Jacko spotted in droplet, claims physicist

First it was the face of the Beatles' legendary drummer Ringo Starr mysteriously appearing in a bouncing water droplet in late 2009. Then in early January David Fairhurst, a physicist at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, wrote to us claiming to have spotted the face of Michael Jackson in a droplet of polymer solution – the kind of substance you might find in the ink cartridges of your printer.

As the solution began to crystallize, Fairhurst noticed that a tiny droplet on the surface appeared to have a tiny human face. "I noticed it immediately and showed it to the other guys – we had a really good laugh about it," Fairhurst told physicsworld.com. I think we will let you decide whether the droplet resembles the King of Pop.

That's hella signatures

"Yotta" (1024), "zeta" (1021), "exa" (1018) and "peta" (1015) could now be joined by the "hella", if a physics student from University of California, Davis, gets his way. Austin Sendek started a petition on the social-networking site Facebook early this year to establish a new, scientifically accepted prefix for 1027. Yotta, which was established in 2001, is currently the largest number enshrined in the International System of Units (SI).

"Hella" comes from Californian slang for "very" or "a lot of" and Sendek says that by accepting the term, the SI system could "not only rectify its failing prefix system but also honour the scientific progress of northern California". Almost 64,000 people have become "fans" on its Facebook page. Sendek claims that the hella could be applied in many "crucial calculations", including the power of the Sun (0.3 hellawatts) or the number of atoms in a large sample (6.02 hella-atoms in 120 kg of carbon-12). Suggestions by physicsworld.com readers for the prefix 1027 included the holla, hello or hilli. Could you do any better?

Spot the difference

It's end of the year quiz time. Which of the following two titles is from a real physics paper and which is made up? "The Alpha-prime stretched horizon in the heterotic string" and "The partial solution of heterotic strings deformed by Wilson lines". Tricky, eh? These are taken from a website called snarXiv created by David Simmons-Duffin, a PhD student in high-energy physics at Harvard University, which includes a game where you have to spot the real paper title from one that has been randomly generated by taking into account the latest trends in high-energy physics.

Depending on how well you can spot the real paper, the website ranks your score as "undergraduate", "worse than a monkey" or, if you are good, "Nobel-prize winner". However, Simmons-Duffin claims that snarXiv does serve some purpose, for example noting that if you are a postdoc, then you can keep reloading the webpage "until you find something to work on". By the way, the former was the real paper.

Dad rockers riff on graphene

This year we were strangely compelled to watch this reworking of that classic-rock anthem "Cocaine" by a bunch of physicists at Georgia Tech in honour of this year's Nobel Prize for Physics, which was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their isolation of graphene – the one-atom thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice.

The tune – played by Mike Duffee on guitar and a smoky vocal by engineering professor Paul Neitzel – plays over what looks like a selection of Andre Geim's PowerPoint slides. Highlights of the verses include: "If you got bad gates and need quantum states...graphene" and "Don't forget Dirac, straight bands are a fact...graphene". And who could forget the chorus: "She goes fast, she goes fast...graphene".

Spirits are high for superconductivity research

A couple of pints at your local boozer this Christmas can do wonders for getting those creative juices going. But researchers in Japan went one step further by trying to grow a new type of superconductor in a series of alcoholic drinks such as red wine, beer, whisky and sh_ch_ (arXiv:1008.0666).

They began with samples of FeTe0.8S0.2, which were then put into 20 ml glass bottles containing different alcoholic beverages. The researchers found that with the sample in an ethanol-water mixture, only about 10% of the material was superconducting below 6 K.

But when it was dunked into alcoholic drinks, the superconducting fraction of the sample increased. Red wine was found to work best, with 63% of the sample exhibiting superconductivity as well as giving a small increase in the superconducting temperature of 7.8 K. Why this happens is unclear, but the bigger question is where the scientists got the idea for this research in the first place.

It's all relative

Say hello to Einstein, the world's smallest horse. He is a pinto stallion, born in March weighing just 2.7 kg, and is only 35 cm tall. So why is a small horse named after the world's most famous physicist? "We thought the name was befitting of him because he had such a huge head for such a little foal," Einstein's owners Charlie Cantrell and Rachel Wagner from New Hampshire, US, told physicsworld.com.

They also named the horse Einstein because they felt it would be a reminder of two things. The first was that "one has to be intelligent when purchasing a miniature horse [as] they require a massive amount of specialized care". The second was that "Einstein believed in compassion for all living creatures. He was an advocate of humane treatment of animals." Hmm.

Encryption kicks off in the quantum stadium

You might not think that football and quantum cryptography have much in common. But both were combined at this year's FIFA World Cup at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, where one of the competition's semi-finals took place on 7 July.

The eThekwini Municipality in Durban has teamed up with the Centre for Quantum Technology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) to install a quantum-cryptography-secured telecoms link between the football stadium and the FIFA 2010 World Cup Joint Operation Centre in Durban.

According to UKZN physicist Abdul Mizra, the system was used to ensure the secure transmission of voice and data, including e-mail, during the World Cup. What FIFA boss Sepp Blatter had to say that is so secret remains a mystery.

Brazilian wundergoal revisited

Still on football, many consider the goal scored from a free kick by Brazilian fullback Roberto Carlos against France in 1997 to be one of the best ever. When the São Paulo-born defender struck the ball about 35 m from the French goal, it was initially heading so far wide that it made a ball boy, who was standing a few metres to the right of the goal, duck. But at the last moment the ball curved strongly to the left and just snuck into the net.

Theories for this effect range from the material of the ball, the unusually dry conditions on the night to even a gust of wind. Thirteen years on, Guillaume Dupeux and colleagues at the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, can finally explain the physics behind the curve (New J. Phys. 12 093004).

By firing and tracking tiny polymer spheres through water, the researchers witnessed a "spinning-ball spiral" effect where the friction exerted on a ball by its surroundings slows it down enough for the spin to take over in directing the ball's trajectory and sending it into the goal. The research has been a big hit, with the paper downloaded 10,790 times within two days of being published. And the institution that downloaded the paper the most? Yep, you guessed it: São Paulo University.

Kenyan physics graduate builds aircraft via Wikipedia

After studying physics at the University of Nairobi and then moving into the computer-hardware business, Gabriel Nderitu, 42, cobbled together a two-seater aircraft this year after reading about the principles of aeronautics from that most trusted information source – Wikipedia.

Nderitu – Kenya's answer to the Wright brothers – began constructing his craft last year and it has so far cost about $8000. Weighing in at 800 kg and built around the engine of a Toyota NZE car, the craft's wings are made from sheets of aluminium and attached to its nose is a 188 cm propeller operating at 4000 rotations per minute.

He downloaded roughly 5 GB of data to design the craft, with Wikipedia serving as the main source of information. However, the project has attracted the attention of the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority, which has advised Nderitu to stop working on his plane and seemingly missed the more uplifting side to the story.

By 'eck! Particle physicist to (apparently) star in soap opera

And lastly, a story that did not quite happen. Although the article appeared on 1 April, it did, however, still take quite a few of our readers by surprise. We reported that Brian Cox, the University of Manchester particle physicist and a researcher at CERN in Geneva, was set to appear on Coronation Street – the longest-running British TV soap opera.

The show, known affectionately as Corrie, is set in the fictional town of Weatherfield, a suburb of Manchester, and follows a number of dysfunctional families living on the street with the Rovers Return pub as its main social point. Cox, who was born in Oldham, Greater Manchester, will be no stranger to the show or indeed the dialect, which can feature terms such as "eh, chuck?", "nowt" and "by 'eck!"

The Mancunian physicist was expected to play the character Byron Knox, a particle physicist who works at Weatherfield Polytechnic. Although details about the storyline for Cox's character were scarce, physicsworld.com learnt that Knox used to work at CERN but returns to Weatherfield after being sacked for accidentally dropping his meat and potato pie onto an electrical connection at CERN's Large Hadron Collider – stopping the experiment from working. His appearance on the show, alas, never took place, but that doesn't mean it won't happen next year!

You can be sure of more quirky stories from the world of physics next year. See you in 2011!