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Physics on film

physicsworld.com's multimedia channel features exclusive video interviews with leading figures in the physics community.

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November 2010 Archives

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By Matin Durrani

The BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute.

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but sooner or later someone – in fact “a scientist of the very highest international calibre” – will have to squeeze that title onto their business card.

That shouldn’t be a problem though as the BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute comes with $4m of funding from the BMO Financial Group, or what used to be the Bank of Montreal. So there ought to be plenty of loose change hanging around for a nice set of cards.

The whopping $4m investment – said to be the biggest in the Perimeter Institute’s 10-year history – will be matched by $4m from the institute’s existing endowment.

The BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute will in fact be just the first of five new top chairs, with the others named in honour of James Clerk Maxwell, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and Paul Dirac.

In case you missed it, the Perimeter Institute is based in Waterloo, Ontario, and was founded in 1999 by local-boy-made-good Mike Lazaridis, who made his fortune as the founder of Research in Motion – the company that makes Blackberry handheld devices.

The institute, which is keen to attract the brightest and best theorists from around the world, is already undergoing a huge expansion that will see it doubling in size by autumn 2011 with the opening of the Stephen Hawking Centre. Hawking’s already been over as one of the Perimeter’s 20 “distinguished research chairs” after retiring from Cambridge University.

The centre will see Perimeter expanding from its bases in quantum theory, quantum fundamentals, quantum gravity and string theory out into condensed-matter physics, particle physics, cosmology and complex systems.

As for what the BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute will do during their 10-year stint, well, they’ll be “free to engage in investigator-driven research, without limits or mandates”.

But if you’re thinking of applying, don’t. The chair will be “identified through a highly competitive international search, and only scientists of the highest international calibre will be considered”.

Still, it would be nice to think the future chair is reading this right now.

A fusion of fusion

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By Matin Durrani

We’ve had fusion on our minds quite a lot here at Physics World in recent months.

First we published “Hot fusion” – a great feature by Steve Cowley, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, in which he expresses his optimism that ITER – the huge international fusion experiment being built in France – “will achieve its goal of a burning plasma in the mid-2020s”.

While Cowley examined some of the technical challenges in building ITER, we then hooked up with Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith who outlined ITER’s many political and financial challenges in a special video interview “ITER – a fusion facility worth building”.

Getting a huge multinational project like ITER off the ground is never easy and Sir Chris – who was chair of ITER council until last year – does a good job of making the case that ITER is a project worth pursuing, despite its price tag of €13bn (and rising). “We cannot afford not to develop fusion,” Sir Chris insists.

In a second video interview “Fusion: from here to reality”, I spoke to David Ward from the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in the UK, who’s been involved in the fusion game for 25 years. He talked about some of the challenges in going from ITER to a working fusion plant, dubbed DEMO. What’s interesting is that he predicts not just one version of DEMO, but lots, with China and India potentially leading the way.

But fusion research, like all scientific research, would be nowhere without public funding and public support. In our third fusion video “A passion for fusion: nuclear research and science communication”, former CCFE researcher Melanie Windridge describes some of the challenges in communicating the excitement of fusion research to the public – and to school children in particular.

The Institute of Physics, which publishes physicsworld.com, selected Windridge as this year’s Schools Lecturer, a role that has seen her travelling the UK delivering an interactive lecture show about fusion energy to more than 13,000 school students between the ages of 14 and 16.

She talks passionately about her role as a science communicator and offers plenty of practical tips for researchers who want to communicate their work to a more general audience.

Summing up her 2010 lecture tour, Windridge believes that she is lucky with her area of expertise. “Fusion is inherently very interesting and energy is a very emotive subject, so it’s relevant to people’s lives,” she says.

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By Hamish Johnston

For millennia humans have dreamt of flight – inspired no doubt by nature’s denizens of the sky. Although people now fly routinely, even the most advanced flying machine seems clunky and amateurish compared to the elegance of a dragonfly or swallow.

Indeed, scientists and engineers are desperate to learn from nature and you can read about some of the results in a special issue of the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics that is devoted to flight.

The issue includes nine papers that investigate how flying snakes glide through the air, how hummingbirds hover and even how a gecko uses its tail to right itself while falling.

You can see the robotic gecko above.

The issue’s guest editors, David Lentink and Andrew Biewener, have written a nice overview entitled “Nature-inspired flight: beyond the leap”.

Flat pack LHC

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By Hamish Johnston

If you need cheering up on a dreary Monday, this cartoon has been making the rounds on the blogs…

Coming to an Ikea near you, it’s the HÄDRÖNN CJÖLIDDER.

No, it’s not a hair metal band from the 80s, it’s a flat pack version of the Large Hadron Collider.

The cartoon is in the form of assembly instructions from the Swedish giant and includes the pitfalls of poor assembly (involving a black hole) and the reward for getting it right.

The panel on the right deals with the injection of protons!

You can see the entire cartoon here.

A D:Ream reunion!

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By James Dacey

He may be more famous as the University of Manchester particle physicist and the face of popular science through his role presenting the BBC series Wonders of the Solar System.

But in a previous life, professor Brian Cox was the keyboardist for D:Ream, the British pop group who had a number of hits in the early-to-mid 1990s. The band are perhaps best known for their number one hit “Things can only get better”, which became associated with the wave of euphoria that surrounded the rise of Tony Blair and New Labour as the party adopted the song for their 1997 election campaign.

After D:Ream went their separate ways in 1997, Cox was able to focus full time on his other love – physics. He received his doctorate from the University of Manchester the following year and has since gone on to work on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

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Alongside his research, however, Cox has continued to crave the stage making regular appearances on popular science programmes. His presenting career has really kicked off this year as he hosted Wonders of the Solar System, a five-part series in which he travels the globe explaining various phenomena in our solar system. He has also begun filming on the follow-up series, Wonders of the Universe, to be broadcast in the UK in early 2011.

But Cox is clearly a man who likes to keep busy, and this morning he revealed via Twitter that he is returning to the studio with his old group to record a couple of new tracks. The band reformed in 2008 with two of the band’s main members singer – Peter Cunnah and DJ Alan Mackenzie – and the pair are currently working on a new album, In Memory Of… scheduled for release in March 2011. It is not yet clear whether Cox will join the band for the tour that will accompany this release.

And it seems that Cox is far from alone in being a professional physicist with a passion for music. Cox’s colleagues at the ATLAS collaboration are planning to release a double album, covering a range of popular styles, under the scientists’ own record label, Neutralino Records. I’m just waiting for the day that D:Ream team up with Kate Mcalpine and her crew who made the headlines back in 2008 when they recorded the “Large Hadron Rap” to coincide with the switch-on of the LHC, which has now attracted more than six million hits on youtube.

By Margaret Harris

UK government proposals to cap the numbers of skilled non-EU immigrants could seriously hurt the country’s science departments and hi-tech industries. That, at least, is the message in an editorial in this week’s Nature, which goes on discuss how such a cap could make it hard for UK institutions to recruit and retain the best overseas scientists.

But I think there’s an unexplored question here, which is this: how hard is it to qualify for a highly skilled worker visa to the UK under current rules? Would a typical postdoc make the cut? How about a more senior scientist? And, for that matter, how about you?

In the interests of finding out, I paid a visit to the UK Border Agency’s Points-Based-System calculator. The calculator allows you to see how many points you’d earn under the current system based on various attributes like income, age and qualifications.

Reflections on a complete life in physics

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By James Dacey

What is it that makes a dedicated scientist out of a kid with an everyday background? This is how Roy Glauber opens his autobiography on the Nobel Prize website, having shared the award in 2005 for his pioneering theoretical work on quantum optics. I recently caught up with Glauber to interview him for physicsworld.com to discover a bit more about his remarkable life in physics.

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Glauber described how he developed an early interest in astronomy, which led him to build his own reflecting telescope before he went to high school. Once he started at the Bronx High School for Science, Glauber’s interest in mathematics was inspired by a teacher who encouraged the promising student to learn calculus by lending him an introductory textbook.

Having begun study at Harvard in the early 1940s, Glauber’s physics education was then rapidly accelerated when a stranger appeared in the physics department in 1943 asking if Glauber would like to join him to come and work on an interesting new project “out west”. That turned out to be the Manhattan Project where Glauber would join the likes of Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman in developing the fundamental science to create the atomic bomb.

Before accepting the post at Los Alamos, Glauber had not realized what the project was working towards. “It took some months to grow accustomed to the idea, and the wish to put an end to the long sequence of massive air raids first over Britain and then over Germany played an important role,” he says. In terms of his development as a physicist, however, Glauber was in awe of the project leaders and took a lot of inspiration from them. “Both Fermi and Bethe were extraordinarily effective in zeroing in on the essential points and wasting no time on affectation of any sort”.

You can read plenty more of Glauber’s fascinating reflections in my interview, which has just appeared on physicsworld.com.

Einstein makes Obama’s top 13

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Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters Barack Obama (2010)


By James Dacey

To me, observing from the UK, American politics often seems to resemble a fairy tale in which heroes and villains battle it out to win the hearts of the American public, spurred on by a big zealous Fox and resting only for the occasional Tea Party.

So I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear the news yesterday that Barack Obama was embracing the strong narrative that surrounds his presidency by releasing a children’s book. Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters, written before he came into office, is a 31-page illustrated work celebrating the lives of 13 great Americans, including, for instance, the patriotism of George Washington and the artistry of Georgia O’Keeffe.

I was slightly surprised, however, to see the inclusion of Albert Einstein: not because of his undoubted inspiration, but because the vast majority of his groundbreaking work was carried out before he took US citizenship in 1940. Einstein “turned pictures in his mind into giant advances in science, changing the world with energy and light,” writes Obama.

In fact Einstein’s relationship with the land of opportunity is a fascinating debate in itself, as documented through the great man’s razor-sharp one-liners. Before moving to the US, Einstein had a pretty negative view of American culture, as he explained after returning to Europe in 1932 in a letter to Austrian-born physicist, Paul Ehrenfest: “For the long term I would rather be in Holland rather than America… Besides having a handful of really fine scholars, it is a boring society that would soon make you tremble,” he wrote.

After taking citizenship, however, Einstein’s feelings began to change and he found a strong affinity with certain American values. “America is today the hope of all honourable men who respect the rights of their fellow men and who believe in the principles of freedom of justice,” he stated in “Message for Germany”, which was dictated over the telephone to a correspondent on 7 December 1941, the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Until his death in 1955, it seems Einstein had a love-hate relationship with American society, which became particularly strained during the McCarthy era. This was apparent in a letter Einstein wrote in 1950 to Gertrud Warschauer, the widow of a Berlin rabbi. “I hardly ever felt as alienated from people as I do right now… The worst is that nowhere is there anything with which one can identify. Brutality and lies are everywhere,” he wrote.

I could go on, but Einstein said an awful lot of quotable things.

By Hamish Johnston

In 2007 a group of astronomers launched Galaxy Zoo with the aim of harnessing people power to classify galaxies.

The idea is that the general public would scan telescope images of galaxies and classify their shapes. Astronomers simply don’t have the time to analyse the hundreds of thousands of galaxy images that are gathered robotically and Galaxy Zoo was a great success.

The Galaxy Zoo team launched several more projects including Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt for Supernovae, which enlists the public in the search for exploding stars.

Now, Galaxy Zoo has published its first scientific paper on supernovae. Nearly 14,000 supernova candidates were classified by more than 2500 individuals within a few hours of data collection.

You can read all about the results here.

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By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday I was up in Telford – birthplace of the industrial revolution – for Photonex and the Vacuum Expo.

It’s the first time that a vacuum event has been run alongside Photonex, which not surprisingly is focused on photonics.

Physics World is a media sponsor of the Vacuum Expo – which wraps up today – and we had a booth at the exhibition.

My first stop on the exhibition floor was the FLIR booth, where I met with Jon Chicken. Jon was showing off the firm’s latest infrared imaging systems – which you can see him demonstrating in the photo above.

Jon was very keen to talk about FLIR’s “super framing” technology – or as he prefers to call it “multiple integration time” or just “multi-IT”. The technique involves processing a stream of IR images, each with a different integration time. The technique is good for looking at subjects in which the local temperature varies over a wide range.

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So, what are some exciting applications of this latest IR technology? It could be used, for example, to measure the temperature inside a fusion reactor. Indeed, Jon told me that the firm’s systems will be going into the ITER demonstration reactor that is currently being built in the south of France.

Continuing in the theme of fusion, my next stop was a booth promoting the laser fusion activities of the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the proposed HiPER laser fusion programme.

RAL’s Ceri Brenner (right) was there to explain how HiPER is expected to use powerful lasers to implode a tiny pellet containing deuterium and tritium – creating a dense hot plasma in which nuclear fusion can occur. If all goes to plan, 10 pellets per second will be ignited at HiPER, which will result in a net production of energy – which could someday power your toaster!

Ceri is also interested in developing another practical application of laser-plasma interactions – tabletop particle accelerators. In particular, she’s looking at how protons can be accelerated to tens and maybe hundreds of MeV using a laser. The idea is that an intense pulse of laser light separates electrons from ions in a plasma creating an extremely high electric field that can be used to accelerate changed particles such as protons.

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Such a proton source could be very handy for medical therapies based on heavy charged particles. There are two challenges, however, that must be overcome. Current sources can only accelerate protons up to about 65 MeV. These could be used for treating the eye, but not for other applications, which need protons at 150–200 MeV. The other challenge is that the protons are produced over a wide energy range, but proton therapies are only effective if the particles have a very narrow energy distribution.

Laser accelerators are just one example of a technology that was first developed by academics and is now well on the road to commercialization. One person who has been down that road many a time is Tiju Joseph (right), who splits his time between the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the University of Surrey.

Joseph is a “technology translator” who tries to encourage academics to think about the commercial potential of their research. But it’s not about sitting back and waiting for eager scientists to approach him with ideas – he figures only about 5% of successful ventures start that way. Instead, it’s all about Joseph learning about what a scientist has done over the past ten years and then sitting down with the researcher and discussing avenues of commercialization.

You might think that the goal is always a spin-out company that is sold by the university once it has been established. According to Joseph, this is passé because it is just too cumbersome. Today, the goal seems to be to license the technology to an established firm with the ability to develop it rapidly.

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Now, it wouldn’t be a photonics show without a laser and a few optical components, and that’s just what the University of Limerick’s Michael Connelly brought to Telford. Michael (right) was showing off his “low-cost laser Doppler vibrometer”, which is a way of measuring vibration by firing a laser at the object of interest and comparing the reflected beam with a reference beam in an interferometer.

Also working on a practical application of photonics is Shijie Liang of the University of Manchester, who told me about her work on creating “long-period gratings” within polymer fibres. Such gratings cause light at certain wavelengths to be absorbed by the fibre cladding – a process that is very sensitive to environmental factors such as the temperature of the fibre. As such, long-period gratings can be used as temperature or other probes.

While such gratings have been made in silicon, such fibres tend to be very fragile, which is why Liang is keen on much more flexible polymers.

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With all those laser beams whizzing around, I felt I needed a pair of safety glasses. Fortunately Paul Tozer of Lasermet had a few fetching pairs on display that might even tempt Bono (above). The UK-based firm supplies a wide range of laser safety equipment and Paul talked about the company’s business, including the refitting of laser labs in the UK and beyond.

Steven Chu talks energy politics in Scotland

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Steven Chu, speaking yesterday at Laserfest in Glasgow

By James Dacey

“I was getting increasingly concerned that the climate was changing and that it was being caused by humans.”

Those were the words yesterday of Steven Chu, the US secretary of energy, speaking in Scotland about why he decided to park his glistening academic career to move into politics.

Chu was in Glasgow where he gave the opening speech as part of a national day of celebration of the 50th birthday of the laser. His broad-sweeping talk began with an overview of laser-cooling – the work for which he was awarded 1997’s Nobel Prize for Physics – before moving on to a discussion of molecular biology and the “alien” physics that occurs within the human body.

Then, with about half his allocated time remaining, Chu made a sudden gear change and began to talk more plainly about his motivation for moving into politics. “There is no real credible argument why the Earth will not warm up over a 50–100 year time period,” he explained.

He went on to talk about the imperative of developed nations to act as we shift increasingly towards a carbon-strained world. “The development of clean energy technologies and the rebuilding of an energy-efficient infrastructure is actually a job growth thing – it’s a demand really needed that can actually spur economies all over the world and it will be essential for our economic prosperity”.

Chu acknowledged the fact that the US is still lacking a comprehensive climate and energy bill, but he talked with great excitement about his how he is spending the $90 billion allocated to developing clean energy sources as part of the US Recovery Act passed last year. This includes the Energy Innovation Hubs, which, Chu says are partly inspired by earlier hierarchy of facilities such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and Bell Labs, where the best young scientists were elevated to management positions to accelerate the science.

Chu warned that failure to do this would leave the US and other developed countries lagging behind China. He talked about his meetings with the Chinese premiere, Wen Jiabao. “They want to be leaders in every energy technology because they think it will lead to their future prosperity – and because there are a lot of engineers in their government”. As examples, he cited China’s plans to generate 100 GW of wind by 2010 and their plans to build 25 new nuclear reactors.

A life-changing phone call

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Reflecting on his achievements, Eric Cornell

By James Dacey

Early one morning in October 2001 Eric Cornell’s life was about to change forever; he was about to receive a call from Sweden to inform him that he had been awarded that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

The University of Colorado physicist shared the prize with Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl Wieman for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute gases of alkali atoms, and for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates.

Nine years later, Cornell is giving a talk here in Glasgow as part of Laserfest, an event to mark the 50th anniversary of these really useful devices, which, of course, helped Cornell to cool his atoms into his condensate.

I just caught up with Cornell in his hotel before the event to find out a bit more about his big discovery and how it has changed his life. “The day we saw [the condensate], we really believed it…it was a very clear signature,” he said.

While Cornell admits to having had an inkling that the discovery could bring the Nobel, he was shocked to get the prize after just six years, and he admits that this has affected the way he does physics. “Before the prize I was a young, slightly brash, not particularly cautious physicist…now when I say something, it’s like ‘oh, Cornell says it’s wrong’.”

We also talked about Cornell’s interests outside of physics, one of which is politics – and he will be closely following events tomorrow as Obama fights to keep his support in the mid-term elections. “I like to follow the game and of course tomorrow is the big game,” he says.

But it seems unlikely that Cornell will make the transition from spectator to player any time soon. “My wife is much more involved in politics than me…I could be a sort of Dennis Thatcher or Michelle Obama.”

One physicist who has made the move is 1997 Nobel-prize winner, Steven Chu, the US secretary of energy. Chu is also talking today at Laserfest about quantum optics, so I’d better go take my seat in the auditorium.

• For more on the 50th anniversary of the laser, check out our video with Tom Baer in which the executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center outlines the many current and future uses of the laser.

• Meanwhile, don’t miss Sidney Perkowitz’s great article From ray-gun to Blu-ray on the impact of the laser on culture, science and everyday life.