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July 2010 Archives

By Margaret Harris

Should all prospective doctors have to pass a basic physics course as part of their pre-medical training?

I’m guessing that for most readers, the answer to this question will be a resounding “yes”. Indeed, the idea that physics can be useful in a wide range of careers is a recurring theme in our Once a physicist column, where we profile people who originally studied physics, then went on to other fields.

Yet even though it makes sense for all medical students to be familiar with certain scientific concepts, it does not necessarily follow that this preparation has to take place before they get into medical school. That, at least, is the thinking behind the humanities and medicine programme at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, the subject of a provocatively titled article – “Getting into med school without hard sciences” – that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.

By Michael Banks

On 3 June 2010 six people – Romain Charles, Alexei Sitev, Diego Urbina, Sukhrob Kamolov, Alexei Sitev, Alexander Smoleevsky and Wang Yue – entered a capsule located at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The crew was heading for a 520-day mission to Mars, but instead of getting ready for launch they were going nowhere. They are part of an experiment conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) to simulate a manned flight to the red planet.

The crew live and work in a mock-up spacecraft with limited food supplies and even a 20-minute delay in communication with the outside world (which is only possible via e-mail).

While ESA will be carefully studying how the participants respond to being locked away on the ground for more than 500 days, author Mary Roach has written a new book looking into the science of life in space.

Released on 2 August, Packing For Mars attempts to answer some of those questions you always wanted to know such as what happens when you can’t walk for a year or what happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk?

I haven’t read the book yet, but if it is anything like the short video posted yesterday by the publishers to promote the book then it will make for an hilarious read.

One only hopes that the ESA participants have better success than the ones in the video; at least they will be able to wash themselves.

By James Dacey

Last Saturday night the Love Parade in Duisburg was supposed to be a celebration of music and revelry, but it turned into one of the most shocking crowd disasters of recent years. 21 people died and hundreds of others were injured as they were crushed trying to escape from a crowd disturbance which escalated into a stampede. Festival planners have come under intense fire for expecting all 1.5 million festival goers to pass through the same tunnel on their entrance to the festival site.

Andreas Schadschneider is a physicist based at Cologne University who specialises in modelling crowds. Since Saturday’s disaster he has been bombarded by inquiries from members of the world’s media who, quite naturally, want to get to the bottom of what happened and whether any of the event’s planning authorities were at fault. I caught up with Schadschneider earlier today to give him a bit more freedom to discuss how the German authorities might respond to this tragedy and how physical modelling might help limit this kind of tragedy in the future.

Early reports have described the panic that broke out just before the entrance to the tunnel, which then triggered a stampede as people tried to escape. As the official inquiries get under way event organizers, the local police and the local planning authorities are all in the firing line. “At the moment, everybody is blaming each other,” he said. Schadschneider feels, however, that we should not jump to any rash conclusions over the specifics of the Duisburg events and who is responsible.

Panic or co-operation?

While Schnadschneider makes it clear that specific details about the Duisburg disaster are not yet available, he does feel that “panic” is an overused term in describing crowd dynamics. This is an issue he explained in a feature article for Physics World in July: “Safety engineers have reviewed hundreds of disasters and found that, in the vast majority of cases, such behaviour has played no – or almost no – role in the tragic events. Instead, the opposite is usually observed, with most people acting co-operatively and altruistically even under extreme conditions”.

By Hamish Johnston

Three weeks ago I was in London watching Edward Witten deliver the 2010 Newton Lecture at the Institute of Physics (IOP). Now thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you too can watch the lecture courtesy of the IOP.

Witten’s speech is split into two parts; the first is above and the second below. Both videos are about 30 minutes long.

Witten was in town to accept the 2010 Isaac Newton Medal from the IOP, which was presented by IOP president Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

I enjoyed Witten’s lecture, which was pitched at a general level and took a narrative approach to how the subject developed – and the unexpected twists and turns along the way. So grab some popcorn and enjoy!

By Hamish Johnston

Thanks to Gabriela Quiros at QUEST – a multimedia science and environment programme from KQED in San Francisco – for forwarding a link to this video, which traces the history of the particle accelerator back to the Bay Area of the 1930s.

While it’s aimed at a general audience, it has some nice archive images of early accelerators – including an ancient copper cyclotron that looks like the sort of plumbing nightmare that still lurks in the lofts of many British houses.

There’s also commentary from some of the Golden State’s most famous particle physicists including Nobel winner Burton Richter and SLAC director Persis Drell.

Zooming in on the Martian surface

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Credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona State University

By James Dacey

For a period around the turn of the 20th century, a number of people began to believe that the Martian surface may be patterned with a network of canals created by some kind of intelligent civilization. This theory emerged after primitive observations by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877 revealed a series of long straight lines around the planet’s equatorial region.

Telescopes have come a long way since then and I think we can say fairly confidently that the surface markings are more likely due to natural geological processes. However – as is often the case in observational astronomy – the truth is just as awe-inspiring.

This image shows Valles Marineris, the “Grand Canyon of Mars”, which sprawls wide enough to reach from Los Angeles nearly to New York City, if it were located on Earth. It is a snapshot taken from a new interactive global map of the Martian surface produced by stitching together nearly 21, 000 images captured by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) – a multiband infrared and visual camera on board NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter.

The map allows you to zoom in on specific geological features, such as craters and volcanoes, to a resolution of 100 m. It could be used by scientists to study the mineralogy and physical geology of the Martian surface.

NASA says that the map will also help with the selection of a landing site for its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which is due to launch in 2011. Once this craft has landed, a NASA rover will collect samples to see whether the planet could have supported life at some point in its history. So you never know – it may turn out that the Martian surface has been sculpted by little green men after all.

Science-writing tips from a high flyer

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By Louise Mayor

We were delighted to hear that Mark Williamson won “Best Space Submission” in the Aerospace Journalist of the Year Awards 2010, for an article published in Physics World last March.

His victorious piece, Up close and personal, is about how planetary astronomy has developed from a science of entirely remote observation to one of immersive experimentation.

I caught up with Mark to find out his reaction to winning, and his thoughts on writing for Physics World in particular. Also – perhaps with selfish motives – I found out his tips for successful science writing.

Mark said that he was pleased to win the award, and explained that each of the categories is judged by other writers: “So it’s a sort of peer review,” he said.

I asked Mark whether writing for Physics World requires a different approach to some of the other publications he contributes to, such as Engineering & Technology and Space Times. But as he explained, “Physics World has a very different readership from the other magazines I write for, but I have exactly the same attitude to writing as for any other audience.

“It’s clear that a majority of the readership has a professional interest in physics, so you have to find a reason for them to read your article on space technology. You have to make it relevant, or at least interesting, to them.

“On the other hand, many physics graduates and readers of Physics World never work in physics, which is why a few years ago there was a drive to make the magazine more relevant to this audience too. Apart from that, physicists are not only interested in physics…are they?”

When worlds collide: physics meets music

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By James Dacey

Albert Einstein was the kind of physicist that you don’t really find anymore – making so many remarkable contributions to so many different areas of physics. But in addition to his scientific achievements, a lot is made about Einstein’s colourful personal life, not least his lifelong passion for music.

Sharing this passion is particle physicist Brian Foster of the University of Oxford who has teamed up with the British musician Jack Liebeck to create a special show about Einstein. Currently touring the UK, “Einstein’s Universe” involves a special lecture, interspersed with classical music, which explores Einstein’s legacy to physics and the role music played in his life.

In this exclusive video report for, I caught up with the pair on the day of a recent performance at St George’s concert hall in Bristol, UK.

During our interview, Foster talked about how music inspired Einstein and how it offered a form of escapism from his research. “He often said that he had more pleasure in life from playing the violin than from anything else he did,” Foster explained.

The Oxford professor also described how Einstein used his fame to form friendships with some of the great musicians of his day. “He was great friends with Fritz Kreisler the violinist and [Gregor] Piatigorsky the cellist, and they played chamber music often together.”

Like Einstein, Foster is another physicist with a passion for music and he also plays the violin. Part of the Einstein performance involves Foster joining Liebeck on stage for a duet. At the end of my interview I was treated to a preview of this as the pair performed an arrangement of a violin sonata by Mozart, which you can enjoy in full in this second video.


By Hamish Johnston

Scientists – and particularly astronomers – are always discovering things that are bigger, faster or farther than before.

This often makes for a good story – but is it news?

A case in point is the biggest star ever that has been found by a team of astronomers using several European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes. (The star was actually discovered some time ago, but getting an accurate mass was no mean feat).

It’s called R136a1 and is twice as massive as the previous contender. This doesn’t sound that impressive until you realize that it’s a whopping 300 times more massive than the Sun. You can see it compared to the Sun in the above artist’s impression from the ESO.

That’s big, but the universe is a humungous place full of very big things just waiting to be discovered. And next week or next month or next year someone is bound to find an even bigger star.

When we discussed the possibility of covering this discovery at our last news meeting we decided that biggest wasn’t enough – there had to be some scientific significance.

The obvious question to ask is “does this discovery improve our understanding of star formation and evolution?”

I suspect the answer is “it tells us that conventional models of star formation – most of which put an upper limit on star size of about 20 solar masses – are even more deficient than previously thought”.

This is, of course, very important to folks trying to improve models of star formation but I don’t think it merits a news story – particularly because astronomers have known for some time that their models can’t cope with huge stars.

BBC Radio 4 did deem the discovery newsworthy and interviewed lead astronomer Paul Crowther of the University of Sheffield on this morning’s Today programme. You can listen to the interview here.

Crowther explains that the finding is significant because it suggests the existence of a third class of stars that end their lives in extremely bright supernova explosions – but unlike their lighter counterparts, leave behind no black holes or neutron stars.

And that’s an interesting story in itself!

By James Dacey

In an act bearing a striking resemblance to a U-turn, Rajendra K Pachauri – the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – has sent a second letter to his associated scientists to clarify the panel’s stance on dealing with the media.

Pachauri moved quickly

Pachauri triggered a furore last week when a leak revealed a letter he had sent to members of the working groups on the upcoming IPCC 5th assessment report, which advises them to “keep a distance from the media” if asked about IPCC work.

This notion of climate scientists working in isolation was strongly criticised by several high profile bloggers, including University of South Carolina geographer Edward Carr, a member of the adaptation working group. Carr accused the IPCC of having a “bunker mentality” and said that the only way the organization can avoid future damaging episodes like “Climategate” is to operate with “complete openness”.

However, Carr has since revealed that Pachauri has now sent a second letter in an attempt to clear up the situation. Carr has published an extract from this letter on his blog:

“In my letter, I cautioned you to ‘keep a distance from the media’ if asked about your work for the IPCC. This was a poor choice of words on my part and not reflective of IPCC policy. My only intent was to advise new authors not to speak ‘on behalf of the IPCC’ because we are an intergovernmental body consisting of 194 states.”

The clarifying letter seems to have washed with Carr who describes it as “articulate, clear and eminently reasonable – everything the original letter was not”.

The fifth assessment report is due to be published in 2013 and 2014 and follows on from the fourth assessment released in 2007.

Memorable climate scientist passes away

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By James Dacey

I was surprised this morning to read about the death of Stephen Schneider, the outspoken climate scientist from Stanford University.

I saw Stephen in February giving an impassioned defence of the science of anthropogenic climate change at the AAAS conference in San Diego. He stood out from the other presenters on the panel because of his memorable delivery style – combining a deep, holistic knowledge of climate science with a razor-sharp acerbic wit.

Schneider was a key player in the climate science community. He was the founder and editor of the journal Climate Change, and he authored and co-authored more than 450 scientific papers during his career. Schneider was also enlisted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), holding roles in the working groups for both the third and fourth (latest) scientific reports. recently reported new research co-authored by Schneider, which assessed the credentials of climate scientists. It came to the conclusion that sceptics of the basic tenets of anthropogenic climate change are less credible scientists than those who accept them.

Climate change scepticism was an issue Schneider touched on during his talk in February. He voiced his frustration with media representations of climate science debates, which he felt gave a disproportionate voice to the sceptics in the name of journalistic balance. He pleaded that journalists should be more responsible, and that more climate scientists should engage with the media given the political significance of their work.

Schneider died yesterday of an apparent heart attack.

By Hamish Johnston

On Friday the Physics World video crew was at DESY in Hamburg, Germany to film two interviews, which will be broadcast in September on

Our host was DESY’s Christian Mrotzek, who did a fantastic job of setting up the interviews and scouting locations to film.

One such location was the experimental hall of the FLASH free electron laser. Christian is such a trusting soul that he left Joe McEntee and me with a key to the facility while he drove our film crew around the DESY campus.

That’s me with the key on the right.

We were tempted to start up the laser and fire off a few femtosecond pulses, but we couldn’t find the on switch. That’s another reason why Joe and I should have paid more attention to modern languages at school.

In the FLASH hall I spoke to Edgar Weckert, who is director of photon science at DESY. We chatted about plans for the new-and-improved FLASH II and he explained how FLASH is informing the development of the European X-ray Free Electron Laser, which is being built in Hamburg.

My other interview was with DESY’s director Helmut Dosch, who explained how the lab was making the transition from being a particle physics facility to becoming a centre of excellence for “photon science”.

The last particles collided at DESY in 2007, when the HERA ring shut down. By then the lab was already home to FLASH and work had just begun to convert the PETRA injector ring to the PETRA III synchroton light source.

Dosch took over as director in March 2009 and is the first condensed-matter physicist to run DESY.

Now, there seems to be no looking back as the lab plans its future as a leading experimental facility for chemistry, materials and biological science – and of course, condensed-matter physics.

Perhaps that’s not good news for particle physicists in Germany, but it means that a much broader spectrum of science will be done at DESY.


By Hamish Johnston

For more than a decade physicists working on the DAMA/LIBRA experiment (and its predecessor DAMA/NaI) in Italy have collected and analysed data that show an annual oscillation in the signal from their dark matter detector.

The team argues that this is the first direct detection of dark matter particles – and that the yearly variation in the number of detections (see image above) is caused by Earth’s motion through the halo of dark matter that surrounds the Milky Way.

While no-one argues with the existence of the annual signal – after 13 years of data collection it has a whopping “nine sigma” statistical significance – there have been many arguments over whether the signal is related to dark matter.

For one thing, DAMA/LIBRA appears to be at odds with several other experiments that are also trying to detect dark matter – and this has led some physicists to dismiss the oscillation as the result of a yet-to-be discovered systematic error in the experiment.

However, these dissenting experiments are different from DAMA/LIBRA, and so far have only yielded null results. It’s possible, therefore that DAMA/LIBRA has managed to succeed where others have failed.

The latest addition to the debate comes from DAMA/LIBRA scientists who have posted a vigorous defence of their measurements and analysis on the arXiv preprint server. In the paper the team argue that there are “no systematics or side reactions” that are able to mimic the annual signal that they see.

There are several other experiments that may have caught tantalizing glimpses of dark matter. The latest is the CoGeNT collaboration in the US, which earlier this year reported seeing a number of events in their germanium detectors that could be dark matter.

While these results are very preliminary, and have been questioned by those working on other experiments, some scientists believe that CoGeNT could be seeing the same dark matter particles as DAMA/LIBRA. Your can read a preprint of their analysis, where they argue that the DAMA/LIBRA and CoGeNT results can both be explained by a dark matter particle with a mass of approximately 7 GeV.

Meanwhile at DAMA/LIBRA, the team is set to install new photomultiplier tubes that will boost the sensitivity of the experiment. The group has also secured funds to do research and development on a next-generation detector.

By Louise Mayor

A visit to the Louvre before heading off to Paris Diderot University for the conference

This week I was in Paris at the Eleventh International Symposium on the Frontiers of Fundamental Physics.

It was an intimate affair with only 145 participants, 20 of whom were invited speakers from the forefront of such research areas as dark energy, dark matter, supersymmetry and the LHC.

I was the only member of press, and several high-profile physicists were kind enough to explain their research fields to me over a coffee and mini pain au chocolat.

On Wednesday, I learned about inflationary models of the universe over lunch with Paul Steinhardt, Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University and co-author of the popular science book Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang. I was soon brought up to speed with the basics: inflation is the idea that shortly after the Big Bang the universe underwent rapid expansion over a very short space of time.

As an experimental physicist, I was interested to hear Steinhardt comment about how the roles of theory and experiment in cosmology have reversed: while cosmology used to be theory driven, technology has evolved to such a degree that, just using data from the last 10 years, we can test all the theories conceived over the course of human history to this point, and eliminate nearly all of them. “There are only two survivors capable of describing the current data in full detail – the inflationary model and the cyclic theory,” explained Steinhardt.

He also noted that it’s important to think of cosmology as a very new experimental science – all we really know comes from less than a century of measurements. For example, we only discovered the existence of galaxies and the expansion of the universe in the early 1920s.


Steinhardt also remarked that the rate at which we’re acquiring data about cosmology has now outpaced that of particle physics. (See my schoolgirl representation of this, right.)

There’s a phrase floating around that people use to describe this burgeoning area of physics: “precision cosmology”. I asked Steinhardt what he thinks of it. He said that he doesn’t use the phrase himself, because it implies that we have settled on the underlying theory and we’re down to measuring the detailed values of the underlying parameters. However, there is a real chance that the underlying theory is incorrect. “We might be precise – but precisely wrong,” he stressed.

Steinhardt explained that while we do know a few things reasonably precisely, such as the matter density, there are still deep questions about the underlying theory – both the inflationary and cyclic models are better described as “scenarios” with some details, but many parts that are sketchy and questionable. “For example, the more we have learned about the inflationary theory over the last 30 years, the more we have to question whether it really makes the predictions that it is credited to make,” he said.

Steinhardt went on to describe the inflationary model of the universe and its problems to me in more detail, and while I followed it to some extent, if you want to hear a good explanation then I would direct you to his book!

Photograph taken at the 2009 Photowalk at DESY (Courtesy:

By Hamish Johnston

Today I received a press release for an event called the Particle Physics Photowalk.

The idea is that amateur photographers are given access to five of the world’s leading accelerator labs for a day – a “rare opportunity to photograph state-of-the-art accelerators and detectors in all their beauty and complexity”, says the release.

The participating labs are CERN in Switzerland; DESY in Germany; Fermilab in the US; KEK in Japan; and TRIUMF in Canada.

How generous, I thought, for CERN to shutdown the LHC for a day to let in a gaggle of shutterbugs!

I forwarded the press release to a colleague who is a keen amateur photographer and he was on the phone immediately to CERN.

It is bad news, I’m afraid – the LHC will be completely off limits, including the control room.

Of course it’s silly to expect CERN to shutdown the LHC for a bunch of amateur photographers, but barring them from the control room seems a bit mean!

You can register for the Photowalk here.

Inspection work at NRU: the reactor will restart shortly (Courtesy: AECL)

By Hamish Johnston

There must have been a collective sigh of relief from North American medical physicists yesterday when the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission said that the NRU reactor can resume operations.

Located at Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River, Ontario lab, the ageing reactor makes Mo-99, which is used to make the medical isotope Tc-99m. NRU normally supplies North America with Tc-99m and accounts for a significant chunk of world production.

Over the past few years the supply of Tc-99m has been interrupted by two unscheduled safety-related shutdowns – with the current shutdown lasting over one year. Yesterday’s announcement means that production should resume by the end of this month.

As well as causing delays for medical procedures the debacle has also had political consequences, with the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission being sacked in 2008.

It has also encouraged Canadian physicists to think of new ways of making medical isotopes that don’t involve ancient and unreliable reactors. Indeed, the TRIUMF accelerator lab in Vancouver has just announced that it will build an electron linear accelerator that will produce radioactive isotopes. You can read all about the C$63m ARIEL facility here.

Edward Witten at the Institute of Physics

By Hamish Johnston

On Friday I took the train up to London to learn about “the theory that nobody wanted”.

That’s how Cambridge University’s Michael Green described string theory in his introduction to a lecture of the subject by Edward Witten.

And how did he describe Witten?

“Master of the path integral”.

Witten was in town to accept the 2010 Isaac Newton Medal from the Institute of Physics – and to give the 2010 Newton Lecture.

Witten is Charles Simonyi Professor of Mathematical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey and a pioneer in what must be the most controversial theory of modern physics.

Instead of plunging the audience into all 10 – or is that 11? – dimensions of the theory, Witten took a very gentle and historical approach to its development.

I entered the lecture hall knowing very little about string theory, so do I feel enlightened?

Well I suppose I have a better understanding of how and why the theory emerged and the various twists and turns it has taken. But I was continually frustrated by a lack of connection to measurements that can be made in the lab or with a telescope. I suppose this could be just a cultural issue – my background is in experimental condensed-matter physics.

The dearth of experimental evidence could soon be over with the emergence of “precision cosmology” – the latest example being the Planck mission’s unprecedented measurements of the cosmic microwave background, which could help to refine string theory.

Witten’s lecture was filmed and this, along with an interview, will soon be released by the IOP. Stay tuned for more.

By Michael Banks

Last year, we asked readers to submit their best names for element 112, which was discovered in 1996 by Sigurd Hofmann and his group at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt, Germany.

The responses ranged from Unobtanium, Collossium and Planckium to Fibonaccium (which was my favourite).

Now, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which develops standards for naming new elements and compounds, may be looking for a name for element 114 after researchers at GSI observed 13 atoms of Ununquadium.

Ununquadium was first synthesized in 1999 when Sergey Dimitriev and his team at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, claimed to have produced a handful of atoms.

IUPAC states that the production of any new element must be independently verified at another lab first before it can be officially recognized. That happened at the GSI lab last month as well as at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US, which produced two atoms of element 114 in September last year.

IUPAC has not yet officially recognized the element, but when it does it will invite the team in Dubna to submit a name. IUPAC will then publish the name on its website, giving scientists and the public six months to scrutinize and comment on it.

After all the suggestions Hofmann received last year for element 112 he submitted Copernicium, in honour of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. The IUPAC then approved the name and gave it the symbol Cn.

So, readers, what are your suggestions for element 114?

A scientist born to question

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Anton Zeilinger, before giving today’s plenary lecture

By James Dacey in Torino

It’s the end of my third and final day here at the Euroscience Open Forum in Torino and I’m reaching that point of exhaustion you get to after dashing around a huge conference centre for several days straight. These things would be so much easier if you could somehow turn up at several sessions simultaneously. But that’s just the tiredness making me silly, right?

Well one man who would never say the word impossible is Anton Zeilinger, the quantum information luminary from the University of Vienna.

Zeilinger was giving the evening’s plenary lecture and he used the platform to wax lyrical about the beauty of quantum mechanics, but also to remind everyone that no theory is ever perfect and that we always need to think outside the bounds of accepted logic.

Zeilinger of course has been a pioneering figure in many areas of quantum information science including quantum cryptography, teleportation and quantum computing.

Before his lecture the free-thinking Austrian was generous enough to give me an hour of his time for an interview, and it proved most enlightening. He is one of those academics who will happily let his ideas run away with him as he always seems to be looking beyond your question to the bigger implications.

In the hour we discussed many things including Zeilinger’s admiration for Einstein’s stubbornness (even when he was wrong), and his desire for children to be exposed to quantum mechanics from a young age, perhaps through incorporating the concepts into computer games.

The full interview will appear on in the near future. For now though, from me in Torino, it’s arrivederci.

The unstoppable spread of physics

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Predicting epidemic spread based on transport networks (Courtesy: B Goncalves et al., Indiana University)

By James Dacey

So it’s my second day here in Torino at the Euroscience Open Forum and I’ve just about got my bearings now, helped by forking out five euros to take the “panoramic elevator” to the top of the city’s National Museum of Cinema where I was treated to a fantastic view over the city and the surrounding Alps.

As its name suggests this conference is all about scientists and science communicators coming together from across the continent to discuss their research and can apply their discoveries to the real world.

Naturally I am interested in the way physics fits into all of this and to suss out what particular research fields are coming into bloom.

The thing that has struck me so far is the way physics and mathematics are now really starting to stretch beyond their traditional academic boundaries to interact with other more “human” research domains that were previously considered off-limits.

For instance, I saw a fascinating talk yesterday afternoon about how stochastic models could be applied to cancer treatment to model the spread of the disease and ways to optimize the delivery of drugs. After the talk I caught up with one of the speakers, Jean Clairambault of France’s National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control, who told me his vision to find a way of personalizing drug treatments to reflect patients’ genetic differences.

Another area where physical models are being applied to the human sciences is to study the movement of people and things across the globe. This topic was discussed this morning in a session dedicated to these “complex networks”, which include the flow of people along transport networks and the flow of money across the US.

This idea of modelling human-interest systems as complex networks has been knocking around for quite a few years now, but early research only looked at evolving processes retrospectively. It was interesting, therefore, to hear Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University describe how these tools were used for the first time last year as a way of predicting behaviour – in the spread of the H1N1 flu pandemic. Indeed, you can read about this particular research in this special Physics World feature.

Right, all this talk of networking – I should probably go do some myself. Where was that free stall again??

Torino peers into the quantum world

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By James Dacey in Torino, Italy

It’s home to the Italian football giants Juventus and of course the famous shroud with the stain that looks like Jesus, but apart from that I must confess to knowing very little about Torino before I arrived here late last night.

I’m in town for the Euroscience Open Forum – a biannual international meeting celebrating science, technology and culture, with an obvious leaning towards all things European.

With such a broad scope, I was a bit concerned that the events might be a bit lightweight and sanitized. But fortunately my fears were allayed by the first session this morning, which dived in by looking at some of the fundamental concepts of quantum mechanics and their philosophical implications. Okay, so there was a little bit of naval-gazing, but there were also some really fascinating discussions.

One of the speakers was physics Nobel laureate, Gerard ‘t Hooft, who was looking at local determinism. He was comparing the theory of quantum mechanics with the manner in which Maxwell formulated his celebrated equations of electromagnetism. His conclusion being (as far as I understood!) that critics of quantum mechanics cannot make such a clear distinction between the accuracy of ‘deterministic’ approaches like electromagnetism and the “non-deterministic” theory of quantum mechanics.

‘t Hooft described how Maxwell had visualized space as being filled at all points with gears and switches, which all had an effect on each other. The laureate’s argument was that, while this approach worked for electromagnetism, quantum mechanics is a far more encompassing theory. He believes this approach is simply not feasible in the search for equations of the entire physical universe – there is too much going on that we will always have to break things down into estimates and probabilities.

In a (slightly) lighter talk, logician Marisa Dalla Chiara of Italy’s University of Firenze made the argument that quantum computing is much closer to human reasoning than classical computing is. She compared the supposition of quantum states with personality traits, declaring that people are neither “fully generous” nor fully “not generous”. We are always a supposition of the two.

Chiara believes that if we can develop practical quantum computers we could start to address some of the areas beyond the capability of classical computers. This might include the formal analysis of music to work out how it can create different moods within different contexts.

To bring her argument to life, Chiara even treated us to a quick rendition of Monteverdi’s Lamento di Arianna. Very eccentric but a nice touch.

Quantum mechanics and its applications is one of the 10 main themes of the conference and it will also include a keynote speech from Anton Zeilinger, the Austrian physicist famous for teleporting information over increasingly large distances. I’m hoping to catch up Zeilinger for a chat on Monday so I’ll let you know how that goes.

Right, I’m off to grab a slice from one of the city’s many takeaway pizza outlets before rushing back for the afternoon’s sessions.

The spin-resolved Fermi surface of surface states of a topological insulator away from the Dirac point. Figure taken from Wei Zhang et al. 2010 New J. Phys. 12 065013.

By Hamish Johnston

If someone asked me, “what is the most fascinating topic in physics today?”, I would have to say: “topological insulators”.

I can appreciate why some people get excited by the prospect of knowing the mass of the Higgs boson, or understanding the true nature of dark matter – but to me such mysteries pale in comparison with the wonders to be found in a chunk of solid matter.

I think I find condensed-matter physics so fascinating because it manages to describe the messy interactions of billions upon billions of electrons, atoms and photons using elegant concepts such as quasiparticles.

And perhaps the most interesting of all quasiparticles could be lurking in topological insulators – a particle reminiscent of “Majorana fermions”, which were predicted in 1937 by the Italian theorist Ettore Majorana but which have yet to be seen.

Majorana fermions are electron-like particles that are their own anti-particles. Unlike more familiar fermions like electrons, they obey “non-Abelian statistics” – which should make them resistant to environmental noise, which is the bane of anyone trying to build a practical quantum computer.

If you want to know more about topological insulators then you are in luck because the New Journal of Physics has just published a focus issue on that very topic.