.

Quantum computing at the frontier

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David Wineland, a member of the NIST Ion Storage Group

By James Dacey

A few weeks back I reported new findings from a group at NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) that could become a significant milestone in the quest for a practical quantum computer.

The researchers had proudly unveiled the first device (albeit a very tiny one) to perform all the steps needed for large-scale quantum processing.

Crucially, their ion-based device was able to shift data between six designated zones in the trap without losing too much of it in the process — no mean feat given the oh-so-delicate nature of quantum information.

Well, a new paper on the arXiv reveals that this ambitious NIST group have not rested on their laurels and they are already looking to scale-up their ion-based quantum computing. They report the design, fabrication, and preliminary testing of a new type of ion-trap — this time containing 150 zones.

The new trap is bedecked with a “surface-electrode” geometry, which would permit even larger scaling, they claim.

I got in touch with David Wineland, a member of the NIST team. He confirmed that the group has yet to perform any algorithms using the device but they are continuing to develop the research.

Watch this space for when they do!

A new ivory tower in Saudi Arabia

By Matin Durrani

It’s at least an hour’s drive north of Jeddah along a dusty and baking hot six-lane highway to get to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which Saudi Arabia hopes will soon become one of the world’s leading research institutions.

The question, though, is will researchers be tempted to the shores of the Red Sea and turn KAUST into what its proponents envisage? Why give up a respectable career path in, say, the US or Europe to join a new university with no track record in a country that, in recent times, is not exactly a power house on the world research stage?

That’s the question I hope to answer while here at KAUST over the next two days.

Of course, there’s the money: KAUST comes with an endowment of $10bn, which is not to be sniffed at. The salaries are sure to be good.

Then there are the spanking-new research facilities, which include a nanotech lab, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and a visualization unit.

KAUST also intends to be interdisciplinary and global in outlook, with researchers from all over the world.

The university also will look after staff well, with housing, recreational facilities, schools and so on. The main building itself is a fabulous glass-and-steel edifice overlooking a lagoon next to the sea.

But perhaps the biggest pull is the vision of the university’s leaders and the chance to make a mark right from the start in creating something different.

The university wants to focus on topics like solar energy — Saudi Arabia’s biggest asset after its oil and gas — as well as clean combustion, and the development of plants that can survive in hot desert conditions.

It is all is part of a plan to create a new “house of wisdom” and put science in the Islamic world back to the level it enjoyed centuries ago.

Well, that’s the spiel we’ve been hearing at the official press conference. But given that scientists are always moaning about a lack of cash, it’s hard to begrudge what is certainly an ambitious scientific venture.

And thanks to air conditioning, that baking heat is nicely out of reach.

Geomagnetism, bizarre analogy, and plain muddle

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Messy business The Earth’s magnetic field found itself entangled in a controversial article

By James Dacey

Ben Goldacre is probably best known for his razor-sharp column Bad Science, through which he launches weekly attacks on shock reporting, big business, and basically anyone else who is deemed to misrepresent or skew science for their own unsavoury ends.

Now, it seems however that his column has committed one of the same indiscretions it purports to attack - sensationalism. Goldacre’s newspaper, The Guardian, has been forced to publish an apology for an article in which Goldacre drew an “unfair” parallel between the reporting of a fellow science journalist and the exploitative reporting of the survivors of the Dunblane school massacre.

Just to state my position early doors - I am a big fan of Goldacre and his column (as described here after I went along to one of his talks). In this instance, however, I think he got it wrong.

The article in question published in May and Goldacre was commenting on the way Jonathan Leeke of the Sunday Times had covered a new piece of geophysics research. Goldacre accused The Sunday Times of sensationalist reportage for making the findings appear to “turn the world on its head”. Very briefly, this was his qualm:

A physicist in the US had just published a paper in which he linked some of the variation in the Earth’s magnetic field with the world’s oceans: Salt in sea water conducts electricity… the tides swish the water around… a changing electric current creates a magnetic field.

What the physicist did not claim, however, is that the oceans could be responsible for generating the whole of the Earth’s field, which - as the geophysicists out there will know - would be a paradigm-shifting scientific idea as it is standard theory that the geomagnetic field is generated by the convection of molten iron deep within the Earth’s interior. In his article, however, Leake does indeed suggest that this latest research formally introduces this controversial alternative idea.

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Images from the European Orbiter on the 1987 ESA calendar. Credit: ESA

By Margaret Harris

The question of what to do with old calendars is (literally) a perennial one, but the European Space Agency has an interesting solution: post them on the web.

The agency has created an online gallery of calendars and posters depicting missions from the last 30 years. The images are drawn from archives at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, and from a retired employee’s private collection. They include both satellite photos like the one on this calendar — which would have made a great Christmas gift back in 1986 — and artists’ impressions of missions.

It’s not clear why ESOC has chosen to post these images now. There’s no information on the website about any special exhibition, for example, and the nominal 40th-anniversary tie-in seems a little odd, given that ESOC is now 42 years old.

But whatever the excuse, leafing through the various posters is both a nice reminder of the agency’s successes and an interesting glimpse of how it has advertised itself over the years. I particularly liked the city of Darmstadt’s poster, which used a picture of a rocket to promote a week of extended shop-openings back in the 1980s. Unlike the others, it’s not an official ESA image, but I can see why they like it — it neatly captures the public’s enthusiasm for space, and the eagerness to appropriate “cool” space imagery for utterly unrelated purposes. Space-age shopping hours — whatever will they think of next?

Edmund Stoner would be proud (Courtesy: University of Leeds)

By Hamish Johnston

There’s a nice paper in Science today about using a gas of ultracold atoms to gain a better understanding of the behaviour of electrons in solids — another triumph for the “quantum simulator”.

Physicists in the US and Canada have used a chilled gas of lithium-6 to gain important insights into why iron, nickel and other metals are magnetic.

Of course people have known that iron is magnetic for a very long time — but it turns out that the eponymous ferromagnet has some very tricky physics lurking within it.

Iron is called an “itinerant” ferromagnet because its magnetism arises from the spins of its conduction electrons. This means that its magnetic moments can move around the metal as well as flip between up and down — you can see it’s getting complicated already.

Many years ago physicists realized that electrons with overlapping wave functions experienced a repulsive “exchange” interaction. This repulsion is weaker when the electron spins point in the same direction, and therefore a gas of free electrons can minimize its energy by pointing all its spins in the same direction.

Sounds like a great explanation for iron, but calculations (and later experiments) suggest this should only occur at electron densities much lower than that found in iron. And to make matters worse, the conduction electrons in iron exist in very complicated d-bands so can’t really be thought of as truly free.

The first physicist to really make sense of all this was Edmund Stoner, who in 1933 expressed the exchange interaction felt by a single electron in terms of a field representing all the other electrons. Working at the University of Leeds, he found that if this field was strong enough, the spins would align. But actually calculating the field for a material like iron remains a formidable challenge.

Enter the “quantum simulator”, in which Stoner’s theory can be put through its paces using ultracold atoms instead of electrons.

The team, which included Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Ketterle of MIT, studied a cloud of atoms at about 150 micro Kelvin. The experiment began with half the atoms in one quantum state and the rest in another — which simulates the spin up and spin down states of the electron. Using the “magic” of the Feshbach resonances, the team were able to dial up a repulsive exchange-like interaction between atoms.

What did they see? Three signatures of a ferromagnetic transition as predicted by Stoner: fewer collisions between atoms of opposite “spin” and an increase in the kinetic energy of the atoms both suggested the formation of magnetic domains; along with a reduction in the pressure of the gas.

However, what they weren’t able to do is take images of the gas showing domains of spin up and spin down atoms — apparently the atoms started to form molecules before large domains were apparent.

Of course Stoner’s model is very simple, and much more work is needed to understand the magnetic states of matter — but the quantum simulator has again proven itself to be an important tool for the condensed matter physicist.

Credits: ESA, LFI & HFI Consortia. Background optical image: Axel Mellinger

By Hamish Johnston

In August the new Planck microwave observatory spent two weeks scanning the heavens — and today the European Space Agency has released the results of this first survey by the satellite instrument.

The image above shows the entire sky at optical wavelengths and the prominent horizontal band is the light shining from our own Milky Way. The superimposed strip shows the area of the sky mapped by Planck during the “first light” survey.

The colour scale shows the deviations of the temperature of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) from its average value (red is hotter and blue is colder). The discovery of these deviations won George Smoot the 2006 Nobel Prize and their study promises to tell us much about the early universe.

The large red strips trace radio emission from the Milky Way, whereas the small bright spots high above the Milky Way correspond to emission from the CMB itself.

Planck’s mission is to map out the CMB in the finest detail yet. The CMB was created 400,000 years after the Big Bang, when primordial protons, neutrons and electrons formed neutral atoms that allowed photons to finally move freely. The photons have continued to do so ever since, being stretched to microwave frequencies due to the expansion of the universe.

Planck will provide a glimpse of the very early universe. Cosmologists believe that the nascent universe underwent a period of extremely rapid growth called inflation — and Planck data should help physicists hone their models of how and why inflation occured.

The first all-sky map from Planck should be available in about six months.

Mojib Latif is concerned about the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (Courtesy:University of Kiel).

By Hamish Johnston

Last week James Dacey blogged about the growing skepticism of the British public regarding the dangers of manmade global warming.

One reason could be that in Britain — and some other places bordering the North Atlantic — it doesn’t seem to have become warmer recently. The two places that I am familiar with (the west of England and eastern Canada) have recently had relatively cold winters and cool summers.

Anecdotal and unscientific I know, but I’m guessing that most people form opinions on global warming based on personal experience — which is why climate expert Mojib Latif of Kiel University in Germany is concerned about what he believes to be happening in the North Atlantic.

Despite relentless manmade climate change, Latif believes the North Atlantic is actually cooling thanks to something called the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation — which seems to occur with a period of about 60-80 years.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Latif said that this oscillation could be significant enough to make it cooler in the North Atlantic over the next ten years. In other words, people in the rich and carbon intensive countries that border the North Atlantic could be lulled into thinking that there is no problem. Until the oscillation turns and it gets hotter very quickly.

You can listen to the interview here.

A charming little film from Phil Owen

By Hamish Johnston

I happened to be looking at the ATLAS experiment web page at CERN and came across a series of videos on the particle physics that ATLAS will be exploring once the LHC is up and running.

The six films are all winners of the “ATLAS Multimedia Contest and Intern Program”. There isn’t much information on the site about the contest — I’m assuming that the videos were made by interns who perhaps spent the summer at CERN?

The overall winner is Phil Owen — congratulations Phil — and his video is called Origin of Mass. Runner-up titles include ATLAS Rising and Eye on the Answers.

The rest of the winning videos can be viewed here.

Laser…the film

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By Hamish Johnston
Light is red, atoms are blue…

If light and atoms were people, what colour t-shirts would they wear?

Red and blue respectively — at least in a new educational video about the inner workings of the laser from physics blogger Clifford Johnson.

The video is called Laser and you can watch it on Johnson’s Asymptotia blog. However, Johnson recommends viewing it on YouTube, where a high definition version is also available.

Johnson uses a group of people to represent the atoms and photons inside a laser — and how population inversion and stimulated emission result in the emission of coherent light. It could come in handy if you are teaching an introductory atomic physics or optics course.

The video is the second in a series by Johnson and funded by the US National Science Foundation. The first film is called Shine a light and is also on YouTube.

Too hot to handle

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Are cracks appearing in the public acceptance of the climate threat?

By James Dacey

As the scientific community has moved towards a stronger consensus that man made climate change is happening, the general public must have become less sceptical about the issue - right??


Well, wrong in the case of the British public, according to social scientist Lorraine Whitmarsh, who carried out separate opinion surveys in 2003 and 2008.

Over this five year period, the number of respondents who believe that claims about the effects of climate change have been exaggerated has risen from 15 to 29 per cent.

What’s more, over half of respondents in the latest survey feel that the media have been too “alarmist” in their reporting of the issue.

Sceptics are more likely to be men, older people, rural dwellers and - perhaps surprisingly - higher earners.

Speaking at the British Science festival in Guildford, Whitmarsh also referred to a recent poll by Euro barometer to say that Brits are more sceptical than most other Europeans on the issue.

When asked if she could explain the rising scepticism, Whitmarsh replied that it could be something to do with the way science is taught in British schools.

“Perhaps the way we teach science should reflect the inevitable uncertainty of
the scientific process,” she said.

Bryson craves more physics knowledge

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Bill Bryson Credit: Guardian

By James Dacey

If loveable American wordsmith, and author of the multi-million selling popular science book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson, could be magically endowed with knowledge of just one of the sciences - which would he choose?

Yep you guessed correct - it’s physics.

That is what he told a bar full of fans on the final night here at the British Science festival in Guilford.

Still sporting substantial beard, Bill said that he has no plans of a sequel to his synoptic overview of science, but he would “love” to write about more specific areas of science - for example, “the human body”.

So, a call to fellow Bryson fans. I urge you to encourage the man - be it fan mail, public lecture, or chance encounter - to turn his pen to physics. Or better still, come up with a scheme to magically endow him with physics expertise - then the insightful prose can really start flowing…

Dark matters in a salt mine

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Alex Murphy

By James Dacey

“We could start detecting dark matter within the next few months,” said Alex Murphy, as he delivered the Lord Kelvin Award lecture today at the British Science Festival in Guildford.

Murphy is the head of the University of Edinburgh contribution to the ZEPLIN III dark matter project, which is due to get underway this November.

Hidden underground in a salt mine on the north east coast of England, the ZEPLIN project is searching for signals of the elusive dark matter that could account for 23 % of the total energy density in the Universe.

ZEPLIN itself is a scintillation detector comprising eight litres of liquid Xenon. The researchers are looking for weakly interacting massive particles, or “WIMPS”, which - according to Murphy - is the most likely dark matter particle.

The reason the Edinburgh physicist is so confident that his collaboration will start churning out meaningful results is because ZEPLIN III has just undergone several important upgrades.

The key to confirming the WIMP signal is to rule out all other potential sources of background noise - one of which is sources of radiation from the detector itself. ZEPLIN gets around this problem with a unique “two phase” system that would detect WIMPs in both liquid and gas states.

“We focussed on getting everything clean and pure and maximizing the clarity of signal,” said Murphy.

To avoid bringing human influence into the experiment, ZEPLIN III will run for a year initially before the first results are analyzed.

“There’s nothing else in the country at the moment in terms of physics results that is more exciting and timely than the Zeplin collaboration,” he said, when I caught up with Murphy after his lecture.

ZEPLIN III is a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College, Rutherford lab and European collaborators.

low vibrations

By Michael Banks

Yesterday I visited what is supposed to be the “quietest building in the world”. Being in Bristol and only a few kilometres away from our office, there was really no excuse but to visit.

The £11.5m Bristol Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information (NSQI) is housed at the University of Bristol next to the physics department.

Construction of the quietest building has taken over two years to complete and is seemingly quiet due to the huge amounts of concrete that have been poured into the ground beneath it.

“There is more than 2 m of concrete beneath our feet,” says Fred Hale, building manager of the NSQI, as he shows me round the basement of the building. “This is the right building, in the right place.”

The site in Bristol is well suited to hosting such a quiet lab since the ground under the building consists of solid rock.

Engineers excavated a one-storey deep hole in the rock and then filled it in with concrete. The centre was then constructed on this rather solid base.

The quietest room in the world

The four-storey building has a number of “quiet rooms” in the basement, where most of the experiments are housed. Each experiment then sits on an additional 24 tonne block of concrete separated from the floor by rubber bearings.

And if that wasn’t enough, each lab in the basement also sits inside a Faraday cage, and the temperature, air flow and acoustic noise in the room can also be strictly controlled.

So how does a building, or room, get to be called the quietest in the world? Well, according to Hale, the engineering firm that helped to build the rooms - Arup - reckon that vibration measurements taken on the concrete blocks are the lowest they have ever taken.

The centre will contain two clean rooms, a wet lab, eight low noise labs and two cell culture labs with research groups only just starting to put experiments into the labs.

The centre is meant to be a hub of interdisciplinary research with groups from the university’s biology, physics, chemistry and engineering departments using the new facility.

One such lab that was in use when I visited was using a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope, which can produce images if samples on the single-atom level. The low vibration environment is needed to produce very sharp images of the atoms under study.

NSQI is also home to one of the newly launched doctoral training centres. Funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the centre for functional nanomaterials will train up to 10 PhD students every year.

Sharper STM images

The second floor of the building is mostly meant to bring people from different disciplines together to discuss their work. Indeed, one of the coffee rooms was enlarged once a virtual walkthrough of the plans showed that there was not enough space for researchers to interact.

It seems like everyone is catered for. In one meeting room, for example, mathematicians demanded that blackboards be placed on the wall instead of white boards.

So while the basement may well be the quietest place in the world, researchers at NSQI will hope that the second floor is anything but.


By Hamish Johnston

Do you find yourself struggling to explain how physics enhances our lives?

Is your enthusiasm met with blank stares from your students, friends or family members?

Well the Institute of Physics may be able to help. The organization has joined forces with the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to publish a brochure called Optics and photonics: Physics enhancing our lives.

The document includes six chapters, each of which explores how fundamental research in physics is delivering practical technologies for everything from optical communications to medical scanning to semiconductor fabrication.

The chapter called “Photonic waterfalls”, for example, explains why the “quantum cascade laser has a bright commercial future”. “The perfect image” chapter outlines how adaptive optics developed by astronomers are being used in a wide range of applications including security scanning and microscopy.

Other topics covered in the report include the use of plasmonics to beat the diffraction limit and how electromagnetically induced transparency could revolutionize optical communications.

The brochure also lists about 40 optics and photonics experts, in case you have any further questions.

And the survey says…

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Piled high and deeper

By Michael Banks

I have only ever reviewed a couple of manuscripts in what was my brief career as a research scientist.

I remember finding it quite exciting at first, as well as being honoured to be selected by a publishing house to be able to review articles submitted by my peers for publication.

However, being a busy researcher, running experiments and writing papers, by the time the third e-mail reminder landed in my inbox asking me to finish the review as quickly as possible, I could see how researchers get fed up of reviewing articles, sometimes as many as 20 per year.

Peer review, of course, has a serious and important role in science. Still, I was rather surprised to see that 86% of respondents to a new survey on peer-review practises say they actually enjoy reviewing.

Over 4000 researchers responded to a survey carried out by Sense About Science - a UK-based charity that promotes the public understanding of science.

In what is the largest international survey of authors and reviewers to date, Sense About Science has now released its preliminary findings from the 2009 survey.

Although the survey does not seem to reveal how many papers a researcher reviews per year, it does find that, on average, reviewers turn down two papers every year.

According to the survey, the biggest benefit of peer review is that it makes researchers feel like part of the community, with 90% of respondents saying this is why they do it. Only 16%, however, say that reviewing increases their chances of having future papers accepted.

There is the argument that due to the “publish or perish” ethos in science, there are not enough researchers to peer review the increasing number of articles being submitted to journals.

However, according to the survey only 20% of respondents thought that peer review is unsustainable because of too few willing reviewers.

There is also the tricky question whether peer review stops plagiarism and fraud. While 81% say that peer review should detect plagiarism and 79% say that it should prevent fraud, only around 35% say it is capable of doing both.

And lastly, 41% of researchers say they would like to be paid to peer review, but not at the cost of the author. More than half of respondents thought that a payment in kind such as a subscriptions would make the more likely to review.

The official kilogram. Credit: BIPM

By Margaret Harris

Pick the correct definition of a kilogram:

a) the mass of a body with a de Broglie wavelength of 6.626069311 × 10^-34 m at a velocity of 1 m/s

b) a mass of a body at rest such that Planck’s constant h is 6.626069311 × 10^-34 Js

c) a mass of exactly 5.0184512725 × 10^25 unbound carbon-12 atoms at rest in their ground state

d) the mass of a lump of platinum-iridium sitting under three vacuum jars in a French laboratory

Readers with an interest in metrology will know that the answer is d) — and anyone who didn’t know it could probably have guessed from the photo. But why is the kilogram, alone of all SI units, defined by something so un-fundamental as a lump of metal?

The difficulty, as Bryan Kibble explained this afternoon in a talk at the QuAMP conference in Leeds, is that several of the alternatives have problems of their own. Options a) and b) both rely on pinning down a value for Planck’s constant, and thus might seem like the best way to go; indeed, one of them may actually become the new SI definition, perhaps as early as 2011. However, Kibble argued, both options are somewhat circular, swapping uncertainty in the kilogram for uncertainty in other Planck-derived units, and there’s not really any new science involved in them.

A definition in terms of carbon-12 atoms — or indeed, any kind of atoms — would be more satisfying, Kibble says, but as efforts like the Avogadro project at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory have shown, counting atoms isn’t a trivial task.

Nobody offered any solutions during the question period after the talk, but we did manage to pin down one thing: any fluctuations in fundamental constants (like the fine structure constant, for example) will not affect the kilogram problem — at least not for around 1000 years. So that’s all right then.

Tunneling in action

By Margaret Harris

How long does an electron take to tunnel out of an atom exposed to a strong laser field?

Given the somewhat esoteric nature of the question, you might assume that the answer would lie firmly in the realm of theory. But Ursula Keller, whose talk opened this year’s International Conference on Quantum, Atomic, Molecular and Plasma Physics (otherwise known as QuAMP), is an experimentalist, and she and her group at ETH Zurich have made some interesting progress towards pinning down just how long this fundamental quantum-mechanical process takes.

Using a technique called attosecond angular streaking, Keller’s team found an upper bound for the tunneling time of 34 attoseconds. That’s quick — in fact, Keller claims it is the fastest process ever measured, although some might quibble with that distinction. I’m afraid I only grasped her group’s methodology in small chunks — that’s the trouble with talks sometimes — but you can read more in a paper published in Nature Physics last year.

One development that isn’t addressed in the paper, but which Keller touched on in her talk, is just how controversial their result has been among theorists. The idea that tunneling takes a tiny but finite time makes some intuitive sense, but this is quantum mechanics — intuitive sense doesn’t always come into it. Indeed, some theorists have predicted that the electron’s escape literally takes no time at all, while others suggest that tunneling isn’t even the right way to look at the process.

The arguments on this have become so heated, Keller says — half-jokingly I think — that a few of the people involved aren’t on speaking terms anymore. One thing is clear: the debate on electron tunneling is sure to carry on much longer than the process itself.

Thousands demand apology for Turing tragedy

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The father of computer science

By James Dacey

His pioneering work in the 1940s is arguably the reason you are reading from this screen.

His code-breaking skills also helped to defeat the fascist onslaught during the Second World War.

His eponymous test to gauge the “intelligence” of a machine is taken as an essential concept in the field of artificial intelligence.

But rather than enjoy the fruits of his work in the latter half of the 20th century, Alan Turing tragically died in 1954 aged just 41, after biting into an apple laced with cyanide. Though there is still some controversy surrounding his death, the general consensus is that Turing killed himself after being given the choice of prison or chemical castration on account of his homosexuality.

Now, over fifty years later, a computer scientist is calling for the British government to finally apologize for the manner in which Turing was treated.

John Graham-Cumming has created an on-line petition, which includes the statement:

The British Government should apologize to Alan Turing for his treatment and recognize that his work created much of the world we live in and saved us from Nazi Germany. And an apology would recognize the tragic consequences of prejudice that ended this man’s life and career

At the time of writing, more than 26 000 people have added their name to the petition.

The dangerous vagary in ‘geoengineering’

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Climate engineering — why not just call it that?

By James Dacey

Ok, maybe I’m being a bit pedantic here but am I the only one to be slightly confused and a little concerned by the vagary of the term “geoengineering”?

I raise this question now because yesterday the UK’s most prestigious scientific academy, the Royal Society, released a major report on the topic with the aim of clarifying the technical issues to better-inform climate policy. Politicians, however, like things to be spelt out veeerry cleeaarrly. Therefore, any confusion surrounding the central term in this policy document could stall the debate on what may become a key component of the fight against climate change.

So, let’s consult the Chambers English Dictionary, which just happens to be the only dictionary within grabbing distance at the time of writing:

“Geo” is the prefix — taken from Greek — for “Earth”; and engineer means “to put to practical use, engines or machinery of any type”.

I think you’ll agree that both of these words hold a broad range of meanings and a combination of the two makes for a very wide semantic field indeed. Use your own imagination here but I can picture all sorts of ways in which the naked Earth could be engineered — from spectacular agricultural terraces like those in the Andes to the idea of a giant Eiffel Tower replica carved into the Antarctic ice.

Image of the Californian wildfires from NASA’s Terra satellite (credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL)

By Michael Banks

The enormous wildfires in California are still threatening the Mount Wilson observatory sat 1742 m high in the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, northeast of Los Angeles.

Yesterday, the fires crept nearer and the observatory’s website as well as the live webcam went down.

There was some hope, however, as Reuters reported that cooler weather as well as increased humidity had hampered the fires and firefighters hoped they could drive the fire away from the observatory.

Founded in 1904 by the US astronomer George Ellery Hale, the observatory still performs astronomical research via its 1.5 m Hale telescope and 2.5 m Hooker telescope, which was used by Edwin Hubble to discover that galaxies were moving away from us.

Regular updates on the wildfires are being provided by the Los Angeles Times and Georgia State University, which operates the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy at Mount Wilson.