The world of physics in 2015
Dec 18, 2014 14 comments
The science story of 2014, which Physics World picked as its Breakthrough of the Year, simply had to be the successful landing of a man-made probe onto a comet, for the first time. Philae dropped on to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in November after a 10-year journey aboard the Rosetta craft – triggering scenes of wild jubilation among scientists and engineers at the European Space Agency (ESA), who had lived through a nail-biting final hour as they waited for radio signals to travel the 511 million kilometres from the comet to Earth after its scheduled landing time. Data from the mission are likely to keep astronomers busy for years to come, including signs that water on Earth came not from comets, as was previously thought, but from asteroids.
In fact, 2014 was quite a year for space science, with India putting its Mangalyaan craft in orbit around Mars for the first time and Japan launching the country's second asteroid sample-return mission, Hayabusa 2. Further new findings also came in from the Planck mission, confirming the standard model of cosmology and further constraining what dark matter could be. But what of 2015? What will be the key events in physics and who will have taken the accolades in 12 months' time?
Let there be light
One thing we know for sure is that 2015 has been officially designated the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL). Designed to highlight how light touches every aspect of our lives, the IYL will involve more than 100 partners from 85 countries – including the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. A string of events will take place across the globe next year, ranging from the Story of Light Festival in Goa, India, to Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, and much more besides.
The year has been picked to celebrate light because it marks a number of anniversaries, including 1000 years since the publication of the work on optics by Ibn al-Haytham, during the Islamic Golden Age. Next year is also the bicentenary of Augustin-Jean Fresnel's paper introducing the notion of the wave nature of light, 150 years since James Clerk Maxwell's work on electromagnetism that paved the way for everything from lasers to mobile phones, as well as the centenary of Einstein's equations of general relativity – the latter having a series of special events of its own.
The IYL kicks off formally next month at an official opening ceremony at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. Physics World, which is an official media partner for the IYL, will be reporting from the event, where we will also be launching a special, free-to-read digital collection of the magazine containing our 10 best light-related features of all time. Selecting the 10 articles was hard but great fun – so stay tuned for more details about how to access that issue.
Hunting high and low
Elsewhere next year, over at the CERN particle-physics lab in Geneva, physicists and engineers are set to restart the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its main experiments ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb, following a major maintenance and upgrade programme that finished last June. After a long fallow period, the LHC has now been cooled to near its operating temperature of 1.9 K, and the first proton beams are expected to be circulated round the 27 km-long collider in March. Researchers then plan to collide protons together at energies of 13 TeV, just short of the LHC's design energy of 14 TeV, in May. Previously, the LHC operated with collision energies of just 7 TeV, or 3.5 TeV per beam.
In "Run 2" at the revamped LHC, CERN scientists will be able to study the Higgs boson, which was discovered at the lab in 2012, in greater detail than has been possible so far, with the number of Higgs bosons produced expected to increase by an order of magnitude in total. The upgrade could also shed light on the nature of dark matter and why there is so much more matter than antimatter in the universe. Run 2 could also yield possible evidence for "supersymmetry", which predicts that for every fundamental particle we know about, there should be so-far-undiscovered "superpartner" particle with subtly different properties. Next year will also see current CERN boss Rolf-Dieter Heuer start handing over the reins to his successor Fabiola Gianotti, before she takes over in 2016.
Away from CERN, 2015 will see a series of fascinating missions in space science and astronomy bearing fruit. After many years' planning, ESA-led researchers have set a launch date of July for the Lisa Pathfinder mission, which will test the technology needed to develop future space-borne gravitational wave detectors. Another ESA craft due to blast off in July 2015 is ADM-Aeolus, which will monitor Earth's winds. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, also has plans to launch its Astro-H X-ray telescope, while in March NASA is set to launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) to study the mystery of how magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect, explosively releasing energy through "magnetic reconnection". We can also expect further interesting insights from the Curiosity rover about possible signs of life on Mars.
Am I hot or not?
But what will be the burgeoning fields of physics in 2015? For some help in answering this question, we can turn to the Research Fronts 2014 report from science-information provider Thomson-Reuters, which identifies the 10 hottest fields in physics, based on citation data. The list is topped by studies of the Higgs boson, followed second by neutrino data analysis, and "nonlinear massive gravity" third. Six of the remaining seven spots in the list are all in condensed-matter physics, including three topics that we have covered a lot on physicsworld.com in recent times – spin-orbit-coupled Fermi gases, graphene plasmonics and topological Mott insulators. Relativistic heavy-ion collisions are in 10th place.
Meanwhile, staff at Altmetric – a London-based firm specializing in "alternative article-level metrics" – have drawn up their annual list of which 100 papers have attracted the most attention online in 2014 (though that does not mean they are necessarily the best). Taking into account all mentions and shares of articles published from November 2013 onwards in mainstream and social media, blogs, post-publication peer-review forums and so on, the list is, sadly for physicists, dominated by research into biology and the life sciences. The highest "physics-y" paper – and even this is stretching the definition quite far – is a paper about dogs being sensitive to small variations of the Earth's magnetic field. So if you are a physicist who wants your work to get talked about in 2015, our suggestion is to do something involving animals.
Who will be in the news?
So what of the people and personalities in physics? Last year we put our money on Anton Zeilinger from the University of Vienna bagging the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in quantum computing and communication. We were wrong, as it turned out, but surely 2015 must be the year he finally gets honoured. In fact, Zeilinger's university is hosting a high-profile event in May on the "quantum physics of nature" that marks numerous anniversaries in the field. Another giant of physics – Stephen Hawking – could well be back in the limelight in March at next year's Oscars, with the movie The Theory of Everything – which covers his stormy relationship with his first wife Jane – possibly picking up a prize.
Also likely to make the news are the scientists behind the BICEP2 collaboration, who earlier this year claimed to have seen evidence for primordial gravitational waves and for cosmic inflation. Those early results appear to have been ruled out by researchers on the Planck collaboration, but 2015 could well see the question settled once and for all. There are also sure to be more findings from the Rosetta mission scientists, although hopefully project scientist Matt Taylor will not be wearing that shirt. But we will finish by saying something we say every year, which is that the beauty of physics is that you just do not know what's around the corner.
As for Physics World, which is published by the Institute of Physics (IOP), we have special issues coming up on light (March), weird natural phenomena (July) and extremes in physics (December). All IOP members can read the magazine online or through our apps and, if you are not already an IOP member, don’t forget to join to get instant access to every issue. We will also be publishing reports on Mexico (September), as well as focus issues on medical imaging (February), nanotechnology (May), optics and photonics (June), vacuum technology (August), neutron scattering (September) and astronomy and space science (December). And, of course, we will be brining you our audio and video programme, including more Google hangouts.
- Happy with our predictions? Annoyed at something we missed? Tell us what you think by commenting below.
About the author
Matin Durrani is editor of Physics World