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Adaptive optics in biology

By Matin Durrani

For centuries, astronomers looking up at the heavens through a telescope had a problem on their hands – the quality of their images depended on the strength and direction of the wind in the air. Trouble is, the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t uniform because its density – and thus its refractive index – varies from point to point as the wind blows. Result: distorted images.

Cover of Carl Kempf's Physics World Discovery ebook Adaptive Optics in Biology

Carl Kempf’s new short-form Physics World Discovery ebook is free to read

In 1953, however, astronomer Horace Babcock proposed a clever solution, which was to bounce incoming light off a device that can rapidly correct for changes in optical path-length, which flattens the wave-front and so counteracts the effects of aberration. Any remaining wave-front errors are measured after the correction, before a feedback control loop uses the measurement to continuously adjust the corrections applied to the wave-front.

That was the principle behind “adaptive-optics” technology, which has since gone on to become a routine and invaluable part of astronomy. Turns out, however, that the same principles can be used in microscopy too, leading to many applications of adaptive optics in medicine and biology too, as I’ve discovered by commissioning and editing a new short-form Physics World Discovery ebook by Carl Kempf.

Kempf is a senior systems engineer at the California-based firm Iris AO, Inc, which is heavily into adaptive-optics technology, having worked on sensing, actuation, and control systems for high-precision devices for more than 30 years. I’m pleased to say that Kempf’s short ebook, Adaptive Optics in Biology, is now available for you to read free in EPUB, Kindle and PDF format via this link.

To give you some more idea of what the book is about and his career to date, I put some questions to Kempf, which you can read below. Don’t forget either that there are plenty of other books in the Physics World Discovery series, ranging from multimessenger astronomy to quantitative finance.

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Meteoroid seen from space, Nobel laureates speak their minds on group awards and keeping up with technology

 

By Hamish Johnston

Fix your eyes on the upper-right portion of the above video and pay particular attention about seven seconds into the footage. You will see a fireball falling through Earth’s atmosphere. The video was taken from the International Space Station by the Italian astronaut and prolific photographer Paolo Nespoli.

Was the fireball a piece of space junk, or perhaps a tiny piece of asteroid? And how fast was it moving? For an analysis of what Nespoli may have seen, go to: “The backstory: Paolo spots a meteoroid from the ISS”. There you will also find a fantastic gallery of photographs taken by Nespoli.

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LIGO bags another black-hole merger

The other ones: five observed black-hole mergers, plus a suspected merger with a dashed outline (Courtesy: LIGO)

The other ones: five observed black-hole mergers, plus a possible merger shown with dashed outlines (Courtesy: LIGO)

By Hamish Johnston

They have done it again. Physicists working on the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors in the US have announced the observation of another black-hole merger.

This event was spotted on 8 June, 2017 and involved two black holes combining to form a black hole 18 times more massive than the Sun. The Virgo detector in Italy did not see the event because it was not switched on. This is the fifth observation of gravitational waves from merging black holes seen by LIGO, which along with Virgo also detected a signal in August from the merger of two neutron stars. Unlike the neutron-star event, no electromagnetic radiation was seen from the merger.

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Discover why the philosophy of physics is vital

Cover of Robert P Crease's Physics World Discovery ebook "Philosophy of Physics"

Think about it: Robert P Crease’s new short-form Physics World Discovery ebook is now available to read for free

By Matin Durrani

Avid readers of Physics World will know that we have for many years published a monthly column called “Critical Point” written by Robert P Crease, a historian and philosopher of science from Stony Brook University in New York, in which he examines the interface between physics and the wider culture.

I’ve always felt Crease’s work is interesting but I’m aware that many physicists scoff at the notion of philosophers trying to understand how science works. It’s a waste of time, right?

Following a meal at a vegetarian restaurant round the corner from his apartment in Manhattan earlier this year, I managed to persuade Crease to write one of our new, short-form ebooks that go under the the Physics World Discovery banner. My challenge was for him to explain to physicists just what it is philosophers of physics do – and why their work is important.

You can read Crease’s book Philosophy of Physics, which has just been published, for free in either epub, Kindle or PDF formats via this link. To whet your appetite, Crease has answered some questions about his approach to philosophy and why the book is worth reading. Don’t forget there are plenty of other books in the Physics World Discovery series, ranging from multimessenger astronomy to quantitative finance.

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Name a distant world, fireworks through a diffraction grating, radio telescope helps Puerto Rican relief

Double act: artist's impression of the (486958) 2014 MU69 flyby (Courtesy: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Carlos Hernandez)

Double act: artist’s impression of the (486958) 2014 MU69 flyby. (Courtesy: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Carlos Hernandez)

By Hamish Johnston

Here is an opportunity to put your mark on the solar system. NASA and the team behind the New Horizons spacecraft are asking the public to nickname the mission’s next flyby target. Located in the Kuiper belt and called “(486958) 2014 MU69”, the target is likely to be two objects – each about 20 km across – in a very close orbit. So, a name like “Cheech and Chong” could be a winner. To enter, go to “Help us nickname a distant world”.

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Applied physics and Japan’s ageing population

Satoshi Kawata from Osaka University

Keeping giong: Satoshi Kawata from Osaka University remains active despite having just officially retired. (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

By Matin Durrani in Osaka, Japan

By most measures, Japan is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Depending on which criterion you use, it’s either the third or fourth biggest economy on the planet. Much of that success is built on the country’s prowess in science and technology, which have supported numerous hi-tech giants of the corporate world.

Still, not everything is rosy in the Japanese garden. After the post-war boom years, the economy began to slump in the early 1990s and has picked up only slowly since then. To make matters worse, Japan has also had to contend with rising social-security costs to support an ageing population. Plummeting birth rates and steadily rising death ages mean that Japan’s population has fallen by just over 1% since 2010 to 126 million.

I was thinking about such matters yesterday as I walked through a shopping mall in central Osaka on my way to meet applied physicist Satoshi Kawata from the University of Osaka. Okay, it was a weekday lunchtime and this is just one data point, but there sure were lots of pensioners out shopping. I was also surprised to see a guy selling The Big Issue – the magazine that supports homeless people who want to make a living. I’d not seen any inkling of poverty in the country up to that point.

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When will Japan get its next physics Nobel prize?

Photo of Hikaru Kawamura at the University of Osaka

Thirteen and counting: Hikaru Kawamura wonders when Japan will get its next Nobel Prize for Physics.

By Matin Durrani in Osaka, Japan

Hikaru Kawamura, president of the Physical Society of Japan (JPS), handed me a brochure as we sat down in his office on the fifth floor of the Department of Earth and Space Science at Osaka University. Inside it were photographs of the 13 Japanese physicists who have won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

It’s an impressive list of people, starting with Hideki Yukawa, who won the 1949 prize for his theory of the nuclear force, and going all the way up to Takaaki Kajita who shared the 2015 prize for detecting atmospheric neutrino oscillations at the Super-Kamiokande underground lab. (They’re all men, of course, but that’s another story.)

However, Kawamura admitted to me during our 90-minute discussion, that he is “not optimistic” that Japan will be as prolific in terms of Nobel prizes in the future. Most Nobel laureates usually (though admittedly not always) win their awards for work done 20-30 years ago. So with Japanese physics these days being, as Kawamura puts it, “not so popular as it used to be”, how long will Japan have to wait for its next physics Nobel prize?

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Riding around KAGRA

 KAGRA gravitational-wave observatory in Kamioka

Tunnel vision: entry point to the KAGRA gravitational-wave observatory in Kamioka. (Courtesy: Michael Banks)

By Michael Banks in Kamioka, Japan

Of all the places I have been, I can’t remember being asked to ride a bicycle for 3 km down a dimly lit tunnel that had water dripping – sometimes pouring – from the ceiling.

But that’s what happened today when I visited the KAGRA gravitational-wave observatory in northern Japan.

Rising bright and early – a common occurrence this week thanks to jet lag – I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Toyama.

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Reforming Japanese science

Image of John Hernlund

Making changes: John Hernlund.

By Michael Banks in Tokyo, Japan

Following this morning’s talk at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (as well as a mock earthquake evacuation drill that took place just afterwards), I took the opportunity to visit the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI), which is located in a neighbouring building at Tokyo Tech.

Like the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU), which I visited yesterday, ELSI is part of the World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI).

ELSI began in 2012 and has funding for 10 years from the WPI. There are around 100 people working there, the majority of whom are from outside Japan. Its main aim is to understand how life began on Earth and how that can be applied to the search for life on other planets. It covers a range of disciplines from astrophysics to microbiology.

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How to get your paper noticed

Poster at TokyoTech on "Science communicaton in a digital age"

How to get noticed; the poster for today’s seminar at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

By Matin Durrani in Tokyo, Japan

For physicists, doing research is only the start of the game. With thousands of papers published each year, how do you make sure your latest work stands out from the crowd?

If you’re an established academic, your peers will already know who you are and, provided you can continue getting your papers published in the top journals, your career will carry on hitting the high notes . But if you’re less experienced in the research game, then a good dose of publicity in the mainstream media can give you a great head start – and thankfully the online world can help hugely.

That was the message of a seminar “Science communication in the digital age” given today at Tokyo Institute of Technology by me and my IOP Publishing colleagues Michael Banks (Physics World news editor) and Elaine Tham (associate director for Asia-Pacific). Attended by about 40 students, science communicators and university administrators, the seminar was opened by the president of Tokyo Tech Yoshinao Mishima.

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