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The 10 quirkiest physics stories of 2019

27 Dec 2019 Michael Banks
Macrame periodic table
Fringe elements: Jane Stewart’s macramé masterpiece. (Courtesy: Helen Stewart)

From the physics of car parking to how to create the perfect fondue, physics has had its fair share of quirky stories this year. Here is our pick of the 10 best, not in any particular order.

Table of knots

UNESCO designated 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT) to celebrate 150 years since the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev created the world’s first periodic table. Biochemistry graduate Jane Stewart created her own tribute to Mendeleev by making a macramé version of the table. The ancient art of macramé – the art of knotting string in patterns – originated in Arabia where the word comes from the Arabic migramah, which means “fringe” and was used to finish off a weaver’s work. Stewart used a metallic crochet thread, which is about the same thickness as embroidery thread, to create the 100 x 60 cm table. The table contains about 200 000 “half hitch” knots and with each element taking over two hours to complete, Stewart spent at least 240 hours putting it together. “I learned there are a heck of a lot of transition metals,” Stewart told Physics World, “and needed a lot of moral support to keep going through them for more than a month.”

Historic chart

Still on the IYPT, the University of St Andrews in Scotland declared that it was home to what is thought to be the oldest classroom periodic table in the world. The historic chart, which dates back to 1875, was found by accident during a storage room clearout back in 2014. The table is annotated in German and an inscription at the bottom left – “Verlag v. Lenoir & Forster, Wien” – identifies the scientific publisher in Vienna that created it. The table has since been restored and is now being kept in climate-controlled conditions, with a full-scale replica on display in the university’s school of chemistry. Records show that it was bought in 1888 by chemist Thomas Purdie who had studied in Germany. It cost him three German gold marks – about £17 today.

Entanglement: the game

Quantum mechanics is hard, right? To make it more understandable to high-school students, researchers from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, created a game that can be used as a teaching tool. It conveys basic quantum concepts without players needing to know any advanced mathematics (arXiv:1901.07587). In the game, students are split into two teams called “particles” and “scientists”. The goal of the scientists is to perform “measurements” on the particles, who are told to obey specific rules. The scientists then must try to come up with theories that explain their observations. The game aims not only to teach concepts such as entanglement and decoherence, but also to develop students’ critical thinking. It was even tested last year with three science classes at Colegio JOYFE school in Madrid, whose students described it as “fun”.

Hawking coin

Hawking cash

To mark the first anniversary of the death of the University of Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, the UK’s Royal Mint released a new 50p coin to celebrate his life and work. Designed by UK artist Edwina Ellis, it features a stylized black hole along with the Bekenstein–Hawking formula for the entropy of a black hole. Unfortunately, the 50p coin won’t enter circulation in the UK but for £10 you can get your hands on one presented “in educational packaging that brings the science of black holes to life”. There are also limited-edition versions – a silver proof coin costing £55 and a gold proof variant for £795 – both of which sold out within days. The gold version was later being resold on eBay for an eye-watering £2000 – a case, surely, of black holes sucking your money up too.

Black-hole LEGO

The unveiling of the first-ever image of a black hole earlier this year by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) created much excitement around the world – and it seemed to have touched the LEGO community too. At least three black-hole-inspired LEGO designs were submitted to the LEGO Ideas website, which lets fans share blueprints of their own models. Luis Peña, who previously made LEGO models of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover, built a LEGO model of a single antenna belonging to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, which played a crucial part in the observations. Peña’s design also features a small mosaic of 18 × 18 studs to illustrate the blackhole image. LEGO user “tm.bricks”, in contrast, created a design consisting of all eight EHT telescopes together with a mosaic of bricks to signify the black hole. Meanwhile, “douglasfx” has made a model of the M87* black hole featuring accretion disk and jets.

Physics of car parking

It’s the old conundrum for car drivers looking for somewhere to park. Should you plonk your vehicle far from your destination, where finding a spot will be easy but the walk is long? Or should you spend time trying to park close to the destination, where spaces are harder to find but you just might get lucky? Physicists Paul Krapivsky of Boston University and Sidney Redner of the Santa Fe Institute applied Poisson statistics to the problem, finding that a “prudent” strategy is best, in which you park in the first gap of cars you come across but take the spot nearest to the venue (arXiv:1904.06612). This is deemed better than the “optimistic” strategy, in which you drive all the way to the target location and then park in the first spot that you find as you backtrack away from your destination. Redner, however, admits that the model – based on a single road leading to the destination – is “unrealistic”. “In its present idealised form, our model is not practically useful,” he says. Better just take public transport then.

Particle serenade

CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva is currently being upgraded to boost the collider’s luminosity, which meant that it was possible this year to go down into the tunnel and have a look around. One lucky punter who did just that was the US virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who in September not only donned the obligatory CERN hard hat but also performed a solo of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6. Bach was an apt choice given that the German composer was apparently fascinated with mathematics and numbers and often hid numerical messages and puzzles in his works. “I have always thought that philosophy, arts, and sciences belong together as equal partners in this thing we call culture,” Ma noted. “We must fight for this belief. Because the widening gaps between disciplines of inquiry and between culture, economics, and politics have led to increasing and frightening fractures in the world.”

Atomic tipple

Would you be brave enough to try a vodka made with grain and water from the exclusion zone in Chernobyl? Well, the gauntlet has now been thrown down in the shape of Atomik – an “artisan vodka” produced by the Chernobyl Spirit Company. Those behind the spirit say they are the first to create a consumer product from the abandoned area around the damaged nuclear power plant. In something of a glowing endorsement,  environmental scientist Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth noted that there is no danger of radioactivity from the 40% ABV tipple given the distillation process, adding that it had been tested in a lab at the University of Southampton. The team hopes to use the profits to help communities in Ukraine still affected by the economic impact of the disaster. Currently there is only one bottle, but the team hoped to have produced 500 bottles by the end of the year, selling it initially to the “nuclear tourists” who visit the exclusion zone.

Peering down the barrel

Still on alcoholic beverages, you might fancy pouring yourself a tipple to celebrate the end of the year– perhaps an American bourbon whiskey. But how can you be sure that it is genuine? Whisky (or whiskey in the US) is big business and distillers are naturally keen to protect their markets from counterfeit products. Physicists at the University of Louisville in Kentucky discovered a way to identify genuine American bourbon whiskey from the pattern of residue it leaves after evaporating. Unlike other spirits, which leave spots of residue, the US tipple apparently leaves a distinctive spiderweb pattern (Phys. Rev. Fluids 4 100511). Stuart Williams and colleagues believe that the pattern is linked to chemicals that seep into their whiskey as it is ages in newer barrels that are lined with charred wood. This is unlike other types of whisky that are aged in mature – and often recycled – barrels. After evaporating tens of different brands and ages of whiskeys, the team even found that they each had a unique, reproducible pattern or “fingerprint”. That’s one neat result.

You can be sure that next year will throw up its fair share of quirky stories from the world of physics. See you in 2020!

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