Posts by: Hamish Johnston

IBM wants you to use its quantum computer

 

By Hamish Johnston

Starting today, members of the public will be able to run programs on IBM’s quantum processor. Users can access the device – which comprises five superconducting quantum bits (qubits) – via the US-based company’s “IBM Quantum Experience” website.

Described as a “cloud-enabled quantum computing platform”, IBM says that users will be able to run algorithms and experiments on IBM’s quantum processor, manipulate individual qubits, as well as access quantum-computing tutorials and simulations.

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The most expensive object on Earth, publish or perish, and a physics Magna Carta

Gold coast: the Hinkley Point C power station will be build next to existing reactors in Somerset (Courtesy: CC BY-SA 2.0/ Richard Baker)

Gold coast: the Hinkley Point C power station will be built next to existing reactors in Somerset. (CC BY-SA 2.0 Richard Baker)

By Hamish Johnston

What will soon be the most expensive object on Earth? The answer, according to Greenpeace, is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station that is slated for construction in south-west England. According to the BBC, the environmental group reckons the station will cost £24bn ($35bn) whereas EDF – the company that will build it – puts the construction cost at £18bn. In contrast, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN cost a mere £4bn. While the price tag on Hinkley Point C – which should produce 3.2 GW of electricity by 2024 – is eye watering, building a reactor on the cheap is not really an option.

Still, Hinkley Point C will not be the most expensive object ever built by humans. That honour goes to the International Space Station, which the BBC says cost nearly £78bn. There’s something comforting in knowing that the single highest expenditure ever has been on science – maybe civilization isn’t doomed after all.

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Putting a bouncy castle in space and other extraterrestrial adventures

A space station made from four B330 inflatable pods, which are the white cylinders (Courtesy: Bigelow Aerospace)

Artist’s impression of a space station comprising four B330 inflatable pods, which are the white cylinders. (Courtesy: Bigelow Aerospace)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s never been a better time to be a space enthusiast, as more and more countries are unveiling space programmes and it seems like a new mission is launched or announced just about every week.

But if you are like me and find the constellation of mission names – the various acronyms, mythical beasts and dead scientists – overwhelming, then the space physicist Chris Arridge has put together “Five human spaceflight missions to look forward to in the next decade” for The Conversation.

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Physics saves humanity, the large rainfall collider and other environmental highlights on Earth Day

Gravity's pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

Gravity’s pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

By James Dacey and Hamish Johnston

Today is Earth Day, so let’s temporarily rename this regular Red Folder column as the Green Folder. Either way, today we’re going to focus on the Earth and environmental issues. The official website of Earth Day – an initiative now in its 46th year – has details about the various initiatives and events taking place around the world today.

First, let’s pay tribute to a physicist whose work had a profound influence on the climate and energy debate in the UK and beyond. Sir David Mackay died on 14 April aged 48 following a battle with cancer. Mackay is remembered among other things for his pragmatic approach to energy and his 2008 book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (free access) was hailed for its rigour and refreshing absence of rhetoric. Mackay’s writings attracted the interest of the British government who appointed him as chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2009, a post he held for five years. Ever prolific, Mackay was blogging about his experiences right up until two days before his death.

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Cosmic rays, diamond anvils and spintronics in Utah

Gardens at the University of Utah

A blooming marvellous afternoon at the University of Utah.

By Hamish Johnston in Salt Lake City

Yesterday afternoon I hopped on a tram bound for the University of Utah. As you can see in the above photo, spring has sprung in Salt Lake City and the campus was resplendent in blossoms with views over snow-capped mountains.

I was at the university to film several 100 Second Science videos with Utah physicists including Shanti Deemyad, who studies the properties of matter under extremely high pressures. She is particularly interested in understanding the quantum properties of solids at temperatures near absolute zero – properties that can be enhanced when materials such as lithium are squeezed at pressures that are more than 10 million times greater than Earth’s atmosphere. This is done using a diamond anvil and Deemyad’s lab has 20 or so of them.

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LIGO could soon detect one gravitational wave per week

The LIGO detectors in Louisiana

The LIGO detectors in Louisiana (above) and Washington are currently being upgraded. (Courtesy: LIGO/Caltech)

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

I came to Salt Lake City hoping to glean a few golden nuggets of information about what future gravitational-wave detections we can expect from LIGO. What I found is that the collaboration is as tight-lipped as ever about discussing potential results. That’s fair enough and I understand the caution. However, I was hoping that the researchers would have loosened up a bit after their February announcement of the first gravitational-wave detection and share a little more with the general public.

So, what have I learned?

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HAWC spots TeV gamma ray flare

A TeV gamma-ray flare spotted by HAWC

Now you see it, now you don’t: a TeV gamma-ray flare spotted by HAWC. (Courtesy: Michelle Hui)

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

Talk about luck. Just 10 days before the April Meeting the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) gamma-ray observatory lit up with the detection of a galaxy that produced large numbers of teraelectronvolt (TeV) gamma rays for just one day (see image).

Dubbed Markarian 501, HAWC astrophysicists believe that the flare could be driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy. However, they admit that they don’t really understand how such flares occur.

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Feedback on a scheme to cloak Earth from hostile aliens

David Kipping

David Kipping doesn’t want to hide from aliens.

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

Earlier today I caught up with David Kipping of Columbia University in the US after his fascinating talk about what could make an exoplanet habitable. I wanted to ask Kipping about a quirky paper that he and Alex Teachey published a few weeks ago, which I wrote about in the The Red Folder.

Kipping and Teachey described how a laser could be used to cloak the Earth from the prying eyes of an extraterrestrial civilization. The paper was published just before 1 April, so at the time I wasn’t sure whether the paper was legitimate (it is) and Kipping told me that publishing before April Fools’ Day did cause some confusion.

So what feedback has Kipping had about the paper?

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The accelerator tree bears fruit

Photograph of a tree in Salt Lake City

Accelerator science is blossoming in Salt Lake City.

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City

This morning Mei Bai of the Jülich Institute for Nuclear Physics in Germany used a lovely phrase during her talk at the APS April Meeting. She showed a slide called the “accelerator tree”‘, which refers to a paper by Ugo Amaldi called “The importance of particle accelerators“.

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Merging black holes come to Salt Lake City

The Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

Will the LIGO collaboration announce today that it has detected more gravitational waves? There is a session this morning at 10.45 a.m. at the APS April Meeting with the enticing name “Results from Advanced LIGO“, and I think it’s safe to say that you should get there early if you want to get a seat.

In February the LIGO announced the first ever detection of a gravitational wave, which was made while the collaboration’s two detectors were being calibrated. Now that the experiment has been running since September 2015, it will be interesting to see if the first detection was a rare event that they were lucky to see,  or if LIGO will be detecting the mergers of black-hole pairs on a regular basis.

Stay tuned to for updates, and in the meantime enjoy this photograph I took of the Mormon Temple, which is across the road from the convention centre here in Salt Lake City.

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