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Everyday science

What’s in store in 2010?

21 Dec 2009 Matin Durrani

From new data at the Large Hadron Collider to deep research budget cuts in the UK and Japan, 2010 could be both the best and worst of times

Looking forward to great things from the LHC


As we stand on the threshold of a new decade – the teens, the tens, call it what you will – physics is primed, in the immortal words of Charles Dickens, for the best of times and the worst of times. The good news is that collisions have already begun at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s biggest ever physics experiment – which is back in action following the magnet disaster of 2008.

With the first high-energy (10 Tev) collisions due by the end of the year – and maximum-energy 14 TeV collisions likely in 2011 – the stage is set for a stream of thrilling new discoveries. Before long we could see clear signs of the Higgs boson (or not) or perhaps even supersymmetry, extra dimensions or other “new physics”.

Those findings may have to wait until next year and probably beyond, but you can be sure that the particle-physics world will be abuzz with rumour and counter-rumour. And if the US Congress gives the nod to a request from the Department of Energy, the Tevatron collider may even continue for an extra year beyond retirement into 2011, ensuring that there is a real trans-Atlantic race for the Higgs, for a year at least.

There is also plenty to get excited about in astrophysics and cosmology, particularly following last week’s announcement by members of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search in the Soudan mine in the US that they had tantalizing hints of the first direct detection of dark matter in the form of weakly interacting massive particles. Although the findings are by no means certain, a clear and convincing sign of the nature of dark matter could be imminent. When that comes – as it may do next year – it will be a huge breakthrough for physics.

Down to Earth

Next year should also see interesting findings from the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope. We can also expect plenty of coverage of the end of the space-shuttle era, which is due to come to a close in September with a final flight form the Discovery craft.

But it is not just in “big science” that exciting new physics is taking place. If 2009 is anything to go by, you can expect plenty of further exciting developments in metamaterials, graphene, spintronics and other areas of condensed-matter physics. Much more progress can also be expected in quantum information.

Indeed, we have selected as our own “breakthrough of the year” work carried out by physicists led by Jonathan Home at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Colorado, US, who created the first small-scale device that can be described as a ‘quantum computer’. The device, which performs a sequence of 15 logical operations with an overall accuracy of 94%, is a key step towards the development of a practical universal quantum computer.

Lasers will also be centre stage in 2010, which marks the 50th anniversary of their invention by Ted Maiman on 16 May 1960 at Hughes Research Laboratories in California, when he generated coherent pulses of laser light from a fingertip-sized lump of ruby illuminated by a flash lamp. In doing so, he beat a number of other physicists to the goal, including Charles Townes, who had earlier developed the maser – the microwave forerunner of the laser.

Key events to mark the golden laser jubilee are taking place around the world, including a special session at SPIE’s Photonics West meeting in San Francisco at the end of January, as well as at CLEO in San Jose in May. As you might expect, we will be marking the anniversary with a special issue of Physics World magazine in May and a series of video interviews with leading laser physicists and engineers as part of the video series.

Speaking of lasers, 2010 will also see researchers at the huge new National Ignition Facility in the US beginning experiments to focus the energy of its 192 giant laser beams onto a tiny target filled with hydrogen fuel. There is a strong possibility that researchers will be able to reach “ignition” this year – the moment at which the device will produce more energy from fusion than is required to start the reaction. When that happens, it will be the culmination of more than 50 years of research, although releasing that energy in a form that could actually be used by a country’s electricity grid is another thing altogether.

Down down

But despite the great progress in physics, researchers in the UK and Japan are still coming to terms with savage cuts to research programmes. In the UK, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which has a shortfall of £40m in its budget, is set to tear into its programmes in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics.

The council will be axing its funding for over 25 different projects, including the ALICE experiment at CERN, and slashing studentships by over a fifth. Worst of all, these are cuts to high-profile projects that get the public interested in physics in the first place. For the want of £40m they could do irrevocable damage to UK physics at the worst possible time.

The situation is not much better in Japan, where research funds could be cut in half – or possibly even terminated – following the government’s decision to slash over $35bn from the 2010 budget. The Spring-8 synchrotron in Hyogo and the B-meson factory at the KEK particle-physics lab in Tsukuba are among those facilities that could be hit, as could the Superkamiokande neutrino experiment at J-PARC as well as Japan’s involvement in the Subaru optical and infrared telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Negotiations will now take place in the ministry of finance with a finalized budget for 2010 set to be made at the end of December.

But let’s not end the noughties on too downbeat a note. Physicists in the US appear set for brighter times, with plenty of funds for energy research in particular following President Obama’s “recovery and reinvestment” bill. Work on two big Europe-based projects – the European Spallation Source and the ITER fusion experiment – continues apace, while the European Space Agency is due to launch its CryoSat2 mission to measure the thickness of the Earth’s ice sheets in February. And with football’s World Cup taking place in South Africa in June, you can be sure that sports physicists will be putting the finishing touches to their latest papers on the aerodynamics of footballs.

Roll on 2010!

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