By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting in Baltimore
With so many sessions taking place at the APS March Meeting, finding time to write about them is almost impossible. However, now that I’m waiting for my flight from Baltimore back to the UK, I’ve got all the time in the world – so here’s my list of five conference highlights.
One bacterium at a time. Michael Roukes of Caltech spoke on Sunday about a new type of mass spectrometer his group is developing. The basic principle is that when an individual molecule adsorbs onto the surface of a nanoscopic resonator, the mass of the resonator increases, and this causes the resonator’s frequency to shift in a measurable way. The minimum mass resolution of these nanoresonators is around 10–23 g, but Roukes said the technology is also scalable to molecules with higher masses. One future application, he suggested, would be single-bacterium mass spectrometry. Such a technique would allow bacterial infections to be diagnosed much faster than is possible with cell cultures, which can take days to yield a result – far too long for a patient with sepsis, which can be fatal within hours.
The superconducting circus. The first talk of Wednesday’s session on science outreach featured Julien Bobroff, a condensed-matter physicist at the Laboratoire de Physique des Solides in Paris. He and his colleagues have developed an eye-catching series of visual aids to introduce members of the public to basic superconductivity phenomena such as the Meissner effect and magnetic flux pinning. My favourite was their “superconducting circus”, in which small magnetic models jump through hoops amid atmospheric clouds of nitrogen steam. However, the superconducting surfboard also held a certain appeal, and the 16,000 people who have tried it so far would probably agree.
Steve Chu, solar comedian. The outgoing US energy secretary was on excellent form during his talk on Wednesday afternoon, cracking self-effacing jokes about his love affair with solar power and enthusing a near-capacity crowd with his vision of a less centralized future for energy generation. He also drew an extended analogy between the current parlous state of many solar-cell manufacturers and the “creative destruction” that befell the US automobile industry in the first half of the 20th century. In 1917, he noted, there were 127 different car manufacturers in the US. By the 1960s there were only three. Something similar is happening with solar at the moment, he argued, noting that the world’s biggest manufacturer of solar photovoltaics, China’s Suntech Power, had announced the bankruptcy of its main subsidiary just hours earlier.
What are you working on these days? Attending conferences isn’t just about talks and free food, of course. As any attendee will tell you, the March Meeting is also a great chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues. I discovered this for myself on Monday when I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for 10 years. Now a postdoc in Chris Monroe’s ion-trapping lab at Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute, Susan Clark was my comrade-in-derivations through dozens of tricky problem sets when we were undergraduates, and it was a treat to catch up with all the things that life had brought her since graduation.
Getting industrious. One of my goals for the meeting was to find out more about what physicists are doing in industry. According to one conference attendee I spoke to, the sessions on industrial physics used to be a bit of a backwater, but there were some great speakers in the mix this year – including Michael Roukes (see above) and Robert Colwell (see here). I was also intrigued by a comment from Hubert Lakner, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems in Dresden, Germany. Apparently, the 66 Fraunhofer Institutes around Germany have a programme whereby employees who leave to start their own companies can return to Fraunhofer if they are not successful. “Being an entrepreneur should not mean you have to burn down bridges behind you,” Lakner observed, adding that those who return often bring back valuable experience. And as usual, the Exhibit Hall was packed with booths selling physics-related products; I hope a few of the people staffing them will share their stories in the magazine later this year.