Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Molecular footballs, knotty headphones and a naming contest for exoplanets

Is this exoplanet more of a Joanne than a Derek? You could soon be casting your vote to name 305 explanets

Is this exoplanet more of a Joanne than a Derek? You could soon be casting your vote to name 305 explanets. (Courtesy: IAU/M Kornmesser/N Risinger)

By Hamish Johnston

With the final two matches of the FIFA World Cup to look forward to this weekend, I thought I would sneak one more football-related story into the Red Folder. Over on the arXiv blog, there is a nice commentary about the topological nature of World Cup balls through the ages. Why? Well, two chemists in Taiwan have worked out a way to create a carbon-based molecule with the same shape as the football currently being used in the tournament in Brazil. Called the Brazuca, the ball is made from six panels that each have a four-leafed clover shape. Together, they form a structure with octahedral symmetry.

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A huge cycle in Sheffield, $30,000 for falsifying global warming and another physicist goes into advertising

Celebrating the Tour de France and Hans Krebs in Sheffield (Courtesy: University of Sheffield)

Celebrating the Tour de France and Hans Krebs in Sheffield. (Courtesy: University of Sheffield)

By Hamish Johnston

Sports fans in the UK are spoiled for choice this weekend, with the Wimbledon finals in London and the kick-off of the Tour de France in Leeds. This is only the second time that the famous bicycle race has started in the UK and to celebrate, the University of Sheffield has created a huge image of a bicycle in a field near to the route. But as well as celebrating the passing cyclists, the image honours a very different cycle that makes the race and indeed much of life on Earth possible.

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How the banjo got its twang, love in the time of science, award-winning astro images and more

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the head. (Courtesy: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the round head. (CC BY-SA 3.0 / DMacks)

By Tushna Commissariat and Hamish Johnston

Folk and country music often blends the sharp twang of a banjo with the mellow and sustained tone of a guitar.  While the two instruments appear to be very similar – at least at first glance – they have very different sounds. This has long puzzled some physicists, including Nobel laureate David Politzer, who may have just solved this acoustical mystery.

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Proton therapy is for the masses

Drawing of the proposed proton-therapy facility

Drawing of the proposed proton-therapy facility. (Courtesy: Umar Masood)

By Hamish Johnston

In the 25th anniversary issue of Physics World, I made the bold assertion that laser acceleration will bring particle therapy to the masses by removing the need for treatment centres to have large and expensive accelerators. Instead, therapeutic beams of protons and other charged particles will be made using compact and relatively inexpensive lasers.

Now, medical physicist Umar Masood and colleagues at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and the University of Dresden have published plans for a laser-driven proton-therapy facility.

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Breaking the diffraction limit

The nanophotonics panel: Jennifer Dionne (left), Satoshi Kawata (middle) and Adarsh Sandhu

The nanophotonics panel: Jennifer Dionne (left), Satoshi Kawata (middle) and Adarsh Sandhu.

By Hamish Johnston

At first glance, visible light and nanotechnology seem incompatible because of the diffraction limit, which dictates that features smaller than about half the wavelength of light cannot be resolved optically. For visible light, the diffraction limit is about 300 nm and this means that there is no point in trying to make conventional optical components that are any smaller.

But that pessimistic outlook has changed over the past decade or so thanks to the development of nanophotonics, which makes use of near-field (or evanescent) light and plasmons to manipulate light on length scales much smaller than the diffraction limit. Today, nanophotonics is being used across a range of disciplines, including biological imaging, telecommunications, solar energy and semiconductor processing.

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Comedy at CERN, physics in a Buridanian universe and separating sugar from sand

Curtain call at CERN: last year's comedy show was a great success (Courtesy: Comedy Collider)

Curtain call at CERN: last year’s comedy show was a great success. (Courtesy: Comedy Collider)

By Hamish Johnston

Bad Boy of Science” Sam Gregson and colleagues are organizing an evening of physics-related comedy at CERN in Geneva on Friday 13 June. “LHComedy: No Cause for ConCERN” will kick off in the CERN Globe at 19:30 and is billed as “a fantastic and innovative new way of presenting the work going on at CERN and engaging with the public”. The line-up from CERN includes Canadian PhD student Nazim “License to Thrill” Hussain, quantum diarist Aidan “The Mole” Randle-Conde and Cat “Schrödinger” Demetriades. You can watch last year’s comedy extravaganza from CERN here. Others involved in the project are Clara Nellis, Alex Brown, Hugo Day, Claire Lee and Rob Knoops.

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Cosmic blunders that have held back science

Big enough already: Portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

Big enough already: portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam. (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

By Hamish Johnston

Can you name 10 blunders that have held back the progress of modern astronomy? Avi Loeb of Harvard University can, and he lists them in an essay entitled “On the benefits of promoting diversity of ideas”, which is posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Loeb argues that a common flaw of astronomers is to believe that they know the truth even when data are scarce. This, he argues, “occasionally leads to major blunders by which the scientific community makes the wrong strategic decision in its research plans, causing unnecessary delays in finding the truth”.

The first example he gives is the 1909 pronouncement by Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, that telescopes had reached their optimal size and that there was no point trying to make them any bigger.

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A new Longitude Prize, global cooling in the 1970s, inspirational creatures and more

A red kite and a drone swoop down on their prey (Courtesy: Vijay Kumar)

A red kite and a drone swoop down on their prey. (Courtesy: Vijay Kumar)

By Hamish Johnston

A bird of prey swoops out of the sky, grabs its victim from the ground and flies off into the distance. It’s what a bird does instinctively, but how could we get a drone aircraft to do the same thing? That’s the subject of one of the papers in a special issue of the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics that focuses on “Bioinspired flight control”.

The above sequence of images is from a paper entitled “Toward autonomous avian-inspired grasping for micro aerial vehicles” by Vijay Kumar and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. The special issue also includes work on aircraft inspired by flying snakes, flocking birds and incredibly stable moths.

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Microwave pockets, space station strife and dreaming of Mars

Russia has the toilets on the ISS (Courtesy: NASA)

Russia has the toilets on the ISS. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

The physics of how the contents of a microwaved pastry can become “hotter than the Sun” is the subject of an entertaining and informative blog entry by Ethan Siegel. He looks at the physics of heating “microwave pockets”, those roof-of-your-mouth-scalding savoury treats that appeared on shelves in the 1980s. He explains why the outer portion of a pocket can be extremely hot, while the interior remains frozen – and why pockets often explode when heated through.

Siegel’s been a bit cheeky and republished this entry from 2009, but I suppose it’s timeless and I’m sure you can still buy microwave pockets somewhere! His blog is called Starts With a Bang and the entry is entitled “Throwback Thursday: The physics of hot pockets”.

As the crisis in the Ukraine drags on, scientists are beginning to worry about the effect it could have on scientific collaborations involving Russia and the West. Several websites are reporting that Russia is threatening to ban US astronauts from the shuttles that travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Indeed, the Independent quotes Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying that it would be possible for Russia to independently operate its portion of the ISS, while the US would not be able to do so. Indeed both toilets on the ISS are Russian, so it could get very messy up there!

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The biophysics of Godzilla, skipping stones, Schrödinger in the morning and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

I’m a bit of a connoisseur of the art of stone skipping. That’s because I grew up a stone’s throw from the western end of Lake Ontario, which thanks to its shale shoreline has the best skipping stones in the world. As a result, I was fascinated to read a piece on the Figure One blog about entitled “Frisbee meets fluid: Skipping stones takes spin and skill”.

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