Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Live space station upgrade, more zombie physics, T-shirts for LIGO

Working in space: A still image from the NASA spacewalk video (Courtesy: NASA)

Working in space: A still image from the NASA spacewalk video. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

NASA is live streaming a video of a spacewalk on its Facebook page, and you just might be able to catch it live from the International Space Station – or watch it again. The video shows astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson upgrading the space station’s power system – and it looks like hard work to me.

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Hungry reindeer could mitigate climate change, talking about quantum computing and our breakthroughs of the year

Geoengineering: reindeer can change local albedo (Courtesy: CC BY-SA 3.0/Alexandre Buisse)

Geoengineering: reindeer can change local albedo. (CC BY-SA 3.0/Alexandre Buisse)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s that time of year when everyone is looking for stories with a Christmassy angle. My colleagues here at IOP Publishing are no exception and they have just put out a press release about some reindeer-related physics. Apparently, hungry reindeer in northern Norway are increasing the albedo of their feeding grounds by eating lots of plants. Albedo is a measure of how much sunlight is reflected back from the surface of the Earth – rather than being absorbed and dissipated as heat – and plays an important role in climate. A worry in the far north is that global warming will lead to greater plant cover – which will reduce albedo and lead to even more warming. Now, it looks like reindeer could help break this cycle. “The effect reindeer grazing can have on albedo and energy balances is potentially large enough to be regionally important,” says Mariska te Beest, from Umeå University in Sweden. “It also points towards herbivore management being a possible tool to combat future warming. Most of the arctic tundra is grazed by either domesticated or wild reindeer, so this is an important finding.”

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Waking up to a gravitational wave


By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday we announced the winner of the Physics World 2016 Breakthrough of the Year, which went to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration for its revolutionary, first ever direct observations of gravitational waves. I caught up with six LIGO scientists in the above video Hangout and asked them what it was like when they first realized that they had detected gravitational waves emanating from two coalescing black holes 1.3 billion light-years away.

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Freeman Dyson on the physics dream team, Tycho Brahe’s heavy metal, Tintin bags an astronomical sum

Mr Freeman Dyson: “so lucky” not to have a PhD. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jacob Appelbaum)

Mr Freeman Dyson: “so lucky” not to have a PhD. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jacob Appelbaum)

By Hamish Johnston

What would it be like to have known Hans Bethe, Wolfgang Pauli, Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman? One person who can tell is the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who recounts his extraordinary life in an interview in Nautilus entitled “My life with the physics dream team”. Born in the UK, he got a degree in mathematics at the University of Cambridge before embarking on a PhD with Bethe at Cornell. Remarkably, Dyson did not complete his doctorate – something he seems rather pleased with: “I was so lucky. I slipped through the cracks.”

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Schrödinger’s Brexit, ‘The Elements’ remix, physics referees and American football

 

By Hamish Johnston

On Tuesday I was rushing to finish writing a news story about quantum superposition and got a phone call out of the blue from Roger Sawyer, who is deputy editor on BBC Radio 4’s afternoon news and current affairs programme PM. He had the brilliant idea that the meme of “having your Brexit cake and eating it too” had some sort of connection to quantum superposition – and wanted some advice from Physics World.

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Chasing gravitational waves in song, physicists on Broadway, the ‘impossible space engine’ returns

 

By Hamish Johnston

These days anyone making a major breakthrough in physics is expected to follow-up with a cheesy music video. So give it up for The Mavericks and “Chasing the Waves”, which chronicles the quest to detect gravitational waves – which culminated in LIGO’s success earlier this year. I don’t much about this video, but it seems to have been filmed at the University of Glasgow, which is part of the LIGO collaboration.

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Inspiring young physicists, telescope buyer’s guide, time-travelling pyramid builders

Sunlight calculator: Asimina Arvanitaki (Courtesy: PI)

Sunlight calculator: Asimina Arvanitaki. (Courtesy: PI)

By Hamish Johnston

Have you ever wondered what inspires talented physicists to pursue careers in physics? To try to answer that question, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) in Canada has produced a set of tiles that explain how some famous physicists – and some up-and-coming stars – became hooked on physics at a young age. An early love of back-of-the-envelope calculations seems to have set the stage for the PI’s Asimina Arvanitaki as she explains in the above tile. Can you guess which Nobel laureate used to stare at a clock pendulum for hours to try to figure out how it worked? The answer to that teaser and much more can be found in “How great scientists get hooked on science”.

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Mars mission gains currency in India, nuclear obliteration and a super-duper moon

The Reserve Bank of India's new Rs2000 banknote features the country's first interplanetary spacecraft, Mangalyaan (Courtesy: Ronnie Commissariat)

The Reserve Bank of India’s new Rs2000 banknote features the country’s first interplanetary spacecraft, Mangalyaan. (Courtesy: Ronnie Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat, James Dacey and Hamish Johnston

Nearly three years after it was successfully launched into orbit around Mars, India’s Mangalyaan orbiter has begun a new type of circulation – on a newly issued Indian banknote. Earlier this week, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi unexpectedly announced that the country’s ubiquitous Rs500 and Rs1000 notes would no longer be legal tender, effective immediately. New Rs500 and Rs2000 notes have instead be issued, the latter featuring the spacecraft.

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Robots at arXiv, physicist runs for US president, Einstein emojis galore

 

Preprint pioneer: Paul Ginsparg in 2002, long before arXiv received 10,000 papers per month (Courtesy: MacArthur Foundation)

Preprint pioneer: Paul Ginsparg in 2002, long before arXiv received 10,000 papers per month. (Courtesy: MacArthur Foundation)

By Hamish Johnston

Last month the arXiv preprint server received more than 10,000 papers – the first time in the history of the physics paper depository. While arXiv papers are not peer reviewed, they are checked to ensure that they are “of interest, relevance and value” to the scientific community – which arXiv promises to do within 24 h of submission. So how do they do it? Surely someone doesn’t read every word of every paper? The answer can be found in “What counts as science?”, which appears in Nautilus. arXiv was set up in 1991 by the physicist Paul Ginsparg, who explains how the service uses machine learning to sort the wheat from the chaff – something that has attracted controversy.

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Frightening physics films, a furry physics doodle and an epic pub crawl

Magnetic attraction: scary physics (Courtesy: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova)

(Courtesy: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova)

By Hamish Johnston

There are still 10 days to go until Halloween, but some physicists can’t resist getting into the spirit a bit early. Over at Symmetry, Kathryn Jepsen suggests a few scary physics films that would make for a spooky movie night on 31 October. They’re not actually real films, but rather a series of posters dreamt up at Chicago’s Sandbox Studio in collaboration with the illustrator Ana Kova. My favourite is Poltergauss (right), because trying to understand magnetism is terrifying.

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