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Hamish Johnston: November 2008 Archives

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Simulation of a treble beam splitter by Xiaofei Xu et al
By Hamish Johnston

Our very own New Journal of Physics has just published a special issue on cloaking and transformation optics — a subject dear to our hearts here on physicsworld.com.

The first article in issue — by cloaking wizards Ulf Leonhardt and David Smith — begins with a quote from the late Arthur C Clarke that sums the field up nicely. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

So, what kind of magic has been unveiled in the (virtual) pages of this special issue?

By Hamish Johnston

A report released yesterday by a group of US scientists including representatives of the American Physical Society urges president elect Obama to follow a “dual-track nuclear arms control and refurbishment/updating policy”.

This, says the report, is in line with Obama’s “vision of a nuclear-free world, and the continuing need to have a credible US deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist”.

Although this “I’ll drop mine when you drop yours” approach makes as much moral sense as mutually assured destruction, the pragmatist in me knows the best we can hope for is that the US and others refrain from developing any new weapons — something the report calls for. And of course, pray that no-one (government, terrorist or otherwise) is demented enough to actually use one.

On more cheery notes, the report urges Obama to address the challenge of boosting global reliance on nuclear energy while controlling the risks of weapons proliferation.

The report also calls for the US and Russia to come to a new agreement on the simultaneous reduction of their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

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Anton Zeilinger being interviewed in London

By Hamish Johnston

First it was Einstein and Eddington, then Leon Lederman …now, it’s Anton Zeilinger’s turn to hit the silver screen — or at least your computer screen.

Zeilinger was in London earlier this year to accept the inaugural Isaac Newton Medal from the Insititute of Physics .

He also delivered the 2008 Isaac Newton Lecture, which was recorded and can now be viewed on the IOP’s website.

Zeilinger, who is at the University of Vienna spoke on “Quantum Information and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics”. You can also view an interview with the medal-winner on the website.

Our physics on film series continues shortly when Margaret Harris reveals whether her universe will ever be the same after BLAST!


And the winner is…September 2008
By Hamish Johnston

The results are in and your favourite Physics World cover comes from the September 2008 issue of the magazine (right). The collage of galaxies was inspired by an illustration in John D Barrow’s book Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science.

The cover, which garnered 13% of the 1303 votes in our recent survey to mark the 20th anniversary of Physics World, contains 56 striking images of galaxies that were derived from actual photos taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The cover highlights the Galaxy Zoo project, which recruits members of the public to help classify the thousands of galaxy images taken by the SDSS telescope in New Mexico.

My favourite cover — a brilliant homage to the late American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein — was runner up with 11% of the vote.


March 1998 is done in John Richardson’s “Lichtenstyle”

The cover of the March 1998 issue was created by the UK-based cartoonist John Richardson and shows “Alice and Bob, the central characters in many quantum information papers”. You can view a gallery of Richardson’s art here .

Pop art is also the theme of the third-place cover from November 2001, which uses 8 slightly different “Schroedinger’s cats” to illustrate the concept of quantum cloning à la Andy Warhol.

The cat belonged to then features editor Val Jamieson (now at New Scientist), and I’m told it only had one eye — the other being cloned in our design studio. Sadly, the final measurement has been made on this cat.

The covers were voted on by our readers from a shortlist of 20 chosen by Matin Durrani and Dens Milne.

…and which cover was the least favourite? It’s the cover from July 2006 that illustrates an article on Hollywood physics — this attracted about 1% of the vote.


November 2001 is a salute to Andy Warhol
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More UK pupils could soon be peering through telescopes (Courtesy: RAS).

By Hamish Johnston
In 1609 the Tuscan polymath Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to point a telescope skywards. He went on to discover sunspots, mountains on the Moon and four of the moons of Jupiter.

To mark this milestone in the development of modern science, the United Nations has declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy.

Now, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of telescope-based astronomy, 1000 secondary schools in the UK will be given telescopes — paid for by the Society for Popular Astronomy, the Royal Astronomical Society and the UK science-research funding body STFC.

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High-speed photos of actual dancing droplets (grey left half of objects) along with the mathematical description of the normal modes (coloured right half of objects).

By Hamish Johnston

There’s a paper in the New Journal of Physics today about how to make droplets of oil “dance” on the surface of a vibrating bath.

As well as floating over the surface, the droplets also seem to deform periodically in a number of distinct normal modes. In my favourite example, a droplet literally goes pear-shaped before wobbling back to something resembling a doughnut.

The research suggests that it may be easier than previously thought to levitate tiny amounts of liquid.

You might be wondering why it is important to levitate droplets? Well, it could be used to manipulate tiny amounts of liquid without actually touching it — something that could be useful in chemical or biological analysis techniques that are very sensitive to contamination.

Movies of real-life droplets as well as computer simulations can be seen here. WARNING: Their lava-lamp-like oscillations can mesmerize!

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(Courtesy: Willem Malten/Los Alamos Study Group).

By Hamish Johnston

This mural commemorating the life of Sir Joseph Rotblat is on the wall of the Cloud Cliff Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Rotblat — who was born 100 years ago this week — is the subject of a new book by Martin Underwood entitled Joseph Rotblat - A Man of Conscience in the Nuclear Age, which will be published early next year by Sussex Academic Press.

If you are intrigued by the brief description of Rotblat’s life on the mural, Underwood has written a preview of his book.

Rotblat was born to a Jewish family in Poland on 4 November, 1908. He studied physics and became assistant director of the Atomic Physics Institute of the Free University of Poland in 1937. He was fortunate to be in the UK when war broke out in 1939, but was unable to get his wife Tola out. She is believed to have died in the Warsaw Ghetto.

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Ice fishing on the Ottawa River — no Periodic Hartree-Fock Calculations required. (Courtesy: AlainV).

By Hamish Johnston

One of my favourite memories of childhood is travelling across a frozen lake in the backseat of a circa-1975 Buick LeSabre (a very large car) on our way to do a bit of ice fishing.

The ice was over a foot thick, and we were secure in the knowledge that it would hold the LeSabre — and the hundreds of other cars on the lake.

What I didn’t know back then was just how complicated the stuff we were driving on is — and how much grief it has given to physicists brave enough to try to understand it.

For example, Andreas Hermann and Peter Schwerdtfeger of Massey University in New Zealand have just published a paper entitled Ground-State Properties of Crystalline Ice from Periodic Hartree-Fock Calculations and a Coupled-Cluster-Based Many-Body Decomposition of the Correlation Energy .

They say their result “hints at the possibility to accurately simulate ab initio water”. In other words, at some point in the future we may be able to understand why a seemingly simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen has myriad wonderous and life-giving properties.

Indeed, one of the most curious (alleged) properties of water is the Mpemba effect whereby hot water freezes faster than cold water. I’m guessing that it will be a while before this can be explained using Periodic Hartree-Fock Calculations.

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