Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Strange goings on at CERN, string theory with cats, Isaac Asimov on generating new ideas and more

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D (Courtesy: CERN)

Bygone era: when 3D visualization really was 3D. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” is probably the only famous sentence written by the English novelist L P Hartley. It also sums up nicely a collection of photographs of CERN in the 1960s and early 1970s showing among other things a jolly worker wearing a beret, scientists wearing white lab coats and ties, and a strange religious-like procession. There are also lots of photos of vintage kit, including one of those huge vacuum-valve-powered oscilloscopes (probably from Tektronix) that would be familiar to physicists of a certain age. My favourite photo is shown above. It was taken in 1965, when 3D data visualization was actually done in 3D! I believe that the collection was put together by CERN’s Alex Brown and you can enjoy looking at all 55 images in the collection here.

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Candy corn in space, compact fusion reactors and physics in Palestine

 

By Hamish Johnston

Besides the great views of the Earth, one of the best things about being on the International Space Station (ISS) must be messing around in near-zero gravity. In the above video on Science Friday the American astronaut Don Pettit describes an “experiment” that he did on the ISS using candy corn, which are kernel-like sweets. He begins with a blob of floating water into which he inserts the candy corn pointy-end first. The points are hydrophilic so they tend to stay in the water, and eventually Pettit has a sphere of candy corn packed around the water. The flat ends of the candy corn have been soaked in oil to make them hydrophobic so the candy corn layer acts like a detergent film or one half of a cell membrane. It’s a fun video and I wonder how he got the idea in the first place?

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What type of physics should you do if you want to bag a Nobel prize?

Noble physics infographic

Prize-winning physics explored in our infographic created by Paul Matson.

By Hamish Johnston

Update on 16 October 2014: The 2014 prize has been added to the infographic.

At 11.45 a.m. CET (at the earliest) on Tuesday 7 October, the winner(s) of the 108th Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced in Stockholm. Like just about everyone else, I have no information about who will win – although I do have my suspicions (more on those tomorrow).

Predicting the future is never easy, but help is at hand with a new infographic that Physics World has created charting the history of the physics Nobel by discipline. Using the categories that we apply to articles on physicsworld.com, we have split the 107 prizes since 1901 into seven categories. If you click on the image above, you can see the infographic in all its glory.

The most popular discipline with Nobel committees through the ages is nuclear and particle physics, which accounts for nearly one-third of the prizes. As well as dominating the prizes in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear and particle physics spreads its tentacles from the very first prize – to Wilhelm Röntgen for the discovery of X-rays – to last year’s prize, which went to François Englert and Peter Higgs for predicting a much more esoteric boson.

Interestingly, that very first prize in 1901 flags up an important challenge I faced while categorizing the prizes using contemporary disciplines. You could argue that when Röntgen discovered X-rays, he was doing atomic physics. Indeed, some of those X-rays would have come from atomic processes, while others would have been bremsstrahlung – which I would consider particle physics. However, because Röntgen accelerated electrons into a target and analysed the radiation produced, I decided that it was a particle-physics experiment.

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The pin-up of particle physics, an octopus-inspired robot and Witten versus Horgan redux

 

By Hamish Johnston

One of my favourite radio programmes is The Life Scientific, in which the physicist Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their lives and work. Al-Khalili introduces this week’s guest as “the pin-up of particle physics”, whose remarkable career has taken him from playing keyboards in pop bands, to winning a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to do particle physics, to hosting one of the BBC’s most popular science programmes.

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The birthday party goes on at CERN

Sorry, you missed this concert by the UN Symphony Orchestra on 19 October, but there is more music coming up (Courtesy: CERN)

Sorry, you missed this concert by the UN Symphony Orchestra on 19 September, but there is more music coming up. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

All this week the people at CERN and in its member states will be celebrating 60 years of particle physics at the world-famous lab in Geneva. There is something for everyone to enjoy and here are a few highlights that we have picked out

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A scientific pyramid scheme, symmetry through the ages, why physics students are “standing a little taller” and more

Pyramid power: this lovely pyramid has nothing to do with postdocs. It is model of a much larger  Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

Pyramid power: this lovely object has nothing to do with postdocs. It is a simpler version of a much larger Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

By Hamish Johnston

Just this week six people were convicted in Bristol of crimes related to running a pyramid scheme. This involves taking money from lots of new investors and giving it to a smaller number of investors who signed up earlier – until the pyramid collapses. Is the current model for training scientists a pyramid scheme of sorts? That is the claim in a piece on the US’s National Public Radio (NPR) website written by Richard Harris.

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The secret life of hairdryers, the crackpot conundrum and mesmerizing animations

By Hamish Johnston

Secret lives will be revealed at the Science Museum in London (Courtesy: Batholith)

Its secret life will be revealed at the Science Museum in London. (Courtesy: Batholith)

If you happen to be in London next Saturday (20 September), the Science Museum is running a workshop called “The field life of electronic objects”. Participants will measure the electromagnetic fields surrounding everyday objects such as hairdryers and hard drives “to produce astonishing light images of these objects’ secret life”. Space is limited, the cost is £10 and you can register online.

One thing that we really struggle with here at physicsworld.com is comments from crackpots. My colleagues and I put a lot of effort into writing and editing articles that we believe will be of general interest to the physics community. There is nothing more soul-destroying than spending hours trying to understand and then explain a tricky piece of research only to see the comments on your article hijacked by someone promoting their own bizarre theory.

The American Physical Society (APS) takes a brave and novel way of dealing with crackpots – it gives them their own sessions at APS conferences. In “The Crackpot Conundrum”, blogger Henry Brown describes the mood at such sessions as depressing, something that I understand based on a session that I sat through. Brown then reviews some of the various ways that physics bloggers deal with crackpots and in a moment of deep introspection suspects that he might be seen by some as a crackpot!

Finally, if you are winding down on a Friday afternoon, you can put yourself in a trance by watching these mesmerizing animations by the Irish physicist David Whyte.

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Is desperation for new physics clouding our vision for new colliders?

By Hamish Johnston

This month marks the 60th anniversary of CERN and to kick-off our coverage here at physicsworld.com, I’m highlighting an essay on the future of collider physics that has just been written by Nobel laureate Burton Richter called “High energy colliding beams; what is their future?“.

Burton Richter

Burton Richter warns against desperation. (Courtesy: Stanford University)

Richter shared his 1976 Nobel prize with Samuel Ting for their independent discoveries of the J/ψ meson. He knows his particle colliders, having helped to design and build the world’s first collider in the late 1950s at Stanford University and later directing the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for 15 years.

Richter believes that the international community is not facing up to tough decisions that must be made about what to do when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is retired sometime in the early 2030s. He thinks that “the perspective of one of the old guys might be useful”.

Planning the next huge collider involves the co-operation of three main groups of physicists: those who design and build the accelerators; those who design and build the experiments; and the theoretical physicists who work out what the experiments are looking for. Richter thinks that this is not going well at the moment.

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Radiation levels near Fukushima, trust in science and fun with correlations

Do divorcees eat more margarine? Or does the butter substitute break up marriages? (Courtesy: Tyler Vigen)

Do divorcees eat more margarine? Or does the butter substitute break up marriages? (Courtesy: Tyler Vigen)

By Hamish Johnston

This week’s Red Folder begins in Japan, where the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant continues to cause misery for the 100,000 or so local people who still cannot return to their homes. But who is to blame? Writing in World Nuclear News, Malcolm Grimston of Imperial College London argues that radiation levels in much of the current exclusion zone are no higher than natural levels in other parts of Japan – and much lower than natural levels in some other populated regions worldwide. Grimston concludes that “an overzealous infatuation with reducing radiation dose, far from minimizing human harm, is at the heart of the whole problem”. His article is called “What was deadly at Fukushima?”.

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Shining a brighter light on topological transport

Topological light travels easily around the edge of the matrix yet gets muddled in the middle (Courtesy: JQI)

Topological light travels easily around the edge of the lattice, yet it gets muddled in the middle. (Courtesy: JQI)

By Hamish Johnston

Last year we reported on a fascinating experiment that simulated the quantum Hall effect using light. Mohammad Hafezi and colleagues at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) of the University of Maryland created a lattice of ring-shaped silicon waveguides that are placed just nanometres apart (see image above). This allows light in one ring to “tunnel”  into a neighbouring ring and make its way across the matrix, hopping from ring to ring.

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