This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film

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

Visit our multimedia channel to see the latest video.

March 2012 Archives

Spokesperson for the OPERA collaboration resigns

| | TrackBacks (0)
OPERA spokesperson Antonio Ereditato

Recently resigned OPERA spokesperson Antonio Ereditato (second from the left) at CERN in 2011. (Courtesy: Maximilien Brice/CERN)

By Tushna Commissariat

Late afternoon on a Friday is perhaps not the best time to break important news, but the OPERA collaboration in Italy has got newsrooms buzzing with the resignation of its spokesperson Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern in Switzerland. Although Reuters was the first to break the story, details were scant, with no comments from OPERA and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Italy saying only that it “took note” of his resignation. The OPERA collaboration, based at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy, hit the headlines last September when it claimed that it had observed neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light as they travelled the 730 km from CERN to the Italian lab. However, after having scrutinized all aspects of the experiment in a search of systematic errors, it was discovered that a faulty cable and one other potential source of error could explain the strange results.

When I attempted to reach the OPERA collaboration at the Gran Sasso lab, a lone student answered the phone and politely informed me that he was the only one there. A phone call to the CERN press office proved even more interesting, as the press officer who answered (she refused to give me her name) said that CERN had no comment to make about the resignation as the OPERA experiment is “not a CERN collaboration” and that it “only sends [the researchers] a beam of neutrinos”. This is quite a big change from last year, when CERN seemingly enjoyed the publicity of the headlines crediting it with the discovery.

A call to the INFN press office finally seemed to provide some answers, as a helpful press officer gave me a comment from Antonio Masiero, vice president at the INFN. “Acknowledging the resignation of Professor Antonio Ereditato, spokesperson of the Opera experiment, the INFN hopes that the collaboration will find its unity and new leadership again in pursuing its primary objective, that of observing [neutrino oscillations] starting with μ-type neutrinos coming from CERN. We would like to remind you, as reported in the meeting held at the INFN Gran Sasso laboratory last Wednesday, further and definitive measurements of the speed of neutrinos will be done at Gran Sasso with four experiments, including OPERA, when CERN will send a new neutrino bunched beam at the end of April,” he says.

My colleague James Dacey spoke to Luca Stanco, leader of the OPERA group at the University of Padovo, who gave us some insights into what really led to Ereditato’s resignation. According to Stanco, Ereditato resigned following a vote of no-confidence. Stanco told physicsworld.com that the vote took place last night, with 55% of the collaboration opting for a vote of no-confidence in their spokesperson. He said that while a formal motion of no-confidence required 67% of votes, it seems that Ereditato decided that resignation was the correct thing to do. The reason for the lack of confidence, Stanco says, was that many in the collaboration felt that Ereditato had failed to be sufficiently cautious when discussing the superluminal-neutrino results, having failed to make it clear that these were preliminary. “I was against the way things were communicated,” Stanco says. “In front of the media, we had a duty to be more careful with our language.” Stanco says that it will now take a few weeks to find a new spokesperson. “We have to carry on. We are physicists and we have a duty to continue working on this as OPERA represents a huge investment,” he says.

Undoubtedly, more news and official comments about the resignation will follow in the days to come, but for now it seems that the OPERA researchers are keen to move on, with the upcoming run in May hopefully allowing them to explain their superluminal results once and for all.

The April 2012 issue of Physics World is out now

| | TrackBacks (0)

By Matin Durrani

PWApr12cover-120.jpg

Alien plants, coffee stains and the sinking of the Titanic are three topics you probably wouldn’t expect to see back-to-back in any publication, let alone the April issue of Physics World. Strange as it may seem, however, there is a physics theme to them all. So for your delight, here’s a quick summary of what’s in the new issue – and there are details at the end of this blog about how to access the entire content of the magazine via our digital issue and apps. And remember, let me know what you think of any of the topics by e-mailing me at pwld@iop.org.

Taking on the climate – James Dacey interviews the US cosmologist Richard Muller, who has started two separate projects that both led to Nobel prizes and who is now tackling the nature and extent of global warming.

Putting Goonhilly back on the map – Michael Banks reveals how a derelict communications facility in Cornwall, UK, is being refashioned into a state-of-the-art astronomy facility that could one day join the UK’s leading array of radiotelescopes

Mending the broken pipe – Lesley Cohen from Imperial College London examines what can be done to encourage more women into physics.

The cat that never diesPhysics World columnist Robert P Crease wonders why the idea of Schrödinger’s cat is still so alive today, some 75 years after its birth.

The perfect storm – a century on from the Titanic tragedy, Richard Corfield says that the cascade of fateful events that led to her demise was partly caused by the science of the ship’s construction.

Life under alien skies – Lewis Dartnell from University College London describes some preliminary, but increasingly well founded, efforts to predict what alien plants and animals might look like.

Say goodbye to coffee stains – H Burak Eral, Dirk van den Ende and Frieder Mugele from the University of Twente explain how the stains that liquids leave behind, which can be a major annoyance in some biology techniques, can be altered for the better using a technique called electrowetting.

We are cosmic nomads – in this month’s Lateral Thoughts, Pangratios Papacosta from Columbia College in Chicago muses on our home in the universe.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can read the new issue online free right now through the digital version of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively. The digital version lets you read, share, save, archive and print articles – either fully laid out or in plain text view – and even have them translated or read out to you.

If you’re not yet a member, you can join the IOP as an imember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year via this link. Being an imember gives you a full year’s access to Physics World both online and through the apps.

How common is life in the Milky Way?

| | TrackBacks (0)


By James Dacey

As Captain Kirk and his crew explore the Milky Way (and far, far beyond) they regularly encountering alien life. Often these life forms resemble humans, and frequently they have developed into civilizations far more advanced than those seen on Earth.

hands smll.jpg

Star Trek – I hate to break it to you – is a work of fiction. But while screenwriters have been sending the Starship Enterprise on its voyages to the final frontier, astronomers here on Earth have also been searching for alien worlds. They have been using telescopes to hunt for exoplanets and for signs that life could exist on them, such as whether these planets resemble Earth and whether they orbit within a habitable distance away from their parent stars.

Yesterday, astronomers announced a discovery that could give second-Earth-hunters a reason to be optimistic. Results from the European Southern Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument revealed that our galaxy could be awash with rocky super-Earths orbiting within the habitable zones around faint red stars. The international team of researchers claims that there may be tens of billions of such planets in the Milky Way alone, and probably about 100 in the Sun’s immediate neighbourhood.

So is this a sign that life more than likely does exist in our galaxy? Or should we interpret this new finding the other way? Despite this abundance of potentially habitable planets, we are yet to be visited by one of our alien neighbours. Does this suggest that there is indeed something unique about the conditions on Earth beyond the composition of our planet and its proximity to the Sun? Even if life did emerge on one of our galactic neighbours, is it likely to have evolved into intelligent organisms?

We want to know your thoughts on this issue, via this week’s Physics World Facebook poll.

How common is life in the Milky Way?

We are alone in the galaxy
The galaxy is teeming with primitive organisms
We are by no means the most intelligent civilization in the galaxy

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

In last week’s poll we asked you a question relating to a more terrestrial issue: how to respond to climate change. Specifically, we asked whether you think it’s a good idea to engineer the climate to counter the effect of global warming? And the results are now in.

It seems that few respondents want to take a gung-ho approach, as only 14% opted for the “let’s do it!” option. The most popular choice – 49% of responses – is that “we should prepare to do it as a ‘plan B’ if carbon emissions continue to rise”. 24% of respondents opted for “No way! The environmental risks are too high”. Just 12% chose “No, because it won’t work anyway”.

Along with the votes, the poll also attracted some interesting comments on the issue. For instance, Joseph S Loveless, in Virginia, US, who opted for the preparing to use geoengineering as a plan B, said “Man meddling with nature rarely seems to have positive outcomes. That being said, since we are ‘engineering’ the climate as a by-product of reckless behaviour anyway, perhaps counter-engineering is the better argument than proposing we play God with the planet.”

Thank you for your participation and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

Billions and billions?

| | TrackBacks (0)
Sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667Cc

An artist’s impression shows a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667Cc. The brightest star in the sky is the red dwarf Gliese 667C, which is part of a triple-star system. The other two more distant stars, Gliese 667A and B, appear in the sky also to the right.
(Courtesy: ESO/L Calçada)

By Tushna Commissariat

The field of exoplanetary research has been abuzz over the past year as the first exoplanet – called Gliese 581d – was found within the habitable zone of a star last May and three others were found by March this year. Most of these are super-Earth planets – exoplanets that are two to 10 times more massive than the Earth.

Today, new results from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument reveal that rocky super-Earths might abound in our galaxy, orbiting within the habitable zones around faint red stars. The international team of researchers claims that there may be tens of billions of such planets in the Milky Way alone, and probably about 100 in the Sun’s immediate neighbourhood.

The work is described in two papers here and here that are currently available on the arXiv preprint server, one of which will soon be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. This is the first direct measurement of the frequency of super-Earths around red dwarfs – faint and cool stars compared with the Sun that are common and long-lived – as they account for 80% of the stars in the Milky Way.

“Our new observations with HARPS mean that about 40% of all red-dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” says Xavier Bonfils from the University of Grenoble, France, who is leader of the HARPS team. “Because red dwarfs are so common – there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way – this leads us to the astonishing conclusion that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone,” he says.

The HARPS team surveyed a carefully chosen sample of 102 red-dwarf stars in the southern skies over a six-year period. Over this time the researchers found nine super-Earths, of which two reside inside the habitable zones of Gliese 581 and Gliese 667C, respectively. The astronomers were able to estimate how heavy the planets are and how far from their stars they orbit.

From a study of all the data, including observations of stars that did not have planets, the team says that the frequency of occurrence of super-Earths in the habitable zone is 41%, in a range from 28% to 95%.

In addition, the researchers say that more massive planets – gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system – are rarely found orbiting red dwarfs, with less than 12% of them having such giant planets in their systems. All of this means that there is the exciting possibility of 100 super-Earth planets in close vicinity to us, given that there are many red-dwarf stars close to the solar system at distances of less than about 30 light-years.

“The habitable zone around a red dwarf, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface, is much closer to the star than the Earth is to the Sun,” says Stéphane Udry from the Geneva Observatory, who is also a member of the team. “But red dwarfs are known to be subject to stellar eruptions or flares, which may bathe the planet in X-rays or ultraviolet radiation and so make life there less likely.”

One of the planets discovered in the HARPS survey of red dwarfs is Gliese 667Cc. This is the second planet in this triple-star system and it orbits almost exactly in the centre of the habitable zone of its parent star. Although more than four times heavier than the Earth, it is considered to be the Earth’s closest twin found so far and almost certainly has the right conditions for the existence of liquid water on its surface.

“Now that we know that there are many super-Earths around nearby red dwarfs, we need to identify more of them using both HARPS and future instruments. Some of these planets are expected to pass in front of their parent star as they orbit, which would open up the exciting possibility of studying the planet’s atmosphere and searching for signs of life,” concludes Xavier Delfosse, one of the authors of the papers.

By Matin Durrani

Far from being an arcane concept in theoretical physics, the idea of “parallel worlds” and “parallel universes” has for many years served as a source of inspiration for numerous artists, movie-makers and writers, as the Stony Brook University philosopher and historian Robert P Crease discussed in his column for Physics World last December.

The latest – and probably not the last – example of multiple universes in popular culture comes with a new German film released earlier this month entitled Schilf, which means “Reeds” in English.

The film’s based on the bestselling book of the same name by German author Juli Zeh, the English translation of which, rather confusingly, was entitled Dark Matter in the UK and In Free Fall in the US.

Reviewing the book for Physics World in 2010, US science writer Jennifer Ouellette called it “a compelling intellectual thriller”, which she commended for its “meticulous plotting…and lyrical turns of phrase”. You can read her review here.

Anyway, the film version, like the book, features – unusually in the movie world – not one, but two bona fide physicists, in the form of a professor at the University of Jena called Sebastian Wittich (played by Mark Waschke) and an old pal from his student days called Oskar Hoyer (Stipe Erceg), who’s now based at CERN.

According to Ouellette’s review of the book, Sebastian and Oskar are passionate rivals when it comes to physics, and the story begins with the pair discussing the philosophical implications of the possibility of parallel worlds, before quickly veering off to include a kidnapping, a ransom, a grisly death and the unravelling of Sebastian’s life.

“Eventually, an unorthodox detective with a love of physics and an inoperable brain tumour steps in to solve his final case by connecting these seemingly random events,” Ouellette writes.

I’ve only watched the trailer for the film – directed by Claudia Lehmann – so I can’t comment on how closely it follows the novel or if the movie is worth watching.

But the trailer itself looks okay, with realistic-looking shots of a physics lecture hall and a scene inside Sebastian’s home, where his son starts going on about Schrödinger’s cat. Then the cheery (cheesy?) accordion music turns predictably sinister, various mobile phones go off, assorted trains/cars/bikes come and go, an old, beardy guy with dark glasses and a scarf stumbles into view, before a character, with his back to us, admits “I’ve killed someone – but not in this world.” There’s also a glimpse of a place that might, or might not, be CERN.

By the way, a gripe of mine: why is it that mobile phones in movies never have silly ring tones?

More details of the film can be found at IMDb.com.


By James Dacey

Geoengineering is the idea of controlling the weather and climate by the large-scale engineering of the environment. The idea has come to prominence in recent years as concerns about man-made global warming have increased and governments have faltered on negotiations to restrict carbon-dioxide emissions.

hands smll.jpg

One of the more radical proposals is to intervene with the Earth’s solar-energy balance by deploying technologies to reflect sunlight. Suggestions include painting buildings white to make them more reflective, injecting reflective aerosols into the atmosphere, or even deploying a fleet of shields into the Earth’s orbit to directly intercept incoming sunlight.

The other main approach to geoengineering is to try to directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One area already being developed is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a three-stage process that involves harvesting, transporting and then storing the carbon dioxide in suitable underground locations such as vast saline aquifers. A more radical approach is to fertilize the ocean with a limiting nutrient such as iron to promote more marine flora, which will draw more carbon out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis.

Earlier this week we published an interview with the high-profile geophysicist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US. Caldeira has some severe reservations about geoengineering, specifically concerning: its environmental impact; how the presence of a “plan B” that may prove unreliable could affect efforts to cut carbon emissions; and who on the global stage should regulate use of the technology, particularly when it may reduce rainfall in some areas.

We want to know your opinion on this issue, via this week’s Physics World Facebook poll.

Should we engineer the climate to counter the effect of global warming?

Let’s do it!
We should prepare to do it as a “plan B” if carbon emissions continue to rise
No way! The environmental risks are too high
No, because it won’t work anyway

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

In last week’s poll we looked at the issue of university ranking exercises. The issue was on our minds because the Times Higher Education (THE) had just released its annual list of the top 100 universities, which was dominated by institutions in English-speaking countries. We asked whether you think these university ranking exercises are inherently biased. The outcome was highly conclusive, with 96% of respondents opting for “yes”.

Thank you for your participation and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

New Einstein online archive

| | TrackBacks (0)


By James Dacey

He is still regularly quoted as a supreme authority on a range of topics from fundamental physics to Eastern religion, along with his more whimsical asides on people, places and experiences. Now, the thoughts of Albert Einstein have just become more accessible, thanks to a new website launched yesterday that collates 2000 digitized items, including his scientific writings and his personal correspondence. The website also contains various curios, newspaper clippings and even some of Einstein’s poetry.

The new collection has been assembled by the Albert Einstein Archives, a subdivision of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, which has teamed up with the Einstein Papers Project (EPP) based in California. Funding has come from the UK-based Polonsky Foundation, an organization that previously digitized the writings of Sir Isaac Newton for the University of Cambridge. The new Einstein collection is designed to replace an earlier database launched in 2003, which contained just 900 digitized papers.

Personally, I think the new site could still be a little easier to navigate. But the best thing to do is to take the tour of the gallery, which showcases some of the most interesting items. It includes an image of the 46-page manuscript presented to the Hebrew University on its opening in 1925, which is said to be Einstein’s first systematic exposé of his general theory of relativity. It also includes a letter that Einstein wrote in to his mother in 1919 after hearing the news that Eddington’s preliminary findings appeared to confirm general relativity. There is an image of the original letter in German, and there is also an English translation (see below).

Dear Mother,

Good news today. H.A. Lorentz has telegraphed me that the British expeditions have definitely confirmed the deflection of light by the Sun. Unfortunately, Maja has written me that you’re not only in a lot of pain but that you’ve also had gloomy thoughts. How I would like to keep you company again so that you’re not left to ugly brooding. But I will have to stay here a while and work. I will also be travelling to Holland for a few days to show my gratitude to Ehrenfest, even though the delay is rather painful.

I wish you good days.

Affectionately yours,

Albert.

The archive also includes some of Einstein’s writings on the plight of the Jewish people. One powerful example is this extract taken from a speech Einstein delivered in 1921 to a Zionist audience in Berlin.

Palestine is for us Jews not a matter of charity or colonization: it is a problem of paramount importance for the Jewish people. Palestine is first and foremost not a refuge for east European Jews, but the incarnation of a reawakening sense of national solidarity for all Jews. Is it opportune and necessary to waken and strengthen this feeling of community? I believe I can answer this question with an absolute “yes”, based on not only on [sic] spontaneous emotion but on sound reason.

Einstein goes on to discuss the history of the Jews in Germany during the previous 100 years, and the respect he has for the strong sense of community that his forefathers sustained.

German speakers may also enjoy the quirky feature of being able to leaf through a digital version of Einstein’s travel journal.

By Hamish Johnston

Physicists working on the ICARUS experiment have reported their first measurement of the speed at which neutrinos travel from CERN to the Gran Sasso lab in Italy – and the particles don’t appear to be moving faster than the speed of light.

That’s the same 730 km journey taken by the famous neutrinos that were clocked at speeds faster than light by the OPERA experiment last year. You may recall that this result generated much speculation about the possibility of superluminal flight – despite the fact that it flies in the face of the special theory of relativity and several other neutrino measurements.

In a brief press release today, Carlo Rubbia, Nobel-prize winner and ICARUS spokesperson, said “ICARUS measures the neutrino’s velocity to be no faster than the speed of light. These are difficult and sensitive measurements to make and they underline the importance of the scientific process.”

CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci added “The evidence is beginning to point towards the OPERA [superluminal] result being an artefact of the measurement.”

Interesting, he also said “Whatever the result, the OPERA [collaboration] has behaved with perfect scientific integrity in opening [its] measurement to broad scrutiny, and inviting independent measurements. This is how science works.”

I have no problem with the above statement, but what does bother me is the fact that CERN chose to hype the initial superluminal finding when it first came out last year. I think it’s safe to say that when the news broke in September, most physicists assumed that the result was caused by some sort of systematic error and wondered why CERN was making such a big fuss.

At least CERN has done the right thing by issuing this latest press release – it must have been tempting to keep quiet and hope that the superluminal story would just fade away.

You can read a preprint of the ICARUS result here.

By Hamish Johnston

Our colleagues at the Institute of Physics in London are making a series of videos called Physics Lives that focuses on university research physicists and what they do in their working lives. The latest production stars David Tong, who is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, and you can watch it right here.

Tong is a big fan of solitons, so you might wonder why his video “Baths and Quarks” begins with him lying motionless in the bath and then blowing bubble rings. “Baths would be so much more relaxing if they weren’t so interesting,” he says. Then he pulls the plug and marvels at the vortex formed when the water goes down the drain.

“My job is to understand the beautiful things in the world that surrounds me,” he says, and points out that both the bubble rings and the vortex can be understood in terms of solitons.

The video continues with some lovely shots of water vortices, smoke rings and colliding marbles – all explained in a soothing dreamlike manner by Tong. Then the video moves on to Tong’s research on quarks, and he explains why solitons could hold the key to understanding the strong force, which binds together quarks in hadrons such as protons and neutrons.

A fundamental understanding of the strong force would involve establishing the mathematical basis underpinning Yang–Mills theory – which in 2000 was deemed one of the seven important challenges facing mathematicians by the Clay Mathematics Institute. Indeed, the US-based institute thinks the problem so important that it’s offering a cool $1m to anyone who can solve it.

So it’s back into the bath for Tong, where he says he does some of his best thinking. You can view all four videos in the Physics Lives series here.

The videos include “Ion Beam Cop”, in which Melanie Bailey of the University of Surrey does some forensic physics, and “Written in the Sky”, in which Jim Wild of the University of Lancaster flies to Iceland to investigate the mysteries of the aurora borealis.

By Hamish Johnston

Okay, I know that I should have looked the other way, but every year I fly into a rage when I look at the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking of world universities.

hands smll.jpg

This is always reported with a certain smugness in the UK because British universities do very well. Indeed, three institutes – Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London – are in the top 10.

But what gets me is the fact that all of the top 10 are Anglo-American universities. You have to dip down to 15th place to find the first non-Anglo institute, which is ETH Zurich.

There are three Canadian universities in the top 30, all of which follow the Anglo-American model. The second-best non-Anglo institute is the University of Tokyo, which is way down in 30th place.

Is it really the case that English-speaking countries have vastly superior universities, or is there some inherent bias in the THE’s ranking criteria?

In this week’s Facebook poll we want to know your opinion on university rating exercises in general.

Are university ranking exercises inherently biased?

Yes
No

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

In the case of the THE rankings, one possible bias is that a whopping 60% of the score each university receives is related to research and academic publishing. That’s great for research-intensive Anglo-American universities, but not so good for universities in places such as Germany – where much of the best scientific work is done at labs such as the Max Planck institutes.

The top place in Germany goes to the University of Munich, which comes in at 45th. This means that both Canada and Australia have three and two universities, respectively, that are ranked higher than Germany’s best. I know first-hand that Canada has some good universities, but I find it hard to believe that German universities are as poor as the survey suggests.

It looks as if some Germans don’t like it either, and have taken an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. Way back in 2006 the German federal government launched its Excellence Initiative that aimed to push some universities up to the elite status of Harvard or Oxford. The idea is to boost the funding of research at some universities to make them more attractive to top researchers and postgraduate students.

Of course, it is possible that Anglo-American universities are simply better than the rest. Anglo universities tend to have a much more international outlook than their non-Anglo counterparts and therefore could find it easier to attract the best and the brightest staff and students from around the world. Operating in English – the lingua franca of academia and business – can’t hurt either.

And what about teaching? On the THE site you can rank the universities based on teaching alone – and this doesn’t change the order that much at the top. So maybe Anglo-American universities are the best, or perhaps the education ranking itself is also biased towards the Anglo way of doing things!

Last week we asked you if the Fukashima nuclear incident in March 2011 had changed your opinion on nuclear power. About 63% of you said that the meltdown hadn’t changed your position, whereas 26% said it had hardened their opposition. The remainder said that Fukashima had strengthened their support.

The first beams of 2012 at the LHC

The first beams of 2012 at the LHC. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Just before midnight last night the first proton beams of 2012 were circulated in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva. Above is a screenshot from the LHC Dashboard showing both clockwise and anticlockwise beams circulating in the LHC for much of today.

It looks as if the beam energy is still fairly low at 0.45 TeV – but the plan for this year is to run both beams at 4 TeV for a collision energy of 8 TeV. Last year, the collider ran at 7 TeV and may have caught the first glimpses of the Higgs boson. By running at a higher energy, LHC physicists hope that it will become clearer whether the Higgs is indeed emerging from collision data with a mass of about 125 GeV/c2.

Running at 8 TeV could also help physicists find evidence for the theory of supersymmetry (or SUSY). SUSY is an attractive route beyond the Standard Model because it offers solutions to some of the big questions in particle physics. Many physicists hope that the LHC will confirm SUSY’s central prediction: that for each of the Standard Model particles there exists a heavier sparticle sibling. But, so far, no evidence for SUSY has emerged from the LHC.

However, running at a slightly higher energy does not come without risks. Larger currents must flow through the LHC’s superconducting magnets and we know that in the past there was a problem with the electrical connectors between magnets. In 2008 the LHC failed spectacularly when one of these connectors overheated; and the remote chance of a repeat of this costly disaster must be weighing heavily on the minds of some at CERN.

Pass the wasabi

| | TrackBacks (0)

By Margaret Harris

wasabi

Courtesy: iStockphoto.com/SensorSpot

Bristol’s St Nicholas Market is an eclectic place, packed with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and shops selling everything from novelty T-shirts and herbal remedies to sheet music and sewing supplies. Today, however, it was even more eclectic than usual, since one of the customers at the curry house was Makoto Imai, the Japanese psychiatrist who won an Ig Nobel prize in 2011 for his role in inventing a wasabi-based smoke alarm.

Imai was accompanied by Ig Nobel organizer Marc Abrams, a friend of Physics World whom I met at a scientific conference back in 2009. They’re touring the UK right now as part of National Science and Engineering Week, putting on a show about the Ig prizes and other examples of science that – as Abrams explained to the slightly bemused Bristolian who shared our table at lunch – “first makes you laugh, and then makes you think”.

The wasabi smoke alarm is a good example. Wasabi is Japanese horseradish, otherwise known as that deceptively mild-looking green paste that comes with sushi. As anyone who has ever tasted it will know, a little bit of wasabi goes a very long way, and it turns out that a mere whiff of it can be enough to wake people from a deep sleep. In a creative leap worthy of Archimedes, Imai and his colleagues at Shiga University in Japan realized that this potent odour could make a very effective warning signal for people with deafness, who would not hear conventional sirens and might miss flashing lights if they were fast asleep. And so the wasabi smoke alarm was born.

From the outside, the alarm – which Imai obligingly got out of his bag to show me – is an unassuming grey box about as long as an A4 page and one-third as wide. Inside are the circuits needed to receive a signal from a modified ordinary smoke alarm, some batteries and a small but forbiddingly labelled aerosol can containing allyl isothiocyanate, the active ingredient in wasabi. The alarm has a radius of about 2.5 m, Imai told me, which makes it perfect for mounting above your bed. He also explained that, strictly speaking, it’s not an odour that wakes you up – it’s more of a sharp tickling sensation in the back of the throat that makes you cough.

Sadly I didn’t get a chance to try out the alarm at lunch – our fellow market-goers might have objected – and tonight’s Bristol Ig Nobel show featuring Imai is already sold out. However, I understand that Imai will be donating one of his devices to the Science Museum in London, and there are still tickets available for other UK Ig events later this week in Edinburgh and Dundee.

Tracking our planet from above

| | TrackBacks (0)


By James Dacey

Advances in satellite technology are giving us fresh opportunities to monitor the Earth’s geography and track changes over time. During a recent visit to San Francisco, I got the chance to meet a few of the scientists who use such data to develop a better understanding of global processes. I met them alongside a giant screen, which was part of a NASA exhibition at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

In this first video interview, I meet NASA scientist Compton Tucker, who is interested in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. He uses the screen to show me images of a region in north-west Brazil as captured by satellites from the Landsat Program, which has been collecting images since 1972. Tucker explains how he uses these images to identify where deforestation has increased over time and why these changes have occurred.

Tucker says that this information is useful for a number of reasons, including climate studies, because it can help to quantify the amount of carbon dioxide released as a result of deforestation. He explained that scientists collect the data and integrate them with scientific observations obtained on the ground. It was also interesting to hear about Tucker’s adventures in the jungle, particularly his experiences meeting the locals.

In this second video interview, I meet another NASA scientist, Eric Lindstrom, who uses the screen to show me an animation from NASA’s ECCO2 project. This project is designed to create an accurate model of the world’s oceans and sea-ice based on data collected by a whole fleet of satellites. He showed me how the model can identify the extent of turbulence in the oceans in the form of eddy currents.

If you enjoy these videos, then you may also be interested in one of the articles in the March issue of Physics World. It features a series of images focusing on different aspects of planet Earth, including the varying sea-surface temperatures and the elevation of the land surface. You can download a free PDF of this special earth-science issue via this link.

Square Kilometre Array

Artist’s impression of the proposed Square Kilometre Array site in Austrialia (Courtesy: Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

By Michael Banks

Is southern Africa a step nearer to hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)? That is what an unconfirmed report in the Sydney Morning Herald is suggesting.

SKA, costing €1.5bn, is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of around 2000–3000 linked antennas that will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy. Two rival bids are going head to head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

Last month, an independent SKA site advisory committee sent its evaluation report and site-selection recommendation to SKA’s board of directors. The report was not published and only a vague press release was issued stating that a recommendation had been made. Since then, members of SKA have been tight-lipped about which bid may have got the thumbs up from the committee.

However, according to the report today in the Sydney Morning Herald, the site advisory committee has opted for southern Africa. “Australia, in a joint bid with New Zealand, has failed to convince an expert panel it offers a superior location for the project,” the report says.

Indeed, the rumour mill for a winning southern Africa bid was already set in motion late last month when African ambassadors meeting in Beijing issued a statement calling on the SKA organization to build the telescope “on the site recommended by the independent SKA site advisory committee”. The statement inferred that the South Africa-led bid had won the recommendation of the site committee. However, within a few hours of being posted on the press site AlphaGalileo the statement was taken down.

That is not the only recent SKA-related incident. A few days after the withdrawal of the press release, a server managing documents for SKA was apparently breached. However, according to Colin Greenwood, company secretary of the SKA Organisation, only “links to publicly available documents, such as the SKA research papers, were affected”.

The site advisory committee does not have the final say in where SKA will be sited. That will come when the seven members of the SKA organization – which includes China, Italy and the UK – meet in “late March or early April” to consider the report’s conclusions and make a decision about the location of the site. Only by then will we know for sure whether SKA is heading to southern Africa.

By Hamish Johnston

This Sunday marks one year since the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami wreaked destruction on the east coast of Japan. One of the casualties of the day was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which, having survived the earthquake was then inundated by a 15 m wave. This initiated a chain of events leading to the meltdown of three of the plant’s six reactors.

hands smll.jpg

The Fukushima incident is second only to the Chernobyl disaster as the worst nuclear accident ever, and it has blighted the lives of thousands of people living around the plant – some of whom may never be able to return to their homes. However, proponents of nuclear power might point out that the situation was eventually brought under control and only a handful of deaths have been directly attributed to the Fukushima incident – whereas the earthquake and tsunami claimed more than 10,000 lives.

So our Facebook poll question this week is:

How has the Fukushima incident changed your attitude to nuclear power?

It’s hardened my opposition
It’s strengthened my support
No change at all

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

If you would like a bit of background reading before you cast your vote, check out this opinion piece by Mike Weightman, who led a team of nuclear inspectors to Fukushima less than three months after the incident.

Last week we asked you what level of computer-programming proficiency is appropriate for a physicist. The overwhelming majority of you thought that some programming knowledge is needed, with 51% saying that physicists should be conversant in machine code and 42% saying that some knowledge of FORTRAN is essential.

Physics and the Earth: all you need to know

| | TrackBacks (0)

By Matin Durrani

cover

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you’ll have had access for more than a week now – through our apps, in print or online – to the bumper 92-page March issue of Physics World magazine, which features a series of fabulous articles and images on the theme of “Physics and the Earth”.

If you’re not yet a member of the IOP, then to get a taste of what you’re missing out on each month, we’re offering a free PDF download of the March issue via this link.

Here’s a brief outline of what’s in the March issue and I’ve included details at the end of this blog about how to join the IOP so that you can get your hands on Physics World each and every month. Joining is easy and costs just £15, €20 or $25 a year.

• Gianpaolo Bellini and Livia Ludhova describe how geoneutrinos generated through radioactive decay within the Earth are providing a new technique for understanding our planet.

• François Pétrélis, Jean-Pierre Valet and Jean Besse explain why they think that the movement of the Earth’s plates could be linked to the rate of reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field.

• See what progress is being made in understanding the Earth’s core – including the bizarre possibility that it may hide huge crystals of iron some 10 km long.

• Learn more about the controversy over fracking, which involves pumping sand and chemicals into shale deposits to release trapped natural gas.

• Check out our interview with Robert Hazen, the head of the Deep Carbon Observatory, who wants to find out what happens to carbon that gets subducted into the Earth’s core.

• Mike Weightman, chief inspector of nuclear installations and executive head of the Office for Nuclear Regulations in the UK, describes what lessons we can learn from the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant one year on.

• Enjoy a series of spectacular images of the Earth from afar, showing the power of Earth observation.

• Find out how the latest advances in earthquake forecasting can give the odds that an earthquake above a certain size will occur within a given area and time.

Download a PDF of the issue now.

Remember, to get Physics World each month, you can join the IOP as an imember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year via this link. Being an imember gives you a full year’s access to Physics World, both online and through the apps.

Members of the IOP can also read the March issue through the digital version of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Android Marketplace, respectively. The digital version lets you read, share, save, archive and print articles – either fully laid out or in text view – and even have them translated or read out to you.

To let us know what you think about the March issue, please e-mail us at pwld@iop.org.

Enjoy the issue!

Brazil-band results from Fermilab

The latest results from the Tevatron. (Courtesy: Fermilab)

By Hamish Johnston

“The elusive Higgs boson may nearly be cornered”, that’s the rather vague message of a press release issued today by Fermilab. The release describes the analysis of data from the Tevatron’s two main experiments – CDF and DZero – that Fermilab claims sits well with previous attempts at finding the Higgs by the Tevatron, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and other accelerators.

The Fermilab results, along with information gleaned from other colliders including the LHC, are shown in the “Brazil band” plot above. While I don’t think that this latest announcement from the Tevatron is earth-shattering, the plot is a nice summary of where physicists are with the Higgs.

The horizontal axis is simply the mass of a hypothetical Higgs. The vertical axis is the ratio of the highest possible Higgs production rate compatible with data from the Tevatron divided by the production rate predicted by the Standard Model. Whenever this ratio (the solid curve) dips below one, the data exclude a Standard Model Higgs. The dashed line represents what is expected if the Higgs doesn’t exist. The green and yellow Brazil bands show the 1σ and 2σ uncertainties in the non-existence of the Higgs. If the solid line rises above the upper yellow band, it could be (very preliminary) evidence of the Higgs.

That’s why we should be mildly excited about the broad bump in the lower half of the mass range, which suggests that the Higgs could be in region of 115–140 GeV/c2.

In December, the two LHC experiments ATLAS and CMS found the strongest evidence yet of the Higgs – and the particle weighed in at about 125 GeV/c2. Therefore, this latest result jives with the tentative sighting by the LHC. However, the LHC bump appears to be much sharper – and is more statistically significant. If you want to know why (and much more), Matt Strassler gives his usual level-headed analysis here.

If more exuberant speculation is to your liking, Philip Gibbs has combined the Tevatron and LHC results to create nice bump, which you can see on his blog.

As well as backing up the growing belief that the Higgs mass is around 125 GeV/c2, this latest analysis also excludes the Higgs mass in the region 147–179 GeV/c2 – which widens the Tevatron’s previous exclusion of 156–177 GeV/c2.

The results were presented today at the Moriond Electroweak Conference in La Thuile in the Italian Alps.

Fusing the art and science of Hollywood

| | TrackBacks (0)


By James Dacey

Few of us know at the age of seven precisely what it is that we want to devote our lives to. But so it was for Ben Morris in 1977 after he was taken along to his local cinema in Oxford to watch the original Star Wars film. Young Ben knew from that day that when he grew up he wanted to create fantastical new worlds through the medium of cinema. The only question he had was: how do I get there?

Morris was talking last night at a public lecture organized by the University of Bristol, from which he graduated in 1993. Morris spoke about how his academic training had involved a true fusion of art and science. He studied physics, art and maths at A-level, before heading off to college to take a foundation course in art and design. Then, at this point in his life plan, Morris realized that a career in special-effects production would also benefit from a technical understanding of the physical world. This led him to enrol on a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in Bristol.

In a fascinating talk, attended by several hundred people, Morris spoke of how his early work in the film industry had led on naturally from his studies in engineering. His final-year university project involved a study of animatronic puppets, and this knowledge helped him when he was hired as part of the team that created the puppet pig used in the 1995 film Babe. Morris said that while he has maintained his love of puppetry, the film industry has long-since shifted towards computer-generated graphics and so has his work.

Within a few years, Morris had already realized his childhood dream by working on an impressive array of blockbusters, including Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004) and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). More recently, he has been involved with the Harry Potter films, the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (2007) and Steven Spielberg’s latest epic, War Horse (2011).

With the aid of a giant screen behind his lectern, Morris showed us a few specific examples of his work, and he described how the effects were created. I was amazed by the amount of labour that can go into very short sections of film. One example that stands out in my mind is from the 2003 film Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (see the trailer above). The scene in question involves the prince becoming trapped in a sandstone palace that is rapidly collapsing into the surrounding desert.

Morris said that in creating this scene he and his team simulated up to 2.5 million grains of sand, having spent weeks carefully studying how sand flows. Their research included spending several days in a giant sandpit in Manchester where they triggered the collapse of giant piles of sand, and filmed the events at 125 frames per second. To get an idea of how sandstone architecture collapses, the team carried out a study of rigid body dynamics by observing the collapse of various smaller structures. The overall look of the scene is designed to possess the lightning of a Rembrandt painting. Then, of course, a few killer snakes are thrown into the sandy mix. The scene lasts a few seconds, but the creative vision is epic.

So, despite the mountains of patience required in the job, does Morris still recommend visual-effects production as a career? It is an unequivocal yes. “I’m still living the dream” he declared.

By Hamish Johnston

If you hate spiders, look away now. But you will miss out on some exciting news about the wily arachnids and their sturdy silk.

orbweaver spider

Xinwei Wang and colleagues at Iowa State University in the US have discovered that spider silk is a surprisingly good conductor of heat – outperforming materials such as copper and aluminium. Indeed, with a thermal conductivity of 416 Wm–1 K–1, it’s only beaten by a handful of materials such as silver, diamond and graphene.

That’s one of the team’s golden silk orbweaver spiders pictured on the right.

The silk’s ability to conduct heat comes as a big surprise because materials created by living organisms tend to have very low conductivities. In a paper describing the finding, Wang writes “Our discoveries will revolutionize the conventional thought on the low thermal conductivity of biological materials.” While spider and silkworm silk are often thought of as being similar, the thermal conductivity of spider silk is 1000 times greater than that made by silkworms.

The team focused on the “drag-line” silk that some spiders use to anchor their webs in place. Despite being about one-fifteenth the thickness of a human hair, this silk is extremely strong and very stretchy. This inspired the researchers to measure the conductivity of stretched silk and led to another unexpected discovery – when stretched by 20%, the conductivity increased by 20%. This is unlike most other materials, which become poorer conductors when stretched. According to Wang, this “opens a door for soft materials to be another option for thermal-conductivity tuning”.

Wang believes that spider silk is such a good conductor because its crystalline structure tends to be defect free and because the presence of “spring-shaped” structures that link proteins. Both of these make it easy for heat-carrying vibrations to move along the strands.

Thanks to the discovery, spider silk could soon be used in clothes for hot climates and for bandages that keep wounds cool.

The research is described in the journal Advanced Materials.

In other spider news, Shigeyoshi Osaki of Nara Medical University in Japan has used drag-line silk to make a set of violin strings. You can listen to the results here.

By Hamish Johnston

This week marks the launch of a new computer – but it’s not faster, thinner or sexier than the latest tablet. Instead, it’s purposely low-powered, awkward to use and it comes with no must-have applications.

hands smll.jpg

Meet the Raspberry Pi, which is really just a printed circuit board with a handful of chips that you can buy for about £25. The idea is that you connect your own keyboard and monitor to enjoy the joys of computer programming 1980s style.

Why would anyone try to flog such a throwback to a bygone era of BASIC operating systems and cassette-tape storage?

It seems that young Britons know very little about how to program a computer, and that this is a threat to the nation’s hi-tech economy. The Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes that its cheap-and-cheerful computer will encourage young people to fool around with the basics of programming and learn something useful along the way.

Personally, I think this approach is flawed. I was one of those kids in the 1980s who taught themselves how to program by mucking about on an Apple II Plus – my brother and I bought one with money earned from delivering newspapers. The sort of do-it-yourself programming we did back then is probably exactly what the Raspberry Pi Foundation would like to see kids doing today.

However, there is a fundamental difference between now and then: in the 1980s my brother and I considered ourselves part of a “geek elite” who were using cutting-edge technology to do things that few others could achieve. By contrast, I’m guessing that many Raspberry Pi users will be underwhelmed by its capabilities when compared with an iPad and find it difficult to make the connection between it and the high-powered computers of today.

I suspect that the proponents of Raspberry Pi look back at the 1980s as a golden age of DIY programming that spawned many a successful career in computing – my brother’s included. That may be true, but I don’t think that Raspberry Pi will recreate that spirit.

The launch of Raspberry Pi got me thinking about whether today’s budding physicists have less practical experience of computing programming than my generation – and if so, is that a problem?

So our Facebook poll question this week is:

How much programming knowledge should a physicist have?

None, that’s what IT departments are for
Mastery of MS Office will do
Can write a bit of FORTRAN code
Must dream in machine language

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

Last week we asked you if you thought that physicists had overhyped the preliminary finding by the OPERA collaboration that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light – a surprising result that has recently been put into further doubt.

Nearly 60% of you thought that physicists were not to blame, with several commenters putting the blame squarely on the media. “Physicists do science. Media do hype,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, while Dimitris Satkas chipped in “Physicists haven’t overhyped this thing. Media has.”

Normally, I would agree with Saint-Exupéry and Satkas, but in this instance I think the physicists were the guilty party. The smoking gun is the press release issued by CERN on 23 September that invited journalists to watch a webcast of what should have been a sleepy Friday afternoon lecture by an OPERA team member.

We had been following rumours of superluminal neutrinos in the physicsworld.com newsroom, and in the absence of a press release we probably would have used a blog entry to tell our readers about this very preliminary result. But once the press release appeared with the full backing of CERN, we felt that we had to bump the finding up to a news story – and so did the rest of the world’s press. So, in a sense, we followed the physicists’ lead in hyping the result.

Cartoon of a noisy magnetic system

Cartoonist Flash Rosenberg’s drawing of “noise in a magnetic system.”

By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting

This year’s APS meeting has been one of the biggest ever, with nearly 11,000 attendees and 54 parallel sessions. It’s impossible to capture the totality of such a huge conference, but here are a couple of snapshots.

One of the most entertaining talks I saw was given by a cartoonist, Flash Rosenberg. Rosenberg makes videos that pair her quick sketching skills with a scientific voice-over: as the scientists speak, she draws what they are saying. Rosenberg spoke during a session on communicating science to the public, and towards the end of her talk she offered to illustrate audience members’ research questions.

Understandably, several of them leaped at the chance. For the first question – “How do bubbles form in nuclear fuel?” – Rosenberg began by drawing nuclear fuel as an unhappy-looking gremlin. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera to capture the hilarious conclusion of her sketch, but another audience member has posted a video of it here (turn the sound up – it’s worth it).

I was better prepared for the second question, which was “How do you measure noise in a magnetic system?”. As you can see in the image above, Rosenberg’s idea of a noisy magnetic system is a couple whose quiet romantic dinner is being interrupted by loud music. Cute.

The March 2012 issue of Physics World is out now

| | TrackBacks (0)

By Matin Durrani

cover

The March issue of Physics World magazine is now out, featuring a series of fabulous articles and images on the theme of “Physics and the Earth”. Here’s a brief outline of what we have on offer and there are details at the end of this blog about how to access the entire content of the issue.

• Find out how the latest advances in earthquake forecasting can give the odds that an earthquake above a certain size will occur within a given area and time.

• Gianpaolo Bellini and Livia Ludhova describe how geoneutrinos generated through radioactive decay within the Earth are providing a new technique for understanding our planet.

• François Pétrélis, Jean-Pierre Valet and Jean Besse explain why they think that the movement of the Earth’s plates could be linked to the rate of reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field.

• See what progress is being made in understanding the Earth’s core – including the bizarre possibility that it may hide huge crystals of iron some 10 km long.

• Learn more about the controversy over fracking, which involves pumping sand and chemicals into shale deposits to release trapped natural gas.

• Check out our interview with Robert Hazen, the head of the Deep Carbon Observatory, who wants to find out what happens to carbon that gets subducted into the Earth’s core

• Mike Weightman, chief inspector of nuclear installations and executive head of the Office for Nuclear Regulations in the UK, describes what lessons we can learn from the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant one year on.

• Enjoy a series of spectacular images of the Earth from afar, showing the power of Earth observation.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can read the new issue online for free right now through the digital version of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Android Marketplace respectively. The digital version lets you read, share, save, archive and print articles – either fully laid out or in easy-to-read text view – and even have them translated or read out to you.

If you’re not yet a member, you can join the IOP as an imember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year via this link. Being an imember gives you a full year’s access to Physics World both online and through the apps.

A free PDF of the issue will also be available for download from this site from 8 March.

Portrait of our planet

| | TrackBacks (0)
Photo challenge

Schlieren candles by adavidhazy

By James Dacey

Thank you to everyone who took part in the first ever Physics World photo challenge. We asked readers to submit photos to our Flickr group relating to the theme of “light in physics”. We had some great submissions, a selection of which are showcased in this article.

The theme for our new photo challenge is “portrait of our planet”. To tie in with this month’s earth-sciences special issue of Physics World, we want you to submit photos to our Flickr group relating to the scientific study of the physical Earth. It might relate to a geophysical phenomenon such as a fiery volcanic eruption, a tornado or the aftermath of an earthquake. Or you might choose to share a more abstract vision of our planet, such as a colourful geological rock formation or a spectacular ice feature. Be as creative as you like.

Please add your photos by Tuesday 27 March and then after this date we will choose a selection of our favourite images to be showcased on physicsworld.com.

Please also feel free to write a caption to share the story behind the image. Your photos may show an interesting geophysical phenomenon, or may have required some inventive and time-consuming photography. Perhaps, in capturing the perfect shot, you camped out overnight in an isolated wilderness, or maybe you scaled the slopes of a mountain in search of a striking landscape.

Expensive equipment is not necessarily required, however. People prove every day that you can capture an inspiring snapshot using the most basic of cameras, even the one on your mobile phone.