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Matin Durrani: August 2008 Archives

By Matin Durrani

It’s time for me to bow out of the LT25 low-temperature conference here in Amsterdam, which has just ended. The cool crowd will reconvene in three years’ time for LT26, which, I can reveal, will take place in Beijing, at a venue next to the current Olympic park. It’ll be the first time that China will host this triennial shindig.

Conference organiser Peter Kes from the University of Leiden gave some amusing insights into organising a conference of this scale, which saw a staggering 1482 participants. For example, stuffing the massive 380-page (double-sided) conference brochure into delegates’ shoulder bags required a small army of students, who hit a peak rate of 450 bags stuffed per hour.

Then there were the logistics of bussing 640 delegates on a trip to the University of Leiden to see the lab where Heike Kamerlingh Onnes won the race against Scottish physicist James Dewar to liquefy helium 100 years ago last month. Plus sorting out the conference dinner for nearing 600 people, which included hiring a flotilla of nine boats for the trip from the conference halls into town.

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Levitating a magnet using liquid nitrogen. (Credit: Yorick van Boheemen)

By Matin Durrani

Tucked away in the corner of the foyer at the RAI Convention Center in Amsterdam, where the 25th International Conference on Low-Temperature Physics has been taking place for the past week, I found a series of great little demonstrations by a group of students from the University of Leiden.

The students were showing highlights from a roadshow — dubbed “Freezing physics” — that they perform at about 120 schools and numerous science fairs around the Netherlands each year in an attempt to get people hooked on physics.

You won’t be surprised to find the usual “ooo, watch how this rubber band/tennis ball/banana goes really stiff when we dunk it into a bucket of liquid nitrogen” demonstrations, which are a staple of many public shows of this kind.

But the students, known collectively as the Rino Foundation, had some clever stuff up their sleeves too. One involved using the frozen banana to hammer a nail into a piece of wood. Another saw a hand-bell being cooled in liquid nitrogen and then rung after being frozen. As the material had stiffened considerably, the bell’s ring tone was much higher than when warm.

By Matin Durrani

This is my second full day at the 25th International Conference on Low-Temperature Physics in Amsterdam — LT25 in the jargon — and it’s been a busy morning, despite last night’s marathon conference dinner at the five-star Hotel Krasnapolsky that lasted until gone 11 p.m.

Almost 600 delegates, myself included, were treated to a fairly decent three-course dinner that culminated in what was billed as a “grand dessert buffet”, which seemed to take forever to set up. Thankfully the wait for the profiteroles, fruit slices and cheesecake was ameliorated by a performance by a Dutch philosophy-graduate-turned-magician, whose name escapes me but who did some clever things with various delegates’ wedding rings.

We were also serenaded by a roving accordion player and guitarist who went from table to table and who claimed they could sing songs in 24 different languages. Which was great, I suppose, as long as you didn’t mind the fact they were all sung with a painfully thick Dutch accent. A Malaysian guy on my table, for example, seemed pretty unconvinced by the pair’s children’s song about a parrot.

But back to the physics. This morning I sat in on a session on “supersolids” — a strange new form of matter that some physicists think exists when helium-4 is cooled down to sufficiently low temperatures and subject to high enough pressure. The jury is still out on whether this form of matter exists, although the consensus, as far as I could tell from today, would be that it does.

Let’s romp

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Laura Greene (left) and Setsuko Tajima (right) with the bust of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who liquefied helium 100 years ago last month. (Credit: Dirk van der Marel)

By Matin Durrani

With term over and no students to teach, the summer has always been peak season for scientific conferences. There’s no shortage of interesting meetings to pick from, but I am representing Physics World at the 25th International Conference on Low-Temperature Physics in Amsterdam.

One reason for attending is that the Dutch capital is a short flight from Physics World’s base in Bristol in the UK — so I am either saving money or minimizing my carbon footprint, depending on how you look at things.

Another reason is that IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, has had a big presence at the meeting as the proceedings are to appear in our very own Journal of Physics Conference Series.

More importantly, though, there’s just loads going on at this three-yearly bash — from fundamental studies into liquid helium to a host of talks on ultracold atom optics. But one of the highlights so far has been a special “romp” session last Friday on a new class of iron-based superconductors, known rather cumbersomely as the “oxy-pnictides”.

Read all about it

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(Credit: Amazon)

By Michael Banks

When I was a PhD student, I remember having to go through a few rounds of thesis revision, which was usually greeted with a painful moan of once again ploughing through 200 plus pages of dry, technical language, with a few equations thrown in as well. But I never thought about anyone other than a physicist really wanting to read it — even my mum only got as far as the abstract.

Well for all those Queen fans out there, guitarist and astronomer Brian May, who has recently completed his PhD in astronomy at Imperial College London, has now had his PhD thesis published as a book by Springer and Canopus Publishing Ltd.

May’s thesis, and the book too for that matter, is snappily entitled “A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud” and covers the Zodiacal light — a faint diffuse cone of light seen in the west after sunset and the east before sunrise.

Ring out the old

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The Daresbury laboratory (Credit: STFC Daresbury Laboratory)

By Matin Durrani

Reporting the opening of new facilities is grist to the mill for us on Physics World. That’s why we ran a long article in last month’s print issue about the opening of the new “second target station” at the ISIS pulsed-neutron source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford in the UK.

The £145m upgrade to the ISIS facility, which is used for a wide range of neutron-scattering experiments, moved a step closer to completion today when the first neutrons were created in the new station.

But spare a thought for the Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) at the Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire, in the north-west of England, which officially closes today after 28 years of operation and two million hours of science.

By Matin Durrani

Who’s the only physicist to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature?

It’s one of those tricky questions that you either know or don’t. And obviously because I know the answer, I couldn’t resist raising it today.

His death last night at the age of 89 has been reported in most media outlets, including the New York Times, which has published a lengthy account of his life.

I’ll drip-feed you a few clues to help you along, if you haven’t got the answer already.

He was born in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus on 11 December 1918, graduating from Rostov University in 1941 with a degree in physics and mathematics.

In February 1945 he was arrested by the Soviet spy agency Smersh and was banged up for eight years in a labour camp.