This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film's multimedia channel features exclusive video interviews with leading figures in the physics community.

Visit our multimedia channel to see the latest video.

Matin Durrani: December 2011 Archives

Other-worldy tales

| | TrackBacks (0)
The 5th Dimensional Camera

The artwork The 5th Dimensional Camera, which explores the theme of parallel worlds. (Courtesy: EPSRC Press Office)

By Matin Durrani

I’m sure we’ve all go our own personal wishes for a parallel universe – perhaps it’s a world where physicists are flush with cash, the Superconducting Super Collider had never been cancelled and CERN press conferences discussing the search for the Higgs had a bit more oomph about them.

But writing in the December issue of Physics World magazine, Stony Brook University philosopher and historian Robert P Crease examines how the idea of parallel universes and parallel worlds also appear frequently in art and literature.

We’ve all heard of Lewis Carroll’s beloved story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of course, but did you know that Jorge Luis Borges described the concept of a “multiverse” in his 1941 anthology The Garden of Forking Paths? Or that Alan Ayckbourn wrote a series of plays called “Intimate Exchanges”, in which a single opening scene branches out into 16 different endings?

As Crease points out, the idea that parallel worlds should attract novelists is “perhaps not surprising” – after all, as he puts it, they deal with “events shaped by contingencies that unfold over time”.

But the theme of alternative worlds that are similar (but not identical) to our own, branching off from each other, has featured in films as well, including last year’s Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, which was based on the celebrated 2005 play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire.

It also crops up in the new film Another Earth, which was released earlier this year. Examining the consequences of a promising student who causes a fatal car crash, the film has unfortunately received a bit of a panning, being dubbed by the Daily Mail as “pretentious twaddle” and by the Guardian as “ponderous and contrived”.

Still, let’s not forget that multiple worlds have even inspired some sculptors, including Jon Ardern and Anab Jain of the Superflux studio in London, who created an interesting work called The 5th Dimensional Camera, pictured above, which appeared last year in an exhibition called “Talk to Me” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can read the article “Other-worldly tales” online free of charge via 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, available from the Apple store and Android Marketplace, respectively.

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 access to a digital version of Physics World both online and through the apps.

hands smll.jpg

By Hamish Johnston

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has unveiled the proposed names for elements 114 and 116. Named after Georgi Flerov, founder of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia, element 114 will, if approved, be called flerovium and have the symbol Fl. Element 116, meanwhile, will be named livermorium after the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and given the atomic symbol Lv.

The elements were created by researchers at the JINR back in 2004 and were both confirmed by scientists at the LLNL in California and the Centre for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt, Germany.

Commenting on the suggested names has now opened to anyone for a five-month period, which will end in April. So what do you think? In this week’s Facebook poll, we want you to answer the following question.

Do you like the element names livermorium and flerovium?

I like both of them
I like livermorium but not flerovium
I like flerovium but not livermorium
They’re both boring and unimaginative

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page; you are also free to suggest your own names by posting a comment.

In last week’s Facebook poll we asked you when you thought we will see the first working nuclear-fusion reactor supplying electricity to a grid? Nearly half of you (49%) chose the most optimistic option, saying that we could be running our toasters on fusion within 30 years. Some 21% foresee fusion reactors in 30–60 years and 7% think they will be a reality within 60–90 years. However, 23% of you believe that it’s unlikely ever to happen.

Commenting on a related Facebook posting about an article on the Canadian company General Fusion, Michael Simmons wrote “In high-school physics in 1968, I was told practical fusion power was 20 years away. In 1971, in college-modern physics, it was 20 years away. As a high-school physics teacher, I attended a conference on the energy future in 1985 and fusion was 20 years away. In 2005, at a local conference on future energy sources, fusion was mentioned as being 20 years from becoming economically feasible. I don’t believe it is never, but I have come to believe it won’t be in my lifetime.”

By Matin Durrani

There’s nothing better in physics than a bit of a ding-dong, and you can, of course, rely on string theory to supply the ammunition for it.

String theory, after all, polarizes opinion seemingly like nothing else: its proponents deem it a rigorous framework that could unify the fundamental forces, while its critics dub it preposterous guff that makes no testable predictions of the world.

One of string theory’s masterminds – Michael Duff of Imperial College London – has now hit back at his critics with a paper in a special issue of the journal Foundations of Physics published to mark 40 years of the theory. You can read Duff’s 19-page paper either in Foundations of Physics, which is open to all until 31 December 2011, or as a preprint on arXiv.

Duff reckons that “much of the criticism has been misguided or misinformed” and goes on to outline why string theory is valid, before taking a pop at various critics – not only other researchers, notably Lee Smolin and Peter Woit (who he calls “a single-issue protest group”), but also the media, including Physics World.

Duff’s complaints about the media are a little confused in my eyes, stemming in part from the fact that journalists paid too much attention, in Duff’s eyes, to the work of Garret Lisi, who in 2007 published a (non-peer-reviewed) paper entitled “An exceptionally simple theory of everything” that controversially claimed to unify “all fields of the standard model and gravity”.

Although Duff says Lisi is “by no means a crackpot”, he complains that “journalists love [crackpots]” and seems to suggest it was for that reason that so much coverage was given to Lisi’s work, even though the latter does not have much to do with string theory. All I can say is that we at Physics World are no fan of crackpots either.

Duff’s paper has, not surprisingly, drawn a vigorous response from Woit himself, whose blog post can be read here. Woit thinks that attempts by Duff and other string theorists to respond to their critics has “damaged not just the credibility of string theory, but of mathematically sophisticated work on particle theory in general”.

If this little spat leaves you none the wiser, my advice is to read this Physics World feature on string theory by Matthew Chalmers.

By Matin Durrani

With all those rumours flying around of possible sightings of the Higgs boson in among the proton–proton collisions at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, you might find this video of a very different type of collision interesting.

It involves not protons but pool balls, as performed by Philadelphia-based “professional pool trick-shot artist” Steve Markle.

“The trick shots I do are an excellent showing of defining the laws of physics,” Markle claims.

And if you think pool balls behave in a pretty predictable way according to the rules of classical physics, well yes they do, but it’s still surprising to see what some good old-fashioned spin can do. Take a look, for example, at 3.46 min, when Markle manages to bend a pool ball in a curve through an entire 90° angle.

And if you want to see Markle in action for real, he’s due to be performing at the Artistic Pool World Championship (yes, there is such a thing) in Oaks, Oaklahoma next March.

As for whether the Higgs is going to show up at CERN, you’ve now got just a week to wait. In the meantime, these pool-ball collisions are sure to keep you amused.

Searching for SUSY

| | TrackBacks (0)

The CMS collaboration has so far seen no evidence of sparticles. (Courtesy: CERN/Michael Hoch)

By Matin Durrani

The first full year of data-taking at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is now drawing to a close, has been a wake-up call for supersymmetry (SUSY) – a theory that has captivated physicists (or at least some of them) for the last 40 years.

SUSY’s central prediction – that for each of the Standard Model particles there exists a heavier “sparticle” sibling – remains firmly in the realm of imagination.

Quite simply, no firm evidence for SUSY has yet emerged, despite its aficionados claiming it’s been round the corner for the last 20 years.

But SUSY’s supporters remain undeterred.

In article in the December issue of Physics World magazine by science writer Matthew Chalmers, Savas Dimopolous of Stanford University insists “it’s very early to draw conclusions”, with Nobel laureate David Gross of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara saying supersymmetry’s “alive and well”.

Whether evidence for SUSY emerges at the LHC partly depends on if – and where – the Higgs boson shows. If the Higgs weighs in at about 120 GeV, then “it really smells like SUSY”, according to Oliver Buchmuller of the CMS experiment at the LHC. A Higgs heavier than about 135 GeV could see SUSY running into trouble.

As Chalmers points out, for most physicists, the discovery of SUSY would be more remarkable than that of the Higgs. After all, the Standard Model of particle physics has withstood 35 years of tests at six or more decimal places, suggesting that the Higgs or something like it pretty much has to turn up at the LHC. “SUSY, by contrast, is more a well-founded hope”, writes Chalmers, and “the non-discovery of SUSY or something like it would just leave thousands of physicists felling gutted…and weaken the case for another multi-billion dollar collider”.

All eyes are now on an upcoming meeting at CERN on 12 and 13 December, at which results from the full 2011 dataset are due to be presented and discussed. The key sessions on the Higgs searches are set to take place at 2 p.m. local time on 13 December, featuring talks by Fabiola Gianotti of ATLAS and Guido Tonelli of CMS.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can read the article “Searching for SUSY” online 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, available from the Apple store and Android Marketplace respectively.

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 year’s free access to Physics World, both online and through the apps.