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October 2009 Archives

Cutting through turbulence on the way to Copenhagen

By James Dacey

European leaders have been in Brussels over the past couple of days and there has been an lot of talk about climate change. The latest reports suggest they are reaching some sort of agreement over how to help the world’s poorer nations to commit to restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU summit in Brussels represents one of the last opportunities for European nations to iron-out disagreements ahead of December’s UN conference in Copenhagen, which is could result in a global treaty on climate change.

So assuming that the world’s politicians can wrangle their way to solid, legally binding targets in the Danish capital, we will then be faced with the next big set of choices - how to achieve the targets.

Whatever way the green revolution is played out over the next few decades, it will be necessary for the developed world to quickly get over its addiction to fossil fuels, and to deploy a whole raft of renewable energy solutions. More than ever, governments will need clear scientific advice about the different options ahead of them.

Despite currently lagging many of its European neighbours over renewables, the UK now at least has a clear-thinking scientific advisor in the form of David Mackay.

mackay sml.jpg

If you’re not already familiar with Mackay, he is author of the book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. Despite being available for free on-line, the book has been something of a publishing phenomenon and was described by the Guardian as “this year’s must-read book”.

You can also read Physics World’s review of the book here.

When I saw Mackay on Wednesday giving a talk at the Institute of Physics in London, he was quick to establish his philosophy. He says we need are in need of a “grassroots arithmetic movement” in which members of the public should lobby/educate their local MPs with the figures of renewables.

To a packed-out lecture room, Mackay explained why he prefers to express energy consumption in terms of kilowatt hours per day per person. His reason being, that these figures mostly fall in the range 1-100, and results can easily be translated into personal forms. “I am pro arithmetic, not any specific energy policy,” he said.

Naming the exoplanets

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Artist’s Concept — “Hot Jupiter” Around the Star HD 209458 Credit: NASA

By James Dacey

When the European Space Agency (ESA) recently announced the discovery of 32 new exoplanets, it struck me how quickly we can become numbed to the wonders of scientific discovery.

In 1995, astronomers generated a surge of excitement when they discovered the first planet to be orbiting a star other than our Sun. Over the past 14 years, astronomy has entered a dramatic new era with more than 400 of these exoplanets now officially catalogued. The recent launch of NASA’s Kepler mission and with ESA considering its ambitious PLATO project means that we may well have detected thousands of exoplanets within the next few years.

But as the discoveries now come thick and fast, have we becoming a bit blasé about exoplanets?

Well, one researcher in Germany has come up with an idea that could re-inject some of the initial excitement. Wladimir Lyra of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy is proposing that we give names to the exoplanets based on Roman-Greek mythology thus ditching the dry cataloguing that has led to planet names like MOA-2008-BLG-310-L b.

Of course, the reason why the International Astronomical Union came up with their scientific naming system is because the heavens may well be awash with exoplanets and it would soon become impractical to name every single one of them.

But as Lyra points out, every other class of astronomical body discovered to date has been given a name including the 15, 000 asteroids and minor planets.

“Our place in the cosmos is not special in any way, so there is no reason why only the planetary objects in the solar system should be named,” writes Lyra citing the Copernican Principle.

Lyra’s proposed system would assign names based on the mythological stories of the constellations. For example, the planets in Andromeda will be named after Andromeda’s myth and the planets in Hercules after Hercules’ myth. Inevitably, there are a few caveats to the system, which Lyra explains in his paper on the arXiv preprint server.

A short-lived experiment…

By Hamish Johnston

Here’s a question for you — what is the easiest way to move a large rug?

The answer, according to carpet fitters — as well as two papers in Physical Review Letters — is to create a “ruck” and then push in along the rug (see photo above).

The reason, apparently, is that the ruck is quasi-static, which means that it can be moved easily by a series of gentle pushes that don’t take it very far out of equilibrium

I thought I would try it for myself, but the only rugs I could find were in the main entrance to Dirac House and there was too much foot traffic to do the experiment safely!

If you want to read more about rucks, check out Statics and Inertial Dynamics of a Ruck in a Rug by Dominic Vella, Arezki Boudaoud Mokhtar Adda-Bedia as well Shape and Motion of a Ruck in a Rug by John M. Kolinski, Pascale Aussillous and L. Mahadevan.

The first paper begins with an investigation of the conditions needed for a static ruck to persist — rather than flatten out — once it’s been created. The team derived an equation describing the transition and tested it experimentally using several “rug” and “floor” materials, incluing a real rug on a wooden floor.

The equation, which had to be solved numerically, did a pretty good job of predicting which rucks survive and which collapse.

Ruck on a roll

The second paper looks at rucks “rolling” downhill by placing a thin latex rug on an inclined plane. The team found that a static ruck will begin to roll when the plane is tilted above a critical angle. It will continue to roll until the angle is reduced to a second critical angle — which is smaller than the first angle.

From this, the team concluded that the coefficient of static rolling friction is greater that the coefficient of dynamic rolling friction.

You’re probably wondering what they mean by a rolling ruck?

To show that the ruck was rolling — rather than sliding — the team followed the paths of points on the rug as the ruck moved through and found that they move on a cycloidal tragectory. In other words, the points moved as if they were on the rim of a rolling wheel.

You’re probably also wondering why PRL has published two papers on rugs?

According to the first paper rug rucks have “long proved to be a useful analogy
in explaining a range of important physical phenomena”. These include dislocations in crystalline materials as well as wrinkle-drive motion, which has been observed in living organisms including inchworms.

Back in business:The first ion beam entering point 2 of the LHC, just before the ALICE detector

By Hamish Johnston

Physicsts at CERN passed an important milestone (again!) last weekend by injecting the first beam of ions into the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) since the disastrous shutdown of September, 2008.

According to a CERN press release, lead ions were placed in the clockwise beam pipe on Friday 23 October and guided past the Alice detector before being dumped.

Later that day the first beam of protons followed the same route — and then on Saturday protons were sent through the LHCb detector.

CERN said “All settings and parameters showed a perfect functioning of the machine, which is preparing for its first circulating beam in the coming weeks”.

Matin Durrani recently spoke to CERN boss Rolf-Dieter Heuer about the switch-on of the LHC — you can watch the interview here or below, along with two other videos made at CERN.

Did it matter that Einstein was of northern European descent?

By James Dacey

This thought-provoking image forms part of the advertising campaign for a new UK television series that will look at the controversial history of science and scientists addressing the issue of race.

Race: science’s last taboo has been created by Channel 4 and will be focused around five documentaries, each one engaging in a different aspect of the debate.

The season kicks-off tonight with a programme about race and intelligence, which includes the controversy surrounding James Watson’s cancelled UK lecture tour of 2007.

In case you missed it at the time, the Nobel Laureate — who co-discovered the double-helical structure of DNA — was quoted as saying that there is scientific evidence to suggest that black people are less intelligent than people of other races. People were so incensed that Watson was forced to abandon his tour and leave the UK early.

For more details about the new series, check out the related website. Amongst other features, you can offer your own definition of race — though bear in mind you’ve only got 140 characters!

BRIC to prop up developing world science

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Africa and parts of Latin America still lack a strong scientific foundation

By James Dacey

In economic circles, the notion of there being a clear divide between the “developed” and the “developing” world has long been a discredited one. Indeed the economies of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are now widely recognized as rapidly growing with the potential to compete with the richest economies in the world within the next few decades.

Now, it seems that the folks interested in scientific development are also starting to recognize the role of these “middle” world nations.

This week, the developing world’s academy of sciences (TWAS) announced that it was looking to double its endowment fund to US$25 million to support science and scientists in the developing world. It hopes to raise the funds by seeking donations from the more successful developing world countries such as the BRIC nations. The announcement was made at the academy’s 11th general meeting in Durban, South Africa.

When I heard this, it struck me as an echo of something Fernando Quevedo, new director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), had said to me a couple of weeks ago. If you’re not familiar with the ICTP, it was founded in 1964 as the inspiration of the Pakistani Nobel-prize-winning theorist Abdus Salam, who wanted to establish an international research centre for young scientists from the developing world. The ICTP has its headquarters in Trieste, Italy, where it also houses TWAS.

Quevedo said that he will be using his presidency to try and build more networks across the developing world. His idea being that the nations like the BRIC group, which are starting to churn out more science year-on-year, can help give a leg-up to the nations that are still struggling to get their science bases off the ground. He cites academic networks and improved internet connectivity as key tools.

“The developing world has changed a lot in the past 40 years. Some of the larger countries like Mexico, Brazil, China and India are now offering a significant contribution to international science,” he said. Adding, “But there are also smaller countries, particularly in South America and Africa that have been slower to develop, which people still don’t like to talk about”.

By Hamish Johnston

Three new video interviews with top physicists are now available on our multimedia page. This month’s theme is spintronics and I had the pleasure of speaking with two leaders in that field — Albert Fert and David Awschalom — at the Royal Society’s recent “The Spin on Electronics!” discussion meeting. We’ve also produced a selection of video “vox pops” with physicists at the meeting.

If you are new to spintronics — or if you are wondering what all the excitement is about — David Awschalom of the University of California, Santa Barbara provides a fantastic introduction to the field and explains how electron spin could be harnessed to create extremely dense computer memories and perhaps even quantum computers.

Awschalom also outlines the challenges that must be overcome before we see the next generation of spintronics devices and explains how he is addressing some of these in his lab.

Albert Fert of Université Paris-Sud, Orsay shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of giant magnetoresistance and is not content to rest on his laurels. He tells me about his current research projects, which include the development of spintronics-based tuneable microwave sources that could someday be exploited in mobile phones and other consumer electronics.

If you store lots of multimedia on your computer, Fert is one person you should thank. He also explains how his research in pure and applied physics was commercialized by IBM to create highly sensitive read heads for hard drives.

Vox pops

And last, but by no means least, we’ve made a “vox pop” video of short interviews with a wide range of people at the meeting.

For example, spintronics guru and meeting organizer Stuart Parkin of IBM Almaden describes how a spintronics racetrack memory works; Ian Appelbaum of the University of Maryland explains why humble silicon could be the material of choice for future spintronics circuits; and Theo Rasing of Radboud University in the Netherlands talks about his lab’s recent successes in flipping spins very quickly using laser pulses. And if you are considering a career in spintronics, you can hear several PhD students explain why they find the field so exciting.

Finally, a plug for the Royal Society, which kindly allowed us to film in its fantastic London premises.

If you are in easy reach of London, I would keep an eye on the Royal Society’s series of Discussion Meetings. I have been to two so far - the first was on the cross fertilization between cosmology and condensed matter physics, and the most recent on spintronics. Both meetings included talks by top physicists from around the world — and best of all, anyone can attend for free (but you must register online ahead of time).

The next physics-related meeting looks like a real humdinger: The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society on 25-25 January 2010. Confirmed speakers and chairs include Lord Martin Rees, Catherine Cesarsky, Paul Davies and Colin Pillinger.

Hmm, I might go to that one myself!

Questions please

By Hamish Johnston

Would you like to ask Nobel laureate John Mather a question?

Maybe you want to know why he decided to study the temperature distribution of the cosmic microwave background — which won him a share in the 2006 prize for physics?

Or perhaps you want to ask him what it the most important challenge facing cosmologists today?

Or you could ask him how he spent his prize money!

The Nobel Foundation has joined forces with YouTube to allow you to upload a video of your question — and Mather will answer a selection of queries on video. You can find out more here.

The deadline for questions is 30 October, and you can post as many questions as you like.

By Matin Durrani

A reconstruction of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover at the Quantum to Cosmos festival

I’ve been here at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics for four days now and I felt it was time I should visit the special “tent” containing hands-on displays and exhibits for the public as part of the Quantum to Cosmos festival .

First up inside is a full-scale model of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, which is due to take off in autumn 2011 and land on the red planet in summer 2012.

Round the corner were exhibits explaining quantum computing, superconductivity, polarization and more.

In the centre of the tent, meanwhile, was a 3D movie containing simulations of galaxy collisions, black-hole mergers and the early universe, with a voice-over from Stephen Hawking.

A still of the Alice and Bob videos, which can be watched online

There was also face-painting corner for children, with special paint that only shows up under ultraviolet light.

Visitors could also watch a great series of one-minute cartoons about quantum mechanics, featuring two characters called Alice and Bob.

All good stuff - but the question is whether such events will persuade young people to study physics.

Many pupils, and most importantly their parents, decide what to study based on the career opportunities that their chosen field will provide. Somehow we need to show pupils that physics isn’t kids’ stuff - but a decent career move too.

By Matin Durrani
Perimeter Institute director Neil Turok with one of its many blackboards

This is my first visit to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

Physics World has been following the progress of the institute since it first began in 1999 so I knew what the ethos of it would be like - it encourages staff to work on unorthodox areas that are outside the mainstream, it strives for excellence, and it provides a supportive environment where nothing is taken for read.

There are no big shots whose views cannot be called into question and postdocs are given lots of freedom to pursue the ideas they are most interested in - to do pretty much what they want.

The founders of the institute also knew that a key factor would be the building itself. After spending its first few years in a temporary home — a former red-brick Victorian post office — the Perimeter Institute moved into a brand new building in 2004.

It was specially constructed, and is filled with lots of comfy, low sofas where people can stop and discuss weighty matters. The offices all have glass walls so that you can see if someone is in, and the corridors are deliberately narrow so that people are forced to stop and talk. (And in an amusing in-joke, there are seminar rooms known as the Alice Room and the Bob Room, named after the two people used in thought experiments on quantum cryptography.)

Free coffee is on tap. There are pool tables, stripped floorboards, lots of natural light, real log fires, and blackboards everywhere.

I’d heard about the blackboards. But what it is interesting is that they are actually used. So too are the Blackberries that all staff are given: the institute was founded by Mike Lazaridis, whose company Research in Motion makes these hand-held devices.

What was also nice to see was that the institute’s director, Neil Turok, did not see it beneath himself to make me a cup of tea before sitting down for an interview for an article I will be writing for the December issue of Physics World magazine.

I can’t imagine most lab bosses would pesonally make tea for their visitors. He even washed the cups out beforehand.

I just wish I understood what was on his blackboard.

By Matin Durrani

Enrico Fermi was a real lover of back-of-the-envelope “guestimation” calculations and was fond of posing them to his would-be PhD students.

The Quantum to Cosmos festival is on now in Waterloo, Canada

He famously asked how many piano tuners there are in Chicago and in July 1945 calculated the strength of the first atomic-bomb test blast by dropping pieces of paper before, during and after the explosion.

It is that ability of physicists to make rough “ball-park” estimates, off the cuff, of various quantities that inspired today’s “Art of Guestimation” event at the Quantum to Cosmos festival in Waterloo, Canada.

Holed up in the Princess Twin cinema were three young physicists - Sarah Croke and Robin Blume-Kohout from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and Robert McNees from Loyola University in Chicago — who were given 10 minutes to answer various “Fermi questions” put to them by the audience before the gong went.

We had time for five questions, which are listed below, along with the panel’s answers. As with all these things, there are no right or wrong solutions. The point of the session was to show the logical way that physicists think when they want approximate solutions.

How much memory would an individual person need to store everything they could see in a lifetime? About 1 exobyte - on the assumption that the eye works like a movie film, storing visual information at about 30 frames a second, with each frame being stored in high definition (1920 × 1080 pixels) and with each pixel needing 32 bits to store colour. (The panel ignored what happens when you sleep, which would only open another can of worms.)

How many humans have ever lived since Homo Sapiens first walked on the planet? This question has been asked before - it’s about a hundred billion. Very roughly speaking, there as many people alive now as have ever lived.

How many “eh”’s would a typical Canadian say in a lifetime? (Bit of a silly one this - the “joke” is that Canadians say “eh” a lot.) The panel’s answer was seven million, assuming Canadians talk for three hours a day, that each sentence lasts five seconds and one in 10 sentences include the word “eh”. Eh?

How many Loonies are there in circulation? (No, we’re not talking mad people, but Canadian one-dollar coins.) This got the panel really stuck - their final answer was between two and four hundred million before the gong went.

How much salt is there in the Atlantic Ocean? The critical point was knowing how much salt there is in a litre of sea water. Just multiply that number by the volume of the ocean to give, ooh, about 10 to the power 19 kg.

The session was a lot of fun. Although I am not sure if this kind of event has ever been done before, I reckon it could be a winner at other science festivals too. It certainly got the audience involved, which has to be a good thing.

By Matin Durrani

What big question in physics keeps you awake at night?

That was the poser for a nine-strong panel of top physicists taking part in yesterday’s inaugural event of the Quantum to Cosmos 10th anniversary festival here at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

Sitting in a row of directors’ chairs on the main stage in the institute’s auditorium, the panel gave a range of answers related to pretty fundamental physics — not surprising given their interests and those of the institute itself,

In a nutshell, here are their answers - and apologies in advance if I have glossed over any subtleties. The panel session was only meant to be a bit of fun, after all.

Sean Carroll, Caltech
Why are the laws of physics the way they are?

Katherine Freese, University of Michigan
What is the universe made of?

Leo Kadanoff, University of Chicago
How does complexity develop in the universe?

Lawrence Krauss, Arizona State University
Have we come to the limits of our knowledge?

David Tong, Cambridge University
How will we ever know if string theory is correct?

Neil Turok, Director, Perimeter Institute
What happened at the singularity of the Big Bang?

Andrew White, University of Queensland
What is life?

Anton Zeilinger, University of Vienna
How far are we along the road of scientific discovery?

As for the ninth member of the panel — Gino Segrè from the University of Pennslyvania — I wasn’t quite sure what his answer was. I quizzed him afterwards in the Perimeter Institute’s candle-lit “Black Hole Bistro”, where the panel and special guests, myself included, were fed by the institute’s catering staff with plates of crab cakes and bite-sized pizza slices.

I think Gino was most concerned about the world not having enough young physicists to answer all those big questions that keep the rest of the panel awake

Gino recently reviewed for Physics World a book on how Wolfgang Pauli’s dreams were analyzed by Carl Jung. That got me thinking — what would be really interesting would be to analyze the panel’s dreams after thinking all those big questions.

I just hope they’re not having nightmares.

Inside the Perimeter

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By Matin Durrani

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, which kicks off its 10th anniversary festival today

“Make sure you don’t blow the world up!”

That was the parting shot from one of my fellow passengers as the minibus we were sharing from Toronto airport dropped him off outside his house here in Waterloo, Canada.

It took me a while to realise what the guy was on about. You see, I had mentioned to him that I was travelling to Waterloo to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

In passing, I had also talked about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and it was only later that I twigged what he meant: he had obviously assumed that the only thing physicists are hell bent on doing is making potentially life-threatening black holes.

All of which underlines the importance of Perimeter Institute’s 10-year bash, which focuses on explaining to the public what the institute and its physicists are trying to do.

The festival, entitled From Quantum to Cosmos, contains a string of exciting public events, ranging from panel debates and exhibitions to film screenings and a science-fiction workshop.

The first event takes place tonight, featuring an all-star list of physicists including Lawrence Krauss, Anton Zeilinger and Sean Carroll who will discuss the small matter of “what lies ahead in physics”. It will be streamed live on the web from the festival website

The Perimeter Institute, in case you weren’t aware, was set up in 1999 by Mike Lazaridis - the man who founded the company that makes Blackberry handheld phones.

The institute focuses on basic topics like particle physics, string theory and cosmology as well as quantum information, quantum gravity and the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

I’m here for the next few days so I’ll keep you posted on life inside the Perimeter. One thing’s for sure: there’s no-one here planning to blow up the world. I just hope that guy on the minibus is here to find out what they really do.

Into the darkness

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ZEPLIN-III lies deep in Boulby mine, Northeast England

By James Dacey

Lurking quietly in the bowels of Europe’s second deepest mine, ZEPLIN-III will come alive this month as it resumes its search for that mysterious substance called dark matter.

I recently caught up with Alex Murphy, leader of the University of Edinburgh’s contribution to the project.

Sitting in a cafe that resembled a fishtank, Murphy explained to me at length why he has placed his faith in dark matter. He also described the form he imagines this substance should take, and why he believes that ZEPLIN is now in prime position to make the first internationally-recognized detection of dark matter… possibly within months!

We wrapped things up by chatting about the aspects of his job that he loves and the aspects that he hates, as well as how he deals with the rivalry in the international search for dark matter.

You can read the full interview here.

By Michael Banks

On Wednesday night US President Barack Obama hosted an astronomy night at the White House.

Obama, who today won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace, invited 150 school students, former astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride, and Mae Jemison and NASA administrator Chalres Boldren and his deputy Lori Garver to the event on the South Lawn.

Astronomers spent all day setting up 20 telescopes in preparation for the party in the evening.

Obama was also joined by the first lady, Michelle Obama, and his science advisor, John Holdren.

Obama managed to get some education policy into his speech and talked about reinvigorating maths and science in schools.

“Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky,” Obama said to the youngsters, “and now it is your turn.”

By Michael Banks

Outreach raps or songs about science are all the rage these days. Last year we had the Large Hadron Rap by Kate McAlpine and more recently she released a rare-isotope rap for the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory.

Indeed, Steven Rush — aka Funky49 — recently released a rap about the Tevatron for Fermilab entitled Particle Business.

Not to be outdone, Australia’s national science agency — The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization — has teamed up with Sydney University’s Science Revue to release a song about seemingly every science topic.

Featuring “Chem”, “Bio”, “Psych”, “Phys” and “Maths”, they have done a take on the Backstreet Boys’ hit single: Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).

However, Instead of using “everybody” in the song, they have replaced it with climatology, oceanography, or indeed anything else that ends in -ography.

It is a well put together music video and they have upped the ante for science/geeky songs.

My favourite bit is when “Maths” appears wearing a chain around his neck with a rather large pi symbol attached to it singing the words “am I irrational”.

As they all seem to be students, I guess that “Maths” has had some help from “Chem” to make his rapper-like chain to appear to look like gold.

Climate science aboard HMS Beagle

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hms beagle.jpg
HMS Beagle Still serving scientific endeavour Conrad Martens (1831-1836)

By James Dacey

No respectable landlubber believed them about the giant squids before they started to wash up on the shores. We needed physicists to create mathematical models of freak wave formation before we believed that this spectacular phenomenon could occur.

So surely, when it comes to collecting empirical data for the scientific analysis of climate, there’s no way that scientists would rely solely on the word of mariners.

Well, a new collaboration in the UK has more faith than this. Historical naval logbooks are about to be used for the first time in climate research courtesy of a partnership involving the Met Office Hadley Centre and the University of Sunderland.

The UK Colonial Registers and Royal Navy Logbooks (CORRAL) project has digitized nearly 300 ships’ logbooks dating back to the 1760s. Records include the logbooks of some famous voyages such as the Beagle, Cook’s HMS Discovery and Parry’s polar expedition in HMS Hecla.

According to the project’s leaders, the mariners aboard these ships kept surprisingly detailed notes of the daily, and sometimes hourly, climate conditions. “What happens in the oceans controls what happens in the atmosphere - so we absolutely need to comprehend the oceans to understand future weather conditions,” said the research team’s leader, Dennis Wheeler of the University of Sunderland.

International waters

It’s not just the British who have recognized the high seas as an under-explored resource for climate data. Another group, in Germany, have just developed a new mobile measuring station for observing the interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere.

OCEANET-Atmosphere can apparently register several atmospheric parameters every second, such as the amount of cloud water, the cloud type and the energy exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere. It also maps the atmospheric dust up to a height of 20 km using LiDAR, a technique which combines lasers with GPS.

Next week, four scientists will take a prototype of their machine aboard the vessel Polarstern before setting sail from Bremerhaven, Germany. They will sail south, via Punta Arenas in Southern Chile, to the Antarctic.

circular vision

By Michael Banks

I can’t imagine a science laboratory that doesn’t have a periodic table hung somewhere on the wall.

I even have a periodic table application on my iPhone that gives you all you need to know about a chosen element (admittedly it is not one of my more frequently used apps).

Yet while generations of science students have learned the periodic table first developed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, Mohd Abubakr from Microsoft Research in Hyderabad, India, thinks he has found an alternative way of visualizing it.

Abubakr says the major disadvantage with the current table is, well, the shape itself and that it doesn’t help to describe the properties of the elements.

He suggests instead using a “circular form” of the periodic table. His ‘table’ has seven layers, which are each divided into 18 sectors. These sectors each represent the groups in the original table.

However, as with the original table, the lanthanides and actinides are somewhat isolated and are arcs around the main ring.

Although on a first instance it looks like a new way to represent the elements, I haven’t found anything that is fundamentally different from Mendeleev’s table.

Abubakr says that as the new model looks a bit like an atom, with hydrogen and helium near the nucleus, it is better than the current table when trying to teach students the table.

We will see whether the new table takes off, but I don’t expect any updates to my app just yet.

By Matin Durrani

The new-look has now been live for a couple of weeks. The relaunch went pretty smoothly from a technical point of view and we’ve snared most of the inevitable glitches, of which there were thankfully few.

Apart from a fresh new look, we’ve now got a multimedia channel, which kicked off with an exclusive video interview with the CERN director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer. Watch out for more videos like that and keep an eye out for our webinar series, which we’ll be expanding too in the coming months.

One question we have been asked is: where is Physics World magazine? The short answer is that you can find it by following this link.

However, user testing that we carried out before relaunching the site told us that most people didn’t actually go to the website to find magazine content on a month-by-month basis. That’s hardly surprising: a website that’s updated daily is very different in tone and feel from a monthly magazine

So what we’ve done is change the focus of away from being the website of a monthly magazine and, instead, onto breaking news, multimedia content, and our regularly updated blog.

All of which explains why is no longer dominated — as it used to be — by a large photo of the cover of the latest issue.

But don’t worry if you love the magazine as much we do. Selected articles from each issue of Physics World magazine continue to appear in our in-depth section, which you can, by the way, cleverly filter according to different fields of interest, should you so wish.

And don’t forget that if you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, you can get free access to a full digital version of the latest issue as well as to a searchable archive of the first 20 years of the magazine. Check out the latest issue by following this link

As an added bonus just for this month, you can, whether you’re a member of the Institute of Physics or not, download a free PDF of the October issue of Physics World by following this link.

The focus of the issue is energy and climate change, with some great articles by the likes of the physicist and former BP chief executive Lord Browne, who argues that the biggest barriers to a low-carbon economy are not scientific or technological but political. Other articles look at progress in climate modelling, the materials-science challenges standing between us and clean, long-lasting energy, as well as how in the future we could all be connected to a hydrogen SuperGrid.

Download the free October issue here.

By Michael Banks

With only one day left until the Nobel Prize for Physics is announced everyone, of course, will have their eyes on the eventual winners.

Yet what about the winner’s family and in particular their spouse: how will winning the prize affect their daily lives?

Anita Laughlin, the wife of the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Robert Laughlin from Stanford University who shared the 1998 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the fractional quantum-Hall effect, has written a behind-the-scenes account of what winning the prize can do to a family.

In Reindeer with King Gustav, Anita Laughlin describes the months after her husband won the prize and the mad rush to sort everything out for the big day in Stockholm.

I haven’t read the book yet, but if it is anything like the video posted on Anita Laughlin’s website to promote it then the account will make for an hilarious read.

“Dad, some guy is calling from Sweden,” is how the video starts, when the youngest son in the Laughlin household answers the phone at 02:30 on 13 October 1998.

Then in true Laurel and Hardy style, with Henry Mancini’s Shades of Sennett playing, the Laughlins rush around their bedroom already dressed in their evening attire to pack (or at least Anita Laughlin seems to be doing most of the packing, with Robert sitting on the bed holding a bottle of bubbly).

If you believe the video then the Laughlins seem to have got some sleep that evening, I just wonder how many physicists will instead be sat patiently by the phone tonight.

Space chill (credit: ESA/PACS/SPIRE)

By Michael Banks

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released the first images taken by its Herschel space telescope during a calibration run last month.

The awe-inspiring images show cold gas clouds lying near the Milky Way — thousands of light-years from Earth. Five infrared wavelengths have been colour-coded in the image to differentiate very cold material (shown in red) from the surrounding, slightly warmer stuff in blue.

Herschel — named after the German-born astronomer who in 1781 discovered Uranus — is a far-infrared and submillimetre telescope that will study star formation in our galaxy and galaxy formation across the universe.

Herschel was launched in April together with ESA’s Planck mission — a microwave observatory that will study the geometry and contents of the universe by finely measuring the comic microwave background (CMB) radiation, which is a remnant of the Big Bang.

The both occupy a place in space called the Lagrange point L2 — where a probe can usefully hover, little disturbed by stray signals from home and without having to use much fuel to keep it in position.

Herschel will investigate light with wavelengths of 55-670 μm and the satellite will look back to the early universe to see galaxy formations that are invisible to the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope because of gas and dust.

Larger areas of the Milky Way will now be surveyed by Herschel so look out for more cool images soon.

The 2008 Ig Nobel award

By Michael Banks

Maybe physicists are not doing enough research that “first makes people laugh, then think”.

Last night was the annual bash at Harvard University for the Ig Nobel awards, which are given by the humour magazine The Annals of Improbable Research and celebrates research that “cannot, or should not, be repeated”.

Each year the awards have an overall theme. Last year it was redundancy, and in 2007 it was, bizarrely, chickens which involved keynote speaker Doug Zonker repeating the word “chicken” for two minutes.

This year’s theme was risk and mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot gave a keynote address. But fitting in with the eccentricity of the event, every winner of an award had only 60 seconds to give a speech before an eight-year-old girl went up to that stage saying she was ‘bored’.

This year’s ‘physics’ prize went to three anthropologists: Katherine Whitcome from the University of Cincinnati, Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University and Liza Shapiro from the University of Texas won the award for determining why pregnant women do not tip over.

The work, published in Nature, found a difference in the spines of women and men, which allowed a pregnant woman to lean backward and counterbalance the weight of the developing fetus.

I didn’t find the work particularly hilarious and probably represents rather bona fide research.

The chemistry prize lived up more to the suggestion of making you laugh then think. This year’s prize went to Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamond films from tequila.

Other 2009 winners include Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, who won the prize for mathematics for “giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers”. Gono ordered bank notes in Zimbabwe to be printed with denominations ranging from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars.

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson from Newcastle University’s school of agriculture were awarded the veterinary medicine prize for discovering that giving cows names increases their milk yield compared to unnamed cows.

The last few years have seen rather dubious awards given for physics. Last year was for understanding why knots form spontaneously in lengths of “agitated” string, while in 2007 the prize was won for the “physics of wrinkling” — providing insight into why drapes hang a certain way.

It was much better when the prize for physics was given for such things as levitating frogs, calculating that beer froth decays exponentially and finding the best way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea.


By Hamish Johnston

It seems that ASPERA has declared that the ‘European Week of Astroparticle Physics’ will begin on Saturday 10 October.

ASPERA is network of national government agencies responsible for coordinating and funding national research efforts in astroparticle physics. According to their press release:

“From 10 to 17 October 2009, in France, Italy, Spain and many other countries, astroparticle physicists will meet the public to reveal some of the most exciting mysteries of the Universe. Within the first European Week of Astroparticle Physics, they will organise about 50 events all over Europe: open days, talks for the general public, exhibitions…

Victor Hess and his prize-winning balloon

Sounds great, but “all over Europe” is a bit of an exageration. You can see a map of all the events here. There seems to be nothing going on in the UK, Portugal and Belgium, for example, which are all ASPERA members.

According to ASPERA it all began in 1909, when Theodor Wulf set out to measure radiation levels in the Netherlands, on top of the Eiffel Tower and in Swiss mountains — trying to detect a change in the levels with altitude.

The in 1912, Victor Hess ascended 5200 m in a balloon and demonstrated the
existence of radiation coming from the sky. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1936 for his discovery of cosmic rays.

Other Nobel Prizes associated with astroparticle physics include the 1995 award to Frederick Reines for the discovery of the neutrino — and Raymond Davis and Masatoshi Koshiba, who won in 2002 for detecting cosmic neutrinos from the Sun and from SN 1987A.

So what kind of festivities can we expect?

“Paris will honour astroparticle physics pioneers at the Montparnasse Tower - the highest building in Paris - which will become a real cosmic rays detector during the entire week,” accoding to ASPERA.

Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and elsewhere, laboratories will put on special events for the public.

The festivities will begin a bit later in Rome, which will celebrate astroparticle physics with the opening on 27 October of a large exhibition dedicated to astroparticle physics called Astri e particelle. Le parole dell’ Universo. Held at the in Palazzo delle Esposizioni, it will highlight the challenges and techniques of astroparticle physics.

You can find out about more events here.