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Matin Durrani: December 2008 Archives

By Matin Durrani

What’s the biggest challenge in physics? What was the biggest breakthrough in the subject over the last 20 years? And do you like the fact that physicists are unpopular parties? Those were just three of the serious and not-so-serious questions in our special survey that we launched in October on this website to mark the 20th anniversary of Physics World.

The survey was just meant to be a bit of fun and we had no idea how many people would reply. But in the end 522 people had their say before we closed the survey in early December. We reckon those numbers are high enough to draw some reasonably secure conclusions. Even if not, here are the results anyway and you can draw your own.

1. What was the most important discovery in physics over the past 20 years?
From the ten choices made by the Physics World team, the clear winner — with over a quarter (26.6%) of the vote — was evidence for dark energy, discovered in 1997/8 by two teams of researchers looking at the properties of certain exploding stars called type 1a supernova. In second, was the discovery of nanotubes — rolled-up sheets of carbon atoms, the discovery of which is often (controversially) attributed to Sumio Iijima from NEC in 1991. In third, with 11.9% was Bose—Einstein condensation — the long-sought-after low-temperature state in which a cloud of atoms all fall into the same quantum state. Its discovery in 1995 led to Eric Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl Wieman sharing a Nobel Prize for Physics six years later.

2. What was the most significant popular-science book over the last 20 years?
No surprises here, with Stephen Hawking’s seminal A Brief History of Time scooping 42.7% of the vote. His book was published in April 1988, just six months before Physics World magazine started life. In second was Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (12.3%) followed by the late Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think? in third (11.2%). Bad news though for Britain’s Astronomer Royal and head of the Royal Society Martin Rees — his Just Six Numbers came tenth, picked by only two people.

Seeing is believing

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Ebb and Flow by P Mininni et al

By Matin Durrani

Two silent round flashes on a dark screen. That was the image witnessed by researchers crowded into the control room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva on 10 September that heralded the successful passage of the first beam of protons around the 27 km collider. Later that day physicists watched as one of the LHC’s main experiments - the Compact Muon Solenoid - generated its first images from the debris of particles produced when the proton beam was deliberately steered into a tungsten collimator block.

Particle physics has long been a rich source of iconic images - from the tracks in the bubble chambers of the 1950s to the particle collisions that signalled the detection of everything from the W-boson to the top quark. But visualization has a proud history in other areas of science too. Ever since Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens in 1609 and saw mountains on the Moon and spots on the Sun, researchers have sought to see beyond what is possible with the naked eye. Indeed, astronomers now claim to have directly observed extrasolar planets for the first time.