Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Testing the brain’s “physics engine”, lawnmower aurora alert and more

 

By Hamish Johnston and Tushna Commissariat 

You may not know it, but apparently you have a dedicated region in your brain that is your “physics engine”. At least that is what cognitive researchers from Johns Hopkins University are suggesting after they have pinpointed a specific region of the human brain that intuitively understands physics – at least when it comes to predicting how objects behave in the real world. According to the team, the engine is kick-started when we observe physical events as they happen and is “among the most important aspects of cognition for survival”. Surprisingly, the region is not located in the brain’s vision centre, but is actually the same area we tap into while making plans of any type. In the video above, the team has created a little game for you to test your engine’s horsepower – go ahead and tell us how you did.

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A horrific nightmare scenario at CERN, surfer wins SUSY bet, and meet the father of the Super Soaker

Surf's up: Garrett Lisi when he is not winning bets with Nobel laureates (Courtesy: CC BY-SA 3.0/Cjean42)

Surf’s up: Garrett Lisi when he is not winning bets with Nobel laureates. (CC BY-SA 3.0/Cjean42)

By Hamish Johnston

The “nightmare scenario” of particle physics has a new meaning thanks to a bizarre video that appears to have been made by some scientists at CERN. The video seems to have been filmed at night at CERN’s main campus in Geneva and depicts an occult ceremony in which a woman is stabbed. While the video appears to be a spoof and there is no indication that anyone was actually harmed in its making, CERN officials are rightly concerned that such violent scenes were filmed on their premises. “CERN does not condone this type of spoof, which can give rise to misunderstandings about the scientific nature of our work,” a spokesperson told Agence France-Presse.

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‘Chemtrails’ are a con, say experts

Conspiracy theory: aeroplanes up to no good high above Horfield Common in Bristol

Vast conspiracy: contrails over Horfield Common in Bristol.

By Hamish Johnston

Is there a government-led conspiracy that uses aeroplanes to lace the atmosphere with chemicals? Of course there isn’t, and now there is a peer-reviewed study that says so.

Dubbed the “secret large-scale atmospheric programme” (SLAP), the conspiracy concerns condensation trails (contrails) that can often be seen high up in the sky. These are the lines of cloud that are formed when water condensates around particulate matter in the exhaust from jet engines. But are those contrails actually “chemtrails” that are spreading noxious substances far and wide?

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An animated history of physics, messing around with methane and Vangelis on space

 

By Hamish Johnston

Topping this week’s Red Folder is an “Animated history of physics” narrated by the Irish comedian and science enthusiast Dara O Briain. Running from Galileo to Einstein’s general theory of relatively – and giving very short shrift to quantum mechanics – it’s more of a selected history. You can enjoy the animations and O Briain’s soothing brogue in the video above.

O Briain often teams up with the particle physicist and media celebrity Brian Cox, who is also in the news recently for teaching children in London how to ignite potentially explosive gas. Before you call social services, it was all in the name of science education and part of Cox’s visit to St. Paul’s Way Trust School. Cox had been invited to the school’s summer science school and obliged by leading an experiment into the properties of methane. “There is no shortage of enthusiasm for students and young people when you talk about science and engineering,” Cox told the Reuters news agency.

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Pokémon physics, photon torpedoes, a neutrino Ghostbuster and more

Don’t fall in the water! Pokémon Go arrives at Fermilab (Courtesy: Lauren Biron/Fermilab)

Don’t walk into the water! Pokémon Go arrives at Fermilab. (Courtesy: Lauren Biron/Fermilab)

By Michael Banks and Hamish Johnston

The smartphone app Pokémon GO has been all the rage since its recent launch. The augmented-reality game is based on the Nintendo franchise and features players exploring their surroundings while trying to catch as many of the virtual creatures as possible, According to Science, Pokémon have been spotted at a number of science centres including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory while Symmetry Magazine reports that the game has also infiltrated particle-physics labs such as Fermilab, with scientists seen walking around the lab peering into their phone as they hunt down Pokémon.

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Physics World talks to Spanish TV about migrating Nobel laureates

 

By Hamish Johnston

A few weeks ago I was in Germany for the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, where I moderated a “press talk” about migration and science. This was essentially a panel discussion that involved two chemistry Nobel laureates – Martin Karplus and Daniel Shechtman – and two early-career physicists: Winifred Ayinpogbilla Atiah from Ghana and Ana Isabel Maldonado Cid from Spain.

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Jupiter roars as Juno approaches, a huge helium discovery and all you need to know about dark matter

 

By Hamish Johnston

Early next week NASA’s Juno spacecraft will fire its blasters and pop itself into orbit around Jupiter. On 24 June the approaching spacecraft fell under the spell of the planet’s powerful magnetic field and the transition was captured by Juno’s Waves instrument, which measures radio and plasma waves.

The signals have been converted to sound and you can listen to them in the above video. There are two abrupt changes in the signal from Waves. One is a shift from a high-pitch whisper to a low-frequency roar that occurs when Juno crosses Jupiter’s bow shock. This is where the supersonic solar wind is slowed by the planet’s magnetic field and the roar is the equivalent of a sonic boom here on Earth.

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George Smoot on mapping the universe with gravity

Measuring the universe: George Smoot enthuses about gravitational waves

Measuring the universe: George Smoot enthuses about gravitational waves.

By Hamish Johnston at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany

Yesterday I was in a fantastic session with George Smoot, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering the anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background. He will be speaking today at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting about another important astronomical discovery, the first direct detection of gravitational waves that was made by LIGO in September 2015. Waves that were created by the merger of two unexpectedly large black holes.

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Carlo Rubbia backs a Higgs factory and methane cracking

Good craic: Carlo Rubbia wants to have a crack at methane (Courtesy: Lindau Meeting)

Good craic: Carlo Rubbia wants to have a crack at methane. (Courtesy: Lindau Meeting)

By Hamish Johnston at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany

It’s my second day here at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, and it has been a busy one so far.

I have just been chatting with Carlo Rubbia, who shared the 1984 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of the W and Z particles.

Rubbia gave a fantastic talk yesterday about future sources of energy and he was eager to expand on this topic. In particular, he told me about a new technology he has been working on to produce energy from natural gas without releasing any carbon dioxide – a technique called “methane cracking“. While this sounds like a fantastic solution to climate change, at least in the short term, he admits there are lots of technical challenges to overcome.

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Blue LEDs and a revolution in light

Morning in Lindau: great scenery and wonderful talks

Morning in Lindau: great scenery and wonderful talks.

By Hamish Johnston at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany

It has been a great morning of physics talks this morning here at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Hiroshi Amano, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics for the development of the blue LED, spoke first about the practical aspects of his creation.

Electronic displays and low-energy lighting are two obvious applications for blue LEDs. Amano pointed out that LED lighting uses 1/8 the energy of incandescent bulbs and 1/2 that of fluorescent lights. But perhaps more importantly, he says that this low-energy operation means that light can be introduced to remote and poor parts of the world. This has the potential to boost education because it enables children in areas with no mains electricity to read and study at night.

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