The best of 2008
Dec 22, 2008 11 comments
It was the year that the Large Hadron Collider was finally fired up — and then abruptly shut down — and 2008 also saw significant progress towards the detection of dark matter. Physicists got a little closer to making practical quantum computers and 2008 saw a few nifty inventions to harvest energy from human motion. US president elect Barack Obama made a few high-profile science nominations that could signal a change in the US government’s view of climate change. It was also a good year for Japanese physics, as three Japanese-born particle physicists won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
1. January: Metamaterials take on sound
2. February: Harvesting energy from humans
3. March: Iron-based superconductor makes waves
4. April: UK funding decisions are slammed
5. May: Perimeter Institute bags top UK physicists
6. June: LHC doomsday scenario grips the world
7. July: Graphene goes from strength to strength
8. August: Slow but sure progress towards quantum computing
9. September: LHC starts and stops
10. October: Some good news for particle physics
11. November: Dark matter breakthrough is tantalizingly near
12. December: Obama chooses physics and the environment
Not content with building “invisibility cloaks”, some physicists have turned their attentions to designing special metamaterials that would allow sound to flow smoothly around an object. In January, two independent groups revealed their plans for such a “cloak of silence”. Later in the year other researchers showed that a material with holes drilled through it is better at blocking sound than a solid sample, and another team unveiled a metamaterial device that could shield oil rigs from huge waves.
February saw the unveiling of two very different devices for harvesting energy from human motion. Max Donelan and colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia introduced their electricity-generating knee brace that they claim can generate about 5 watts of electricity. Meanwhile at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, Zhong Lin Wang and team showed off a fabric, that if used in trousers worn by a hiker, could generate enough electricity to charge a mobile phone. Later this year, Zhong Lin Wang improved his design when he realised that the original fabric would wear out too quickly.
The discovery of a new type of high-temperature superconductor gave the sagging field of high-Tc superconductivity a much needed boost in 2008. Everyone was talking about these iron-arsenide materials at the APS March Meeting in New Orleans – and in particular the groundbreaking work of Hideo Hosono and colleagues at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. As the year progressed, a deluge of papers reported the discovery of similar superconducting materials as theorists tried to understand exactly how superconductivity could exist in a compound containing a strongly magnetic material like iron. The big question is whether this discovery will lead rapidly to a better overall understanding of high-Tc materials — or will it further muddy the waters?
Poor leadership and lamentable decision making were two charges levelled at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) by a parliamentary committee in April. The MPs were investigating the STFC’s handling of an £80m shortfall in research funds that came to light in late 2007 and left some British physicists worrying about losing their research grants — or even their jobs. In June, the government announced that it would not fill the £80m void and said that the money was never promised in the first place, again placing blame on the STFC for expecting to receive more money than it was due.
One high-profile casualty of the STFC debacle is the University of Cambridge, which has lost the cosmologist Neil Turok to the Perimeter Institute (PI) in Canada. In April, Turok was named director of PI, and when I spoke to him about his move he hinted that the STFC debacle was one reason why he accepted the new position. Later this year, Turok persuaded his Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking to accept a part-time position at the PI.
Neil Turok chosen to lead Perimeter Institute
Hawking accepts post in Canada
Perhaps a portent of the slightly less dramatic failure that occurred in September, the popular press was rife with reports that tiny black holes or “strange goo” created by the LHC could swallow up Earth. Much of this hype was generated by a court case in Hawaii in which the plaintiffs tried to prevent the LHC from starting up. In June, CERN decided that a response was necessary and released a report that dismissed such doomsday scenarios. Undeterred, some have even suggested that some of the liquid helium used to cool the LHC could form an explosive “Bosenova” in the presence of the collider’s powerful magnets – another extremely unlikely scenario.
Any doubts that graphene — a sheet of carbon just one atom think — is a wonder material were put to rest in 2008. In June, researchers confirmed that graphene is indeed the “strongest material in the world”. Earlier in the year, physicists confirmed that the material was also an extremely good conductor of heat and that electrons move much more easily through graphene than any other known material — making it an ideal candidate for use in tiny electronic circuits of the future. Other notable discoveries reported 2008 include graphene’s high transparency — which could make it useful in liquid crystal displays (LCDs) — and the use of graphene to enhance the resolution of an electron microscope.
While it’s unlikely that we will be using quantum computers in 2009, physicists made several important advances towards that goal in 2008. In August, an international team demonstrated the first “quantum repeater”, a device that will be needed to transmit quantum information over any appreciable distance. In June, another group were the first to achieve multi-particle entanglement in a solid – a feat that could help physicists create practical devices for quantum computers. Elsewhere, researchers have succeeded in creating the first miniature “quantum logic gate” on a silicon chip.
September’s physics news was dominated by the much anticipated start up of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which was fired up without a hitch on 10 September. The celebrations were short-lived, however, because nine days later the accelerator suffered a major setback when an electrical failure led to the violent release of tonnes of liquid helium, which damaged about 30 superconducting magnets. Repairs are now underway and it looks like the accelerator will be up and running in summer 2009.
After the disaster at CERN particle physicists deserved some good news — and they got it in October when three of their brethren won the Nobel Prize for Physics. One half of the prize was given to Yoichiro Nambu of the University of Chicago “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics.” The other half was shared between Makoto Kobayashi of the KEK lab and Toshihide Maskawa of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics, “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature”.
The award was not without controversy, with some pointing out that Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo paved the way for Kobayashi and Maskawa and should therefore have shared the prize with them.
It was a good year for physicists searching for evidence of the existence of dark matter — the mysterious stuff that is believed to make up 23% of the universe’s energy budget. In early November the PAMELA collaboration released data suggesting that cosmic rays above the Earth’s atmosphere contain an excess of high-energy positrons — an excess that “may constitute the first indirect evidence of dark-matter particle annihilations". The release came after several months of controversy that began when the PAMELA data were photographed during a seminar and analysed by others — refered to by some as “physics paparazzi”. Then a few weeks later, physicists on another experiment called ATIC reported an excess of high-energy cosmic ray electrons. Both excesses could be the result of the annihilation of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) — one of the leading candidates for dark matter. Also in November, a team of theorists in the US suggested that the PAMELA and ATIC results could be explained by a “new force” acting on WIMPS. Stay tuned, because 2009 promises to be an illuminating year for dark matter
US president elect Barack Obama has pleased many physicists and environmentalists with his nomination of Nobel Laureate Steven Chu as secretary of the Department of Energy. Chu won the physics prize for his work in the laser cooling and trapping of atoms and is a strong believer that humans are changing the climate — and that mankind must develop energy sources that do not emit large quantities of greenhouse gases. Obama has also nominated the physicist John Holdren to be his Science Advisor. Holdren is professor of environmental policy and director of the programme in science, technology, and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is also director of the Woods Hole Research Center, an ecological think tank on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Both nominations suggest that Obama intends to focus on science, particularly as it relates to climate change and other environmental issues. “Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation,” Obama said.
About the author
Hamish Johnston is editor of physicsworld.com