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Particles and interactions

Particles and interactions

The world of physics in 2016

17 Dec 2015 Matin Durrani
Fresh direction: CERN's new boss Fabiola Gianotti

As another year draws to a close, it’s time for me to peer into my crystal ball and predict the key events in physics that could take place in 2016. I always find it simpler and easier to say what’s coming up in “big science” – dominated as it is by massive projects in particle physics, astronomy and cosmology that are planned years in advance. And next year is no exception.

So let’s start at CERN, where physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will spend 2016 continuing to smash protons together at an energy of 13 TeV as part of “Run II”, which began last year. Fabiola Gianotti, who takes the reins from Rolf-Dieter Heuer next month as CERN’s 15th director-general, will be keen to ensure the lab gathers as many top-quality data as possible, even if the LHC’s unlikely to reach its planned collision energy of 14 TeV or get “new physics” beyond the Standard Model in 2016. Indeed, a presentation at CERN just before Christmas of the first Run II data from the ATLAS and CMS experiments already appears to limit the possibility of “supersymmetric” particles to yet higher energies.

Up in space, NASA’s Juno mission is set to enter the orbit of Jupiter on 4 July, handily timed for a watching US public. After a five-year journey, Juno will be the first craft to visit Jupiter since Galileo in 1995. The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is set for a busy year, too. Its Akatsuki spacecraft entered orbit around Venus last month, and mission scientists expect to receive its first data in April. JAXA also plans to launch the ASTRO-H X-ray telescope into low Earth orbit this year, to study everything from the large-scale structure of the universe to the distribution of dark matter in galaxy clusters.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency will release the first data early next year from its Gaia mission, which seeks to create a 3D catalogue of about a billion astronomical objects. March will see the European Space Agency’s Lisa Pathfinder craft begin work to test the technology for a future space-based gravitational-wave observatory. Another tantalizing prospect for 2016 will be the Event Horizon Telescope imaging a black hole for the first time.

Astroparticle physicists, meanwhile, are set to start work in 2016 on a $14m upgrade to the Pierre Auger Observatory – the world’s largest cosmic-ray observatory – in Argentina. The AugerPrime upgrade will involve installing scintillation detectors alongside the 1660 existing water Cerenkov detectors, allowing researchers to more efficiently separate the electrons and muons that are created in the cascade of secondary particles created when a comic ray hits the Earth’s atmosphere. This, in turn, should make it easier to identify cosmic rays that are high-energy protons.

Ups and downs

All is not entirely rosy in astronomy, though. Hawaii’s Supreme court recently ruled that the construction permit for the $1.4bn Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on top of Mauna Kea mountain is invalid. The ruling will force the telescope’s backers to restart the entire permit process, delaying the project and adding further uncertainty. Construction of the TMT has already been on hold since last April following protests by native Hawaiians, who see its construction on Mauna Kea as desecration of their spiritual and cultural pinnacle.

In nuclear physics, the ITER tokomak fusion reactor, which is being built in Cadarache in southern France, faces another turbulent year. After last November’s ITER council meeting, rumours surfaced that the project’s completion could slip by six years, from 2019 to 2025. The council will now carry out its own review to see if there is scope for tightening the timeline and cutting costs, with a new plan, or “baseline”, due out in June. On a related note, the Wendelstein 7-X stellerator in Greifswald, Germany, which switched on last week, is set to be put through its paces next year as researchers test this type of fusion device.

Quantum frontiers

Predicting what will happen across the rest of physics and in physics-based industry is harder, where progress is vital but fragmented across myriad groups, sectors and businesses. My tip is seeing “Li-Fi” – a light-based alternative to radio-frequency Wi-Fi – gaining commercial traction. Work on graphene and other 2D materials will continue, with the focus on layering a few 2D materials to make novel “designer” heterostructures using, say, graphene layers as electrodes and boron nitride as insulators.

Applications of physics are crucial, and it is thanks to them – and through the advocacy of organizations like the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World – that science funding in the UK survived cuts in the country’s recent Comprehensive Spending Review. There will be further positive developments for UK science in 2016, with the opening of the massive new £650m Francis Crick Institute in London. Named after the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, the institute will be the country’s flagship biomedical-science lab, with as many as a fifth of the 1250 staff being physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers. Remember that biosciences and the environment dominate Altmetric’s list of the top 100 most popular scientific papers of 2015, as judged by how much they were shared and discussed in mainstream and social media.

The beauty of physics, however, is that even the most esoteric research can unleash unforeseen benefits – as the winners of the Physics World 2015 Breakthrough of the Year will concur. We picked Jian-Wei Pan and Chaoyang Lu of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, for being the first to achieve the simultaneous quantum teleportation of two inherent properties of a fundamental particle – the photon. The researchers are already talking about applications, such as “long-distance quantum communications that provide unbreakable security, ultrafast quantum computers and quantum networks”. We can also look forward to further developments in 2016 from the UK’s ambitious £270m National Quantum Technologies Programme, which seeks to stimulate applications of quantum physics.

Speaking of which, surely 2016 will be the year when Anton Zeilinger – the doyen of quantum communication, computation and information – will finally win a long-overdue Nobel Prize for Physics? I’ve backed the Austrian quantum guru for Nobel glory for a long time, and 2016 has to be his year, possibly with Alain Aspect and John Clauser for their Bell’s inequality experiments. The Nobel Committee for Physics take note.

Season’s greetings

As for Physics World, in 2016 we’ll be keeping an eye on the industrial side of physics via our “Focus on” series, which includes nuclear energy (April), nanotechnology (May), optics and photonics (June) and vacuum technology (August). There will also be focus issues on neutron scattering (October), and astronomy and space (December). Also don’t miss our special report on China in September, which will see the editorial team visiting the world’s fastest rising physics powerhouse. We have special issues coming up on diversity (March), planetary physics (July) and natural hazards (November). Plus, on this website, we will be following all of the developments in the world of physics through our news and blog channels as well as our podcasts, videos and 100 Second Science. And finally, remember that all IOP members can read the award-winning digital 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.

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