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Best of the blog 2013

By Michael Banks

From the world’s smallest video to the science behind foaming beer bottles, physics has had its fair share of interesting stories this year. Here is our pick of the best from the blog.

The joke’s on Chu

Steven Chu

Caught on camera. (Courtesy: The Onion)

The satirical Onion magazine once famously duped China’s People’s Daily newspaper into thinking that North Korea’s leader had been voted the sexiest man alive in 2012, but in February it seems to have failed to fool people that a spoof of former US energy secretary Steven Chu was true. “Hungover energy secretary wakes up next to solar panel” ran an Onion headline, reporting that after visiting a series of DC watering holes, Chu woke up the following morning next to a giant solar panel he had “met” that evening. “Chu’s encounter with the crystalline-silicon solar receptor was his most regrettable dalliance since 2009, when an extended fling with a 90-foot wind turbine nearly ended his marriage,” the Onion wrote. At least Chu saw the funny side of the story. In a post on his Facebook page he noted that the allegations had nothing to do with him stepping down as US energy secretary after four years in the role. “While I am not going to confirm or deny the charges specifically,” he wrote, “I will say that clean, renewable solar power is a growing source of US jobs and is becoming more affordable, so it’s no surprise that lots of Americans are falling in love with solar.”

The world’s smallest film

Scientists working at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in the US created what they called the world’s smallest movie in May. Made by Andreas Heinrich and colleagues, the animated film – A Boy and his Atom – was created using a scanning-tunnelling-microscope tip to push individual atoms around on a surface – a technology that was invented at IBM in 1981. The animation comprises 242 single frames in which a boy called Adam is drawn using 100 or so atoms on a surface. His atom companion is played by just one atom that bops around on the surface.

CERN Eurovision

It is not a partnership that you would have seen coming. But in July CERN teamed up with the organization behind the Eurovision Song Contest – EUROVISION – in awarding grants to two multimedia companies to develop content that can spark the scientific curiosity of children aged between 8 to 12. The first video is an animation series called “Cubic, Quark & Big-G”, proposed by Baby Cow Animation and Bigfatstudio, where robot heroes will explore fundamental physics in a fun and formative way. The second is a series of short films called “Just for Quarks”, from production company Screen Glue, featuring three teenage pranksters who share a super power – the ability to alter fundamental laws of physics. Whether or not these films do inspire the next Peter Higgs remains to be seen. But if they can be half as entertaining as the Eurovision Song Contest, then that it is surely money well spent.

A barrel of laughs

Physics can be quite a serious endeavour, which is why making physics funny is never easy. We therefore winced when CERN announced in August that it was going to stage its first ever official stand-up comedy night dubbed LHComedy. Held at CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation in Geneva, the free event featured six CERN scientists – Sam Gregson, Alex Brown, Benjamin Frisch, Claire Lee, Hugo Day and Clara Nellist – but it seems that Belgian comedian Lieven Scheire, who began (but did not finish) a degree in physics at the University of Ghent, stole the show. Our favourite bit is Scheire’s opening joke: “I love CERN, it’s the most famous experiment of the European Union,” he said. “Apart from Greece, of course.”

Fuel-cell guitar

Running on hydrogen and oxygen and producing just electricity without any nasty emissions, fuel cells have over the years been used to power everything from bikes and buses to cars and even planes. But August saw the debut of a fuel cell at Imperial College London that was used to power a rock band. Staff and students were treated to a solo performance by the band’s guitarist and frontman Michael Parkes, who is a PhD chemistry student at Imperial. Parkes apparently performed a number of tracks, including Nirvana’s early 1990s hit “Smells like teen spirit”. The fuel cell in question is a “PEMFC-supercapacitor hybrid power generator”, which takes hydrogen from a compressed cylinder and oxygen from atmospheric air as its fuel. Imperial claims the 10 kW fuel cell “produces enough electricity to power three typical UK homes”.

Racing through a maze

In September, physics students from the University of Bath in the UK made a fun video of the Leidenfrost effect. This phenomenon occurs when a liquid drop comes in contact with a hot surface that produces an insulating layer of vapour that keeps the drop from evaporating rapidly. The video shows a drop moving rapidly through a maze via a series of ratchet surfaces that cause it to move rapidly in one direction.

Bohemian gravity

Here at Physics World we have lost count of the number of times someone has tried to do a song or rap about physics. So we braced ourselves in September before playing an a capella version of Queen’s “Bohemian rhapsody”, entitled “Bohemian gravity”. It is sung and performed by Tim Blais – a student in theoretical physics at McGill University in Canada, who recently completed his Master’s thesis. But right from the off, you can tell this is a class apart from anything else in the genre.

Black-belt physics

Julie McGavigan

Julie McGavigan, expert in physics and karate.

Not many school pupils can boast having had a world-champion physics teacher, but Julie McGavigan, who teaches physics at Eastwood High School near Glasgow, bagged a gold medal at the World Karate Championships in Denmark in October. The 27 year old, who said the win in Denmark was “quite a shock”, is a 3rd Dan in Shotokan karate and has taught physics for five years after studying the subject at the University of Glasgow. McGavigan also teaches karate at evening classes at Eastwood High, where she puts physics principles to good use.

Foaming at the mouth

Remember that university “joke” when someone sneaks up behind you and then taps the top of your beer bottle with theirs, causing a foamy mess to erupt from your bottle only for their beer not to foam at all? Well, at least you can take some solace in a possible explanation for it. It apparently involves compression waves that travel down the glass, triggering low-pressure “rarefaction waves”, which allow carbon dioxide to form bubbles that implode and expand rapidly. So why doesn’t the prankster’s bottle foam too? “If you hit the bottle from below, you first trigger a compression wave and then a somewhat less intense expansion one, which is not very efficient in terms of driving bubble implosion,” Javier Rodríguez-Rodríguez from Carlos III University of Madrid told

Waiter, there’s a bug in my cocktail!

And finally, just in time for Christmas, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in November unveiled the ultimate “cocktail accessory” – an edible self-propelled boat that whizzes around on the surface of an alcoholic drink. Created by John Bush and colleagues at MIT along with the celebrity chef José Andrés, the boat can be made of gelatine or sugar and is fuelled by higher-proof alcohol than the cocktail itself. They also unveiled a “floral pipette” that is based on a water lily. When the tip of the floral pipette is pulled out of a liquid, its petals fold up, forming a small pouch containing a small amount of liquid. The closed petals resemble a cherry, which when brought to the lips open and release the liquid.

You can be sure of more quirky stories from the world of physics next year. See you in 2014!

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