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December 2012 Archives

Season’s greetings

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By Hamish Johnston

Photograph of NGC 5189

A giant and brightly coloured ribbon in space. (Courtesy: NASA/ESA Hubble)

It’s a bleak mid-winter day here in Bristol – dark clouds are racing across the sky and the rain is pouring down. That can only mean one thing…it’s Christmas!

Things are winding down at Physics World and we are all looking forward to a well-earned break. But don’t fret, there’s plenty here to keep you amused over the holiday season – including this fantastic image from the Hubble Space Telescope of the planetary nebula NGC 5189. This has been chosen by the Hubble team as its Christmas image because “the intricate structure of the stellar eruption looks like a giant and brightly coloured ribbon in space”.

Here on Earth, groups of physicists across the globe are celebrating their inclusion in Physics World’s Top 10 breakthroughs of 2012. This year’s top slot is shared by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations at CERN for their discovery of a Higgs-like particle at the Large Hadron Collider. You can read about the Higgs and the rest of our top 10 choices here.

Christmas is a great time to settle into your favourite chair with a good book. To inspire your holiday reading, we’ve put together a podcast in which Physics World editors discuss the merits of our Book of the Year and several shortlisted titles.

Our choice of Book of the Year is How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser, who tells the story of a group of physicists who in the 1960s and 1970s shared an interest in quantum weirdness and psychedelic drugs.

As a loyal reader, you can test your knowledge of this year’s physics events as reported in Physics World by taking our online quiz.

You can also enjoy a selection of the most stunning pictures of 2012, our favourite multimedia productions and a collection of quirky blog entries.

Finally, our prescient leader Matin Durrani has peered into his quasicrystal ball to share his predictions for 2013 with one and all.

See you all in the new year, and thanks for your dedicated interest throughout 2012.

Best of the blog 2012

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By Michael Banks

From determining the “equation of state” of a ponytail to a zombie film shot at CERN, the world of physics has had its fair share of bizarre stories this year. Here is our pick of the best from the blog.

Physicists ponder flowering masonry

Photograph of efflorescence

Efflorescence on a masonry wall (Courtesy: Mattes)

One thing you can say about most houses is that they are solid – built from bricks or cement blocks. But there is a downside to such solid construction. Masonry – and older bricks in particular – tend to suck-up moisture from the ground. One symptom of rising damp is efflorescence (or “flowering out”), which refers to crystals of salts that grow out from the surface of masonry as the damp evaporates into the air. However, rather than emerging as a uniform coating of salt, the crystals tend to appear in clumps – but exactly why remained a mystery. That was until February when Marc Prat and colleagues at the University of Toulouse, France, performed experiments and computer simulations suggesting that salt flowers form where “efficient pathways” emerge at the surface. Once a crystal is established on the surface, its presence increases the flow of water through that particular pathway, further depriving surrounding less-efficient pathways of liquid. The result is regions with large crystals, and other regions with no salt. Mystery solved.

Fringe science

Physicists in the UK took the whole concept of “fringe science” to a new level in February by studying that hairstyle of choice for men and women of a certain disposition – the ponytail. Raymond Goldstein of the University of Cambridge, Robin Ball of the University of Warwick and Patrick Warren from shampoo-maker Unilever claim that the shape of a ponytail is defined by a competition between gravity, the elasticity of individual hairs and their mutual interactions (Phys. Rev. Lett. 108 078101). And because a ponytail can contain as many as 100,000 hairs, the problem is best addressed using statistical physics. The researchers even derived an “equation of state” for a ponytail that includes what they dub a “Rapunzel number” – a dimensionless measure of ponytail length. The equation was then used to predict how the shape of a ponytail varies with length, with a real ponytail requiring an additional term that reflects hair getting frizzier as it grows longer.

Unravelling the physics of curling


The physics of hair didn’t stop there. In May Andrew Callan-Jones of the University of Montpellier, France, and colleagues at the University of Paris made a theoretical and experimental study of how things such as 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. Callan-Jones and colleagues studied how a steel strip curls by taking images – at a rate of 7000 frames per second – as it does so. The behaviour was successfully described by a mathematical model created by the team and then incorporated into a computer simulation. The researchers even applied 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 graphene name game

University of Exeter researchers

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

A day rarely goes by here at HQ when the word graphene is not mentioned; after all, it is the “wonder material”, with a seemingly endless list of bizarre properties and a plethora of potential applications. But it seems that researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK ran out of suitable, and indeed imaginative, names when describing their new graphene-based material. In May the researchers, led by physicist Monica Craciun, claimed to have created the most transparent, lightweight and flexible version of graphene yet by sandwiching molecules of ferric chloride between two layers of graphene (Adv. Mat. 10.1002/adma.201200489). So what did they call their exciting new material? Behold “GraphExeter”. “[The name] clearly delivers two key messages: the material is based on graphene and it was synthesized and characterized at Exeter,” Craciun told She also rejected suggestions from “some Internet blogs” for the slimmed-down “GraphEx”.

A ringing endorsement


In what seemed like an impeccably well timed research finding, researchers at the Royal Society of Chemistry, the University of Warwick in the UK and IBM Research in Zurich released an image in late May of a new molecule they had synthesized that had an uncanny likeness to the five rings reminiscent of an event that happened in London this summer (no prizes for guessing which one). Given the resemblance, the press were all over it: “Scientists create smallest ever version of Olympics logo” screamed a headline in the Daily Mail. However, the team, led by David Fox from Warwick, had already synthesized the compound, which is dubbed Olympicene and has the chemical formula C19H12, back in 2011. What the researchers did that was new was to make an image of Olympicene with the help of an atomic force microscope at the IBM labs. The researchers are still yet to hear from the International Olympic Committee given how protective they can be of their image rights.

The lightest material in the world


(Courtesy: TUHH)

In July two teams of researchers from Kiel University and Hamburg University of Technology, both in Germany, fabricated a material they claim to be the lightest in the world. Dubbed Aerographite, it is a 3D network of porous carbon nanotubes and weighs only 0.2 mg per cubic centimetre, making it 75 times lighter than Styrofoam. Most lightweight materials can easily be compressed but become weak when exposed to large amounts of stress. Aerographite, however, actually becomes stronger. Aerographite weighs four times less than the hitherto lightest material in the world – a nickel material that was revealed only six months ago. The researchers say that aerographite could have innumerable applications – it could be used to make lightweight lithium-ion batteries, to build satellites and even in water-purification systems.

Giving physics some soul

It seems that Fermilab physicist Dan Hooper finally hit the big time this year. Not for his latest theory on the Higgs boson or dark matter but rather through his involvement in a band called the Congregation. Guitarist Hooper formed the band around three years ago and it now consists of a drummer, bassist, singer, hornist and keyboard player. On 9 August the 1960s-style soul band opened a joint gig by US rock bands Garbage and the Flaming Lips in Madison, Wisconsin. Not resting on their laurels, band members released a new album in September. Hooper, who goes by the stage name Charlie Wayne and also writes the band’s lyrics, says that they steer clear of anything physics-related as well as any rock-band antics. “We don’t do a lot of smashing guitars and such anymore,” Hooper told

Zombies in the machine

A group of PhD students have made a feature-length zombie film at the CERN particle-physics lab. Called Decay, the 75 min film follows a group of students – played by actual physicists – who are desperately trying to escape the lab while being pursued by a bunch of bloodthirsty maintenance workers who have turned into zombies after exposure to the newly discovered Higgs boson. Writer and director Luke Thompson, a PhD student at the University of Manchester in the UK, came up with the idea back in 2010. Armed with a budget of just £2000 of his own cash but with no previous experience in film-making, he assembled a cast and crew of 20 who have spent the past two years filming in basement level tunnels at CERN, which he says have a “dark, creepy atmosphere”. The film has not been authorized or endorsed by CERN, but Thompson says the lab has a “relaxed attitude” towards the project, seeing the “fun side of it”.

Take a chance on Turing

Alan Turing Monopoly board

(Courtesy: Bletchley Park/Winning Moves)

And finally, for those of you looking for a last-minute Christmas present, how about the Alan Turing Monopoly board? Centred around the life of the mathematician and computer scientist who played a key role at the UK government’s Bletchley Park estate in deciphering German army messages during the Second World War, Alan Turing Monopoly costs a bargain £29.99. The new board is based on one housed in the Bletchley Park Museum that was hand-drawn in 1950 by William Newman – the son of Turing’s Bletchley Park mentor Max Newman. All the banknotes in the new version feature Turing’s face and instead of the usual London, Berlin or Atlantic City haunts occupying the squares, the board features locations that had an important part in Turing’s life such as Kings College, Cambridge. The special edition also includes a copy of the original hand-drawn board, complete with Newman’s own rules, as well as historical references for all the places mentioned.

You can be sure of more quirky stories from the world of physics next year. See you in 2013!

By James Dacey

Facebook poll

Today, Physics World unveiled its Breakthrough of the Year and you may not be entirely surprised to learn that the award has gone to the ATLAS and CMS collaborations at CERN for their joint discovery of a Higgs-like particle at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). You can read about our choice in this article.

A predictable result? Yes, clearly. But part of our mission at Physics World is to take a bird’s-eye view of physics, covering all areas of the field: the big and the small, the theoretical and the applied. From our perspective, it appears that the most significant and dramatic developments in physics this year have taken place at the LHC.

But what do you think? All signs so far suggest that the particle discovered at the LHC is a Higgs boson with the properties described by the Standard Model of particle physics. If this is the case, then should we view this as a “physics breakthrough” at all? Would it not have brought a significantly greater advance in our understanding of the physical world had the Higgs not showed up at the LHC? Perhaps we should look at the LHC as more of an engineering triumph – for building a machine so complex and precise that appears to have verified some brilliant physics that was mooted more than half a century ago.

One could also argue that CERN is getting a heck of a lot of credit for something that would not have been possible without the excellent work that was done at Fermilab’s now-retired Tevatron accelerator.

As with many awards, there is naturally an element of subjectivity in its judging, and it is always difficult to single out winning individuals and groups above others. There were plenty of other significant physics breakthroughs this year, which we have recognized as highly commended. Perhaps you feel one of these should have pipped the Higgs discovery to the top spot? Let us know what you think by taking part in last Facebook poll of the year:

Is the discovery of a Higgs-like particle the physics breakthrough of 2012?

No (please suggest an alternative in a comment)

To place your vote, visit our Facebook page.

By Hamish Johnston

What a year it’s been for physics, and here at Physics World we are busy preparing our bumper crop of year-end features that cast an eye back over the past 12 months.

Our celebration of 2012 kicks-off tomorrow at 11.00 a.m. with the announcement of the prestigious Physics World award for Breakthough of the Year. In addition to revealing the winner, we will also be citing nine other highly commended research projects that hit the headlines this year.

Next week, Physics World’s multimedia editor James Dacey will presenting his five favourite multimedia productions from 2012.

Reviews and careers editor Margaret Harris will be revealing the Physics World Book of the Year. Part of the fanfare will include a podcast in which Margaret and other Physics World colleagues enjoy a lively discussion about the merits of this year’s best books.

News editor Michael Banks and reporter Tushna Commissariat are also chipping in, with their picks for the best blog entries of the year and best pictures of the year, respectively.

And don’t miss Physics World editor Matin Durrani peering into his crystal ball to make some predictions for physics in 2013.

By James Dacey

Facebook poll

Dark matter, dark energy and telescopes are not necessarily themes that you would expect to feature heavily in a short film about love. But they do in a new short film called The Theory of Everything that captures a romantic episode between two researchers working at a fictional observatory in Chile.

The film is described in this blog entry by my colleague Matin Durrani, who attended the film’s première in London. Matin quite enjoyed the film. I’ve got to say that I found the result slightly too far towards gorgonzola on the cheese scale – right from the opening scene where you see the observatory is called “Querido”, which roughly translates as “darling”. But I do really love the concept of the film and it got me thinking about different locations Hollywood filmmakers might consider when shooting their next feature-length movie. Can you imagine a rom-com set at CERN, for instance? Or a long, tension-filled love affair filmed at a big physics conference like the MRS March meeting?

What do you think? Let us know by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll.

Which physics setting would be the best for a Hollywood movie about love?

A particle-accelerator facility
A physics conference
An observatory atop a remote mountain
The International Space Station
A university research laboratory
Another location (please suggest by posting a comment)

To place your vote, visit our Facebook page.

In last week’s poll we asked you to pick which book you think should be Physics World’s Book of the Year for 2012, presenting you with our shortlist of 10. The book that came out on top with 50% of votes was How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser. We’ll announce Physics World’s choice of Book of the Year on 18 December, when our regular books podcast is released on

By Matin Durrani


The latest Physics World special report, which examines the challenges for physicists in India, is ready for you to read online now.

The report contains a great mix of news, features and opinion, including a look at the work carried out a top research centres such as the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Raman Research Institute.

It also has a great podcast on “India’s physics rebels” – the students who resist the pressure to study engineering and let their passion for physics burn instead.

For the record, here’s a list of the main articles in the report.

Welcome to science city – Why is Bangalore home to so many top science institutes?

Igniting a passion for physics among India’s top students – What the Indian government is doing to get more students turned on to science

New horizons for the Tata institute – How one of Mumbai’s leading research centres has ambitious plans to expand into Hyderabad

Speaking up for women – An interview with Shobhana Narasimhan from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore

India sticks to the thorium trail – Why thorium is still so central to India’s energy plans

India sets its sight on Mars – Opinions are still divided over the country’s bold Martian plans

Digging deep for neutrinos – A look at India’s ambitious plans for a huge underground neutrino detector

Uniting Indian astronomy – An interview with Ajit Kembhavi from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune

Delivering on a promise – Shiraz Minwalla from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research says that India must urgently reform its education system.

The report reveals that money for India’s top physicists is thankfully not in short supply, but what India currently lacks is a critical concentration of highly capable scientists who can make the country a world leader in research and boost its innovation.

I hope you enjoy reading the report – and do let me have your comments by e-mailing

Love and physics on film

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By Matin Durrani

I wrote last week about the imminent launch of a new five-minute online film about particle physics, cosmology and love called The Theory of Everything.

I’d been to the launch in Covent Garden and quite liked the film, but some of my colleagues groaned that it sounded incredibly cheesy and that I might have been brainwashed in my judgement by meeting the cast and crew at the premiere.

Well, the film has just been released on YouTube so it’s now time for you to judge for yourself.

The company that made the film also has a Facebook competition to win a trip to see the Northern Lights.

By the way, the film wasn’t really filmed in Chile as the video suggests, but at an observatory in Mill Hill in London.