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May 2012 Archives

By James Dacey

hands smll.jpg Since 2006, South Africa has been battling it out with Australasia for the right to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This €1.5bn radio-astronomy telescope, consisting of 2000 to 3000 linked antennas, will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy. Last Friday – after months of deliberation – the SKA committee finally reached its decision, which came as a surprise to many outside of the astronomy community: a split-site solution whereby part of the array will be constructed in South Africa and the other part in Australia and New Zealand.

It appears that in reaching this decision a certain degree of politics has been involved. A report submitted by the SKA Site Advisory Committee last February concluded that, while both sites were suitable, South Africa was the preferred choice. But the SKA members also received advice from a separate working group that was set up to consider the dual-site option. We want you to let us know what you think about the decision by taking part in our poll.

Should the Square Kilometre Array telescope be shared between South Africa and Australasia?

Yes, it is a good compromise
No, it should be built exclusively in South Africa
No, it should be built exclusively in Australia and New Zealand

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

In last week’s poll we shifted away from current events all the way back to ancient Greece. We asked you to select the famous thinker whom you considered to have made the most important contributions to natural philosophy. The most highly regarded among our list of seven ancient Greeks was Archimedes, who picked up 45% of the vote. Second place went to Aristotle (23%) and third place went to Euclid with 11%.

Given the magnitude and diversity of these philosophers’ contributions, the poll naturally attracted debate among voters. For instance, Jonas Persson voted for Archimedes but he appears to have been somewhat torn: “Difficult to answer with one person and without a discussion. For modern science, I would say Archimedes. But the influence of Plato is one of the main reasons for the Copernican revolution. Aristotle was more into biology. Thales was the first, so hard to say,” he wrote. Alan Saed, who opted for Euclid, was more forthright in his opinion: “Aristotle should not be up there in the list at all! He held back scientific progress for more than a millennia.”

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

Double gongs for discoverers of Kuiper belt

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By Margaret Harris

It’s been a good week for the astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu.

On Tuesday, the pair – whose discovery of the Kuiper belt of small, icy objects back in 1992 quickly reshaped our understanding of the outer solar system – learned that they had won this year’s Shaw Prize in Astronomy. This is a pretty big deal. The nine-year-old Shaw prizes are a relatively new kid on the scientific-awards block, but the astronomy prize already has a prestigious track record: previous winners include both last year’s dark-energy Nobel laureates (Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt) and the exoplanet pioneers Geoff Marcy and Michael Mayor. Oh yes, and each Shaw prize is also worth a cool $1m, which is a fair whack even in this age of inflation and economic uncertainty.

hands smll.jpg But Jewitt and Luu’s week wasn’t over yet. Earlier today, Norway’s Kavli Foundation announced that Jewitt and Luu had also won its big astro gong: the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. They’ll share this honour – and its attendant $1m prize pot – with a third astronomer, Michael Brown, who followed up on Jewitt and Luu’s Kuiper-belt observations by discovering some of the region’s largest objects, including the Pluto-sized body known as Eris.

So what happens when you win two major science prizes in a week? I contacted Jewitt and Luu shortly after the prizes were announced, and although neither had much time to talk – “I am not being snooty, it’s just that all the deadlines are converging right now,” Luu explained in an e-mail – Jewitt said it was “very flattering” that two independent prize committees had come to the same decision about their work. Their long and ultimately successful search for objects beyond Neptune’s orbit had, he added, triggered an “explosion” of research into planet formation and the evolution of the outer solar system. For example, subsequent studies of the Kuiper belt have shown that it is the source of most of the comets that pass the Earth, since the proximity of Neptune’s gravitational well alters the trajectory of nearby objects and scatters them into the inner solar system.

As for what the pair plan to do with the prize money, Luu – who began her award-winning work as a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now a technical member of staff at the institute’s Lincoln Laboratory – said that was a tough question, and winning a second prize made it even tougher. However, she added that “it is a good problem to have, so I am certainly not complaining”.

Jewitt, who was Luu’s PhD advisor and is now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, took a slightly more direct view. “Like many people, I’m massively in debt,” he told “The prize[s] might help there, but I haven’t decided yet.”

Five questions for SKA

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An artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array.
(Courtesy: SKA organization/Swinburne Astronomy)

By Michael Banks

After months of political wrangling, a decision finally emerged on Friday afternoon about where the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be built.

SKA is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of about 2000 to 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.

For more than five years, two rival bids have been going head-to-head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

On Friday at a meeting in Amsterdam, the SKA organization opted to split the project between the two hosts, with South Africa building a long-baseline high-resolution telescope and Australia constructing a lower-resolution array but one that can survey a wider field.

Yet, while all this seems like good news – and that was certainly the message from the dozens of press releases that appeared after the announcement – it does throw up some interesting questions.

So here are my five burning questions for SKA officials.

1. Why did the SKA organization not follow the recommendation by the independent SKA Site Advisory Committee that the project would best be built in South Africa?

2. If a split-site option was such a good solution in the first place, why was there not a solid case made for it from the start, thus potentially eliminating the need for a drawn-out site-selection process?

3. When SKA is fully complete, the South Africa bid will get the majority of the antennas – was this just a weak political decision to give the Australian-led bid some part of the project?

4. Is there a risk that SKA now effectively devolves into two separate and thus distinct projects?

5. How much will this decision increase the cost of the SKA project, given the need for more infrastructure to develop two sites; in a time of austerity could this hinder the overall plan?

We will be tackling these questions in detail for an in-depth report in the July issue of Physics World.

If you have any comments, e-mail

Ringed molecule honours sporting event

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By Hamish Johnston

In honour of a certain event in London this summer, researchers at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the University of Warwick in the UK and IBM Research – Zurich have used “clever synthetic chemistry and state-of-the-art imaging techniques” to create a molecule that’s reminiscent of the five rings that symbolize the event.

What have they called it? Olympicene, of course, and it’s already made its way onto the RSC’s chemical database.

“Alongside the scientific challenge involved in creating olympicene in a laboratory, there’s some serious practical reasons for working with molecules like this,” says David Fox of the University of Warwick.

“The compound is related to single-layer graphite, also known as graphene, and is one of a number of related compounds that potentially have interesting electronic and optical properties. For example, these types of molecules may offer great potential for the next generation of solar cells and hi-tech lighting sources such as LEDs,” he says.

The image shown here was obtained by the Physics of Nanoscale Systems Group at IBM Research. It claims to have achieved “unprecedented resolution using a complex technique known as non-contact atomic force microscopy”. A single molecule is just 1.2 nm in width.

By James Dacey

hands smll.jpg

Greece is rarely out of the news these days, but unfortunately that news is almost exclusively focused on the nation’s ongoing economic woes. It is a colossal understatement to say that the country is in a tricky situation right now: either remain in the Eurozone and accept a sustained period of deep austerity; or ditch the Euro and face a period of huge uncertainty while triggering financial shockwaves throughout the rest of Europe.

As the struggle to find a solution continues for the world’s leaders and top economists, I can’t help but wonder what the thinkers of ancient Greece would have made of the current situation. Would Plato or Aristotle have been able to take a break from considering the nature of reality to draw up a solution that benefits all? Or would this kind of affair be too rooted in the mundanities of the everyday world?

In this week’s Facebook poll we are looking back at the brains of ancient Greece by asking you the following question.

Which ancient Greek made the most important contributions to natural philosophy?


Let us know by visiting our Facebook page. And please feel free to explain your response or suggest a different ancient Greek thinker by posting a comment on the Facebook poll.

In last week’s poll we asked “How significant would the discovery of the Higgs boson be?”. The majority of respondents (66%) chose the option that it would answer the most important question in particle physics. 26% of respondents chose the option that there are more important questions in particle physics. And the remaining 9% believe that it would answer the biggest outstanding question in physics.

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

viXra Higgs applet
Make your own Brazil band. (Courtesy: Phillip Gibbs)

By Hamish Johnston

The Large Hadron Collider is up and running at a collision energy of 8 TeV and – barring any disasters – it looks as if it may well give us a mass for the Higgs boson by the end of the year.

But why wait for the official pronouncement from CERN when you can aggregate all the latest measurements yourself using the handy “viXra unofficial Higgs combination Java applet”, which you can download here?

The dashboard-style interface shows you the classic “Brazil band” plot and allows you to fiddle around with how data from different experiments are combined. The default setting is the “unofficial” combination used by viXra blogger Phillip Gibbs, but you can also use the “official” CERN settings, or even choose your own.

Now there’s no need to wait for the man with the beard to tell you when to break out the champagne – you can make that decision yourself.

By Hamish Johnston

Just yesterday we reported that physicists in China had shattered the record for quantum teleportation through free space by sending quantum states 97 km across a lake.

Anton Zeilinger

Now, a different team led by Anton Zeilinger (right) of the University of Vienna has extended this distance to 143 km by teleporting quantum states across the stretch of sea separating two of the Canary Islands. The team claims that its triumph takes the prospect of quantum teleportation to and from satellites one step closer.

Quantum teleportation involves sending a quantum state between two parties – from Alice to Bob – without actually sending a particle in that state. The process involves one quantum channel of communication between the two, along which one half of an entangled pair of photons is sent from Alice to Bob. Also required is a conventional communication channel, through which Alice can send Bob information about a measurement that she has made on a particle in the quantum state that she wants to teleport to Bob. Bob then uses this information to manipulate his entangled photon so that it is in the teleported state.

Zeilinger and co-workers teleported quantum states from La Palma to Tenerife, and to pull it off they had to develop several new technologies including a new source of entangled photon pairs and “ultra-low-noise” single-photon detectors. Timing also proved to be a challenge, because the 10 ns uncertainty in GPS timing signals was not good enough to achieve the teleportation. Instead, the team had to develop a new “entanglement-assisted clock synchronization” technique that relies on the detection of the entangled photons by Alice and Bob.

Beyond the technical challenges, the team say it had to contend with “exceptionally bad weather conditions” from May to July 2011 when the experiment was done, which included everything from sandstorms to snow.

The fact the team was able to overcome these technical and meteorological challenges bodes well for the ultimate goal of the research – the ability to teleport quantum states back and forth to satellites in low Earth orbits (LEOs). Although most LEO satellites are positioned about three times the distance between Tenerife and La Palma, the atmosphere is much thinner – and therefore much less disruptive – for most of that distance. As a result, teleportation to a satellite might actually be easier than sending photons across a stretch of sea.

This latest result is described in a preprint on the arXiv server.

By James Dacey

hands smll.jpg

His eponymous particle may be famously elusive, but Peter Higgs has been seemingly omnipresent in Bristol over the past couple of days. He has spent today at Physics World headquarters, having appeared last night at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, and he has just shot off to the University of Bristol to meet with academics and give a special colloquium. Last night he also managed to squeeze in an appearance on the local news programme BBC Points West, which documented Higgs returning to Cotham School, where he was a pupil for five years. You can read full details of Higgs’ Bristol trip in this blog entry by Physics World editor Matin Durrani, who spent time with Higgs today to record an interview that will be appearing on

In Higgs’ talk last night, he was joined on stage by the science editor of the Observer, Robin McKie, and naturally the questions turned to the particle that now bears his name. When asked about how he came up with his boson, Higgs lived up to his famous modesty, explaining how the idea had emerged without grand designs from his work on a problem relating to superconductivity. He seemed slightly embarrassed that the particle has been named after him when there were several other theorists working on the same issues.

Higgs was also humble when questioned about how he felt about the vast investments that have been made in constructing particle accelerators to hunt (in part) for the fruit of his work. When asked by a member of the audience whether he would celebrate the discovery of his boson, Higgs replied in his typically understated manner that he has a bottle of champagne left over from Christmas, but he that he hadn’t yet “put it in the fridge”.

In this week’s Facebook poll we want to know how you feel about the hunt for the Higgs boson.

How significant would the discovery of the Higgs boson be?

It would answer the biggest outstanding question in physics
It would answer the most important question in particle physics
There are other more important questions in particle physics

Let us know by visiting our Facebook page. And please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment on the Facebook poll.

In last week’s poll we asked “What is your primary source of online physics news?”. 78% of respondents said they get the majority of their updates from specialist news sites. 9% said they rely on general news sites. 6% use social media, another 6% rely on blogs, and just 1% get their news via Internet radio and podcasts.

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

Higgs spotted in Bristol

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Peter Higgs
(Courtesy: Dirk Dahmer)

By Matin Durrani

It’s been a hectic few days for 82-year-old Peter Higgs.

The retired Edinburgh University particle theorist, after whom the famous boson is named, has been in Bristol for the last two days undertaking a series of public engagements.

First up was a visit yesterday to Cotham School, where Higgs was a pupil for five years during the Second World War when his father – a BBC engineer – was posted to the city. Higgs is in fact not the only great physicist the school has produced – the other stellar pupil was Paul Dirac, whose name the young Higgs used to see displayed prominently on the school’s honours boards. Higgs, who was back at the school for the first time since the war, signed autographs as he opened a new science block, appropriately named The Dirac–Higgs Science Centre, accompanied by the media.

In the evening, the self-effacing Higgs then took part in an event at St George’s Bristol that was part of the city’s Festival of Ideas. In front of an audience of several hundred people, he was joined on stage by Graham Farmelo, author of the award-winning Dirac biography The Strangest Man, who outlined Dirac’s achievements and his links with Bristol. Higgs then took part in a conversation with Observer science editor Robin McKie, who asked him, among other things, how he would celebrate if the Higgs boson is found. To much amusement, Higgs replied that he had “a leftover bottle of champagne from Christmas” but that he hadn’t yet “put it in the fridge”.

Today, Higgs paid a visit to IOP Publishing, where I interviewed him for Physics World. Inspired by questions posted by readers on our Facebook page and sent to us via Twitter, I quizzed Higgs about his early work on symmetry breaking, his thoughts about the search for the Higgs at CERN and his wider views on physics. We’ll be posting the interview online in the next month or two, so stay tuned for that.

Higgs still remains embarrassed at having a particle named after him, feeling that it places too much of the credit on him at the expense of other theorists. But during our interview, even he on occasion dropped the “so-called” from the “so-called Higgs boson”, the “so-called Higgs field” and the “so-called Higgs mechanism”. It just gets tiring after a while, I suppose.

As I write, the indefatigable Higgs is off to give a colloquium in the main lecture theatre at the physics department at the University of Bristol, entitled “My life as a boson”. Over lunch I asked Higgs if that wouldn’t be the perfect title for his autobiography. Self-effacing as ever, Higgs replied that, when it came to writing books, he was simply “too lazy”. So if you want to hear more about his life, you’ll have to wait for the Physics World interview.

By Hamish Johnston
First predicted in 2005 and confirmed in the lab in 2007, topological insulators (TI) are perhaps the hottest material in condensed-matter physics these days. As well as constituting a new phase of quantum matter that should keep physicists busy for some time, the material has recently been shown to harbour quasiparticles resembling Majorana fermions. First predicted by the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana in 1937, such particles could be used to store and transmit quantum information without being perturbed by the outside world. As such, they could find use in the quantum computers of the future.

curtarolo.jpg It’s not surprising that scientists worldwide are working hard to discover and study new variants of TIs. However, researchers at Duke University in the US believe that, until now, discoveries have been based on trial and error.

To encourage a more systematic approach, Stefano Curtarolo (right) and colleagues have created a “master ingredient list” that describes the properties of more than 2000 compounds that could be combined to make TIs. The clever bit of the work is a mathematical formulation that helps database users search for potential TIs that are predicted to have certain desirable properties.

The system is based on Duke’s Materials Genome Repository, which has already been used to develop both scintillating and thermoelectric materials.

According to Curtarolo, the system gives practical advice about the expected properties of a candidate material – for example, whether it will be extremely fragile or robust.

Commenting on the fragile materials, Curtarolo says “We can rule those combinations out because what good is a new type of crystal if it would be too difficult to grow, or if grown, would not likely survive?”

The research is also described in a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology.

Physics in 100 seconds

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Ready, steady, GO!

James Dacey

“What is dark matter?…you’ve got up to 100 seconds to answer…your time starts…NOW!”

This was the challenge facing Luke Davies (above) during a day of filming at the University of Bristol, where academics were asked to give super-condensed lectures on some of the biggest questions in physics. Participants at this UK university were armed with nothing more than a whiteboard and a couple of marker pens. And just to make the experience that bit more thrilling/nerve-racking, speakers were faced with a countdown alarm that sounded once their time was up.

The idea is to compile a series of short films for that will provide introductions to topics across the whole spectrum of physics and its related disciplines. Films are presented by various physicists and cover everything from antimatter to fracking to black holes. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the presentation about recognizing penguins in a crowd. From behind the camera, I certainly learned an awful lot about an awful lot!

The scientists appeared to get a lot from the day too. Several of them commented about what a vast departure it was from their usual experiences of presenting: standing in front of students and lecturing for an hour or so. Clearly 100 seconds is not very much time to explain topics as complex and detailed as dark energy or the Higgs boson, but everybody rose to the challenge and it was fascinating to observe the different styles that people adopted.

These films will be appearing on over the coming weeks.

By James Dacey

These days, pretty much every major newspaper, science magazine or broadcaster has an associated website and these sites almost always provide the breaking news stories before their printed counterparts. In addition, the Internet is awash with blogs, podcasts and social-media sites, where it is often the scientists themselves who are first break new developments to the outside world.

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When it comes to slightly longer news and analysis articles, just a few years ago printed media was still the first choice for most people, as reading at length from an antiquated screen could leave you with serious eyesore. What’s more, busy people on the go didn’t always have immediate access to a computer or an Internet connection to access their chosen news websites. Today the situation is different. Screens have improved and the proliferation of Internet connectivity, combined with the advent of smartphones and tablets, means that many people can access many forms of news, at any time, nearly anywhere.

We want to know where you get most of your updates when it comes to physics news. Let us know via this week’s Facebook poll.

What is your primary source of online physics news?

General news sites
Specialist media sites
Social media
Internet radio/podcasts

To share your online habits, please visit our Facebook page. And, if you get the majority of your physics news from a different source, then please let us know what that is by posting a comment on the Facebook poll.

In last week’s poll we were interested to know how you see astronomy in relation to physics. We asked “Do you consider astronomy to be a distinct academic discipline from physics?”

The results are in and 70% of you think that astronomy is not a distinct academic discipline from physics.

Michael Danielides voted with the majority and commented that an astrophysics lecturer once told him that astronomy and astrophysics were both branches of theoretical physics, “because you can’t interfere with the ongoing experiment”.

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

Share your astrophotography

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Courtesy: Nose in a book, via Flickr

By James Dacey

To tie in with next month’s transit of Venus, in which our sister planet passes across the face of the Sun, we want you to submit your astronomy photos to our Flickr group. The images could be of star trails, the Moon, meteor showers, the night skies – or, even better, of the transit of Venus itself, which will occur on 5/6 June.

To take part please submit photos to our Flickr group by Saturday 16 June, after which we will choose a selection of our favourite images to be showcased on

Please also feel free to include a caption to explain your photo. You may have photographed a rare astronomical event, or perhaps you travelled to a remote location in search of clear skies.

In our previous photo challenge, we asked readers to submit images on the theme of “doing physics”. We had some great submissions, which conveyed the excitement of new physics in the making, with both theorists and experimentalists featuring. You can see a selection of these photos in this showcase.

Exoplanet burning bright…

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55 Cancri e

An artist’s impression of the 55 Cancri system, with 55 Cancri e nearly lost
in the glare of its star. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Tushna Commissariat

Exoplanetary scientists will rejoice to hear that NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has managed to detect and analyse the tiny amount of infrared light that comes directly from a super-Earth exoplanet for the first time. About a few dozen super-Earths – planets that are 2–10 times more massive than the Earth – have been officially detected and countless other possible candidates have been found.

The exoplanet in question – known as 55 Cancri e – belongs to the 55 Cancri star-system, which is a measly 41 light-years away from the Earth – a small distance by astronomical scales. Indeed, 55 Cancri is so bright and close that it can be seen with the naked eye on a clear, dark night. The system is known to have five planets, with 55 Cancri e being the closest to its parent star. The planet is about eight times more massive than the Earth, completes its orbit in a dizzying 18 h – the shortest orbit known for an exoplanet – and is tidally locked, so one side always faces the star.

Previous studies of the planet revealed that 55 Cancri e is an extreme exoplanet with a rocky core surrounded by a layer of water in a “supercritical” state – the water is heated to such a degree that it is somewhere in-between a liquid and a gas – and topped off by a blanket of steam. In the new study, Spitzer measured the amount of infrared light that comes from the planet itself by looking at the slight dip in total light intensity when the planet undergoes an occultation – that is, when it circles behind the face of its parent star. When viewed in infrared, the planet is brighter relative to its star as its scorching surface heat blazes in the infrared end of the spectrum. This information reveals the temperature of a planet and, in some cases, its atmospheric components. Most other current planet-hunting methods obtain indirect measurements of a planet by observing its effects on the star’s light. In this case, the data revealed that the star-facing side of the exoplanet is more than 2000 K – hot enough to melt metal.

“Spitzer has amazed us yet again,” says Bill Danchi, who works on the Spitzer programme in Washington, DC. “The spacecraft is pioneering the study of atmospheres of distant planets and paving the way for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to apply a similar technique to potentially habitable planets.”

Particle physicist sentenced for terror plot

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By James Dacey

The BBC is reporting that the physicist Adlène Hicheur has been sentenced by a French court to five years in prison.

Hicheur, a 35-year-old French-Algerian, was arrested by French police on 8 October 2009 on suspicion of having links with the organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Until his arrest, Hicheur was a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and worked on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

During his time in custody, Hicheur had received support from some members of the physics community. In November 2010 the Nobel laureate Jack Steinberger and 18 other physicists wrote to the French Physical Society about their concerns over the continued imprisonment of Hicheur without charge. Hicheur also received support from an “international defence committee”, consisting of about 100 scientists, which wrote to French authorities including the French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

In January 2011 the Swiss authorities announced they would be closing the case into the actions of Hicheur. But the French authorities did not follow suit, and French pre-emptive anti-terrorism laws dictate that any person can be held in prison for up to two and a half years without charge.

According to the BBC article, today’s guilty verdict is based on police-intercepted e-mails from Hicheur to an alleged contact in al-Qaeda. The e-mails apparently suggest that Hicheur was willing to be part of an “active terrorist unit”, attacking targets in France.

Michael Dittmar, a researcher based at ETH Zurich and CERN who had written an article in support of Hicheur in the May 2011 issue of Physics World, expressed his surprise at the verdict. “I just heard it in shock,” he told

Dittmar said that he did not want to comment directly on the verdict, having not seen the e-mail exchanges. He did, however, restate his criticism of the French legal system. “It is totally unacceptable to put someone in prison for 2.5 years without charge, to allow the leak of some info to the media about the reasons, resulting in increased fears within society, and all this most likely for some political interests.”

University of Exeter researchers

University of Exeter researchers Saverio Russo and Monica Craciun.
(Courtesy: University of Exeter)

By Tushna Commissariat

Here at Physics World, the word graphene gets used a lot. You might find that simply saying the word “graphene” elicits a groan from most of the editorial team. But this is usually followed quite swiftly by a fair amount of interest, because it’s undeniable that graphene is some kind of “wonder material” with a seemingly endless list of bizarre properties and applications. Along with the plethora of potential applications for graphene comes an interesting array of names for graphene-based materials. When our news editor Michael Banks heard that scientists in Spain had created an acoustic analogue for graphene, he dubbed it “graphone” – a name that has a certain resonance to it!

But it seems that researchers at the UK’s University of Exeter really ran out of suitable graphene-related names recently as they have decided to call their new graphene-based material “GraphExeter”. According to the researchers, GraphExeter is the most transparent, lightweight and flexible version of graphene that is also an excellent at conducting electricity, and so “could revolutionize the creation of wearable electronic devices, such as clothing containing computers, phones and MP3 players”.

The researchers created GraphExeter by sandwiching molecules of ferric chloride between two layers of graphene. Ferric chloride enhances the electrical conductivity of graphene without affecting the material’s transparency. The researchers say it is also much more flexible than indium tin oxide (ITO), the main conductive material currently used in electronics. As ITO is used so extensively, it is expensive and resources are expected to run out by 2017. The research is published in the journal Advanced Materials here.

Lead researcher Monica Craciun says “GraphExeter could revolutionize the electronics industry. It outperforms any other carbon-based transparent conductor used in electronics and could be used for a range of applications, from solar panels to ‘smart’ T-shirts. We are very excited about the potential of this material and look forward to seeing where it can take the electronics industry in the future.”

According to a University of Exeter press release, the researchers are “now developing a spray-on version of GraphExeter, which could be applied straight onto fabrics, mirrors and windows”. While the applications of GraphExeter may be varied and interesting, the researchers might have to come up with a slightly more user-friendly name for their new material if they intend to use it in a T-shirt venture!

By James Dacey

In his editorial article in the May edition of Physics World, Matin Durrani writes about the various “trump cards” that astronomy has over some of the more esoteric areas of physics. He refers to the stunning pictures, the strong amateur involvement via citizen-science projects and the fact that getting your head around the basics of the subject is usually fairly painless.

hands smll.jpg The theme was inspired by the upcoming transit of Venus, a spectacular astronomical event on 5–6 June that will see our sister planet cross the face of the Sun as viewed from the Earth. Given that this transit will not occur again until 2117, excitement ahead of the event is building among scientists and the media alike. And this highlights another of astronomy’s trump cards: the predictability of such events allows the community to publicize and plan for the occasions long before they occur. The same could not be said, for instance, about the discovery of the next quasiparticle or the formulation of the latest incarnation of string theory.

Most would agree that astronomy does have some unique selling points. Some, however, might push this distinction even further and argue that astronomy is a separate discipline from physics altogether. The argument is that physics is a science concerned with the pursuit of general theories, applicable across the entire universe, that can be tested against empirical observations. Astronomy could be considered to be less fundamental in this respect, being a largely observational discipline.

But what do you think? Let us know via this week’s Facebook poll:

Do you consider astronomy to be a distinct academic discipline from physics?

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. And feel free to post a comment to explain your choice or offer a different comparison between physics and astronomy.

In last week’s poll we acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the UK in space by asking the you who you thought was most likely to reach the next significant milestone in manned space exploration. The majority of voters believe that the future of manned space travel will play out in a different way to how it all began in the 1960s as a two-horse race between the US and the USSR. Some 46% of voters believe that “an emerging space nation such as China or India” will reach the next significant milestone. Another 20% believe that it will be an international collaboration. 16% think it will be a private company, 12% believe it will be the US and just 6% believe it will be Russia.

In addition to votes, the poll also attracted some interesting comments on our Facebook page. Owen Marshall, for instance, believes that the space race never stopped – it has just attracted some speedy new contenders. “While I think that an emerging nation will hit the next significant milestone in space exploration, I also believe that such an event will be a wake-up call to other nations such as the US and Russia, and that they will follow closely,” he wrote.

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

By Hamish Johnston

The Institute of Physics and Picnic Films have bagged a gong at this year’s Learning on Screen Awards for making four short films about the career opportunities open to those with qualifications in physics. The award was given for best video in the “General Education Non Broadcast” category.

Each clip lasts about 6 min and topics covered include how ultrasound is used at Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club and how the laws of physics are applied to the creation of video games. The other two videos look at how physics can be applied to solar energy and architecture.

The clips are aimed at 14–16 year olds who are working towards their GCSE qualification in physics. By capturing the imagination of British teenagers, the Institute of Physics hopes that the films will encourage more people to choose to study physics at a higher level and ultimately choose a career in physics.

You can watch the video on solar energy above and the rest of the clips can be found here.

The May 2012 issue of Physics World is out now

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By Matin Durrani


When it comes to scientific events that can get the whole world thrilled – researchers and non-scientists alike – astronomy wins hands down. Eclipses, comets or meteor showers, for example, are rare enough to get anyone with even a passing interest in science excited. But for true once-in-a-lifetime astronomical events, nothing can beat next month’s transit of Venus, in which our sister planet passes across the face of the Sun as viewed from Earth.

Transits of Venus occur in pairs eight years apart, with each pair separated by gaps of more than a century. The last transit occurred in 2004, meaning that the upcoming transit on 5–6 June will almost certainly be your only chance to see this rare astronomical alignment, as it will not occur again until 2117. For more on the science and history of this astronomical spectacular, don’t miss the fantastic feature “Venus: it’s now or never” by one of the world’s leading transit experts, Jay Pasachoff.

You can read the article here but to enjoy the article and images in all their glory, check out the May 2012 issue of Physics World. 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, both 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. To whet your appetite still further, here’s a quick summary of what else is in the new issue. And remember, let me know what you think of any of the topics by e-mailing me at

Atmospheric tales – Robert P Crease reveals why the discovery of Venus’s atmosphere is still so controversial.

Quantum technologies: an old new story – Technologies based on the
properties of quantum mechanics have been around for many years, but Iulia Georgescu
and Franco Nori argue that we need a new definition for “quantum technologies”.

Japan’s X-ray vision for the future – With the world’s first “compact” X-ray free-electron laser having opened its doors to users in March, Michael Banks travels to the remote SACLA facility in the mountains of western Japan to find out more about this ambitious new project.

Fukushima fallout – Steven Judge and Hiroyuki Kuwahara report on efforts to monitor radioactive contamination in areas near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi reactor.

Defeating diffraction – Once thought to offer imaging at unlimited resolution beyond that permitted by diffraction, superlenses never quite worked in practice. Now, physicists have a host of other ideas to make perfect images, but can these concepts succeed where superlenses failed? Jon Cartwright reports.

Playing the game – Catherine Goode describes how a degree in physics and a childhood passion for computer and video games led her to a career in game design.

Towards a Standard Model of finance – Andrew Aus looks at links between physics and finance in this month’s Lateral Thoughts column.

By Hamish Johnston

Apologies to our many Canadian readers, because this blog entry is not about that kind of curling – you can read about the physics of the winter sport here.

spring.jpg Instead, I’m blogging about how things like hair, plant tendrils and even red blood cells curl and uncurl. Despite these processes being all around us, it turns out that physicists have a relatively poor understanding of the dynamics of curling.

That’s why Andrew Callan-Jones of the University of Montpellier, France, and colleagues at the University of Paris have made a theoretical and experimental study of how a steel strip curls.

The experiment begins with a piece of steel that is 635 mm long, 9.5 mm wide and 0.13 mm thick. The strip is in a naturally curled state and is secured to a flat surface at one end. The strip is then flattened onto the surface and released so that it curls up again – a process that takes about 30 ms. The curling is captured by a fast camera at a rate of 7000 frames per second (above right).

The photographs reveal that the process begins at the free end of the strip, which lifts up and then bends over to complete the first few loops of the spiral. Then, a circular “spool” forms and some of the strip wraps tightly around this structure. Finally, the last few loops of the curl are wrapped very loosely round the spool.

One interesting observation by the team is that the radius of curvature of the spool is about twice that of the natural radius of curvature of the strip itself. This is illustrated by the fact that the free end of the strip forms a tighter curve inside the spool, with a radius of curvature that matches the material itself.

The physicists believe that the tight spool is formed as the curl spins rapidly – and this affects the radial forces that define the size of the spool.

This behaviour was successfully described by a mathematical model created by the team. These insights were then incorporated into a computer simulation of how a much longer strip would curl. This identified a third structure that emerges towards the end of the curling process – a large loosely wound region.

The researchers are now applying their new-found knowledge of curling to the bursting of red blood cells – which is caused by certain nasty bacteria and involves the curling back of the cell membrane.

The research is described in Physical Review Letters 108 174302 and you can find the paper here.