Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Lament for ‘the reactor that can do everything’

Photograph of inside the NRU

Inside the NRU. (Courtesy: Atomic Energy of Canada)

By Hamish Johnston at the CAP Congress in Edmonton

In 1957 Atomic Energy of Canada built “a reactor that can do everything” at Chalk River, Ontario. Dubbed the National Reactor Universal – or NRU – that facility will shut down for good in 2018 and Canada’s neutron-science community is now pondering its future.

In the short term, physicists will have to travel abroad to use neutron sources, such as those at Oak Ridge in the US and Grenoble in France. The challenge during this 10–15 year period will be to keep the research community together and make sure that vital skills and expertise built up over decades at the NRU will be retained. In the longer term, there are calls for Canada to build a new neutron facility, but it is by no means clear whether that will happen.

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‘Physics across Canada’ tour kicks off in Edmonton

 

By Hamish Johnston

Greetings from Edmonton on the western edge of the Canadian prairies, where I am starting my “Physics across Canada” tour. The nation’s physicists are gathering here for the annual Canadian Association of Physicists Congress at the University of Alberta.

The congress opens today with a session that promises to be out of this world. Exoplanet expert Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is talking about the search for habitable worlds beyond our blue planet. I am really keen to learn more about the latest techniques for studying the atmospheres of exoplanets and I plan to record an interview about that very subject later this week.

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The landscapes of CERN, 20 years of BECs and the truth about toilet swirl

 

By Hamish Johnston

Everyone knows that water in a draining sink or toilet swirls in opposite directions on opposite sides of the equator…or does it? For the answer, watch the instructions in the above video and then go to “The truth about toilet swirl”.

Physicists at CERN are a lucky bunch. As well as having the world’s most energetic collider at their disposal, they are also surrounded by the natural beauty of the Alps and the Jura mountains. However, I’ve always felt that the CERN site itself and the flat farmland that overlays the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are rather dull.

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Atomic time was born 60 years ago today

 

By Hamish Johnston

“The death of the astronomical second and the birth of atomic time” is how the British physicist Louis Essen described 3 June 1955, when the world’s first practical atomic clock ticked for the first time.

The place was Teddington on the outskirts of London, which is home to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Essen’s clock was based on a beam of caesium atoms and was monitored by microwave technology inspired by his wartime work on radar. The clock was more than a metre long and nicknamed the “Flying Bedstead” by engineers at the BBC, who used it as an input for their radio time signal. The clock made atomic time available worldwide for the first time 60 years ago. Then, in 1967, the second was redefined as an SI unit based on an atomic transition in caesium, thereby ending the ancient practice of defining time though astronomical observations.

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Hope for ‘new physics’ as Large Hadron Collider begins 13 TeV run

CERN: physicists in the LHC control room

Celebration at CERN: physicists in the LHC control room applaud the first stable collisions. (Courtesy: M Brice/CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier today the first data of the 13 TeV run of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN were collected by all four of the Geneva-based collider’s main experiments. I was up early this morning (8.00 a.m. Geneva time) and followed all the action live via a webcast from CERN. After losing the beams at about 8.40 a.m. because of a faulty beam monitor, collisions in the CMS, ALICE, ATLAS and LHCb experiments were being reported at 10.40 a.m.

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Physics at 13 TeV should begin today at the Large Hadron Collider

The LHC control room at CERN

In the fishbowl: the world is watching as the LHC begins its 13 TeV run. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this morning physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider began their scientific programme at 13 TeV. Unfortunately, they lost the beam after about 30 minutes and it will probably be another hour or so before things are up and running again.

You can follow all the excitement via a live webcast.

Good luck to all at the LHC and fingers crossed for finding evidence for physics beyond the Standard Model.

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The Dark Matter Garden, gravitational atoms, boys and girls with toys, and more

Gravitational gardening: the Dark Matter Garden at Chelsea

Gravitational gardening: the Dark Matter Garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. (Courtesy: National Schools’ Observatory)

By Hamish Johnston

Gardening is something that the British take very seriously and this week’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the pinnacle of that obsession. Indeed, it is so popular that it is covered live on television by the BBC. One highlight of the show is the garden competition, in which designers transform an empty plot into a dazzling garden in just 10 days. This year’s entries include the Dark Matter Garden, which “brings the mysteries of the universe to Chelsea”. That’s the claim of the designers of the garden (including several astronomers), who built it for the UK’s National Schools’ Observatory. The team says that its gold-medal-winning design includes “innovative structures and planting, and represents the effect of dark matter on light”.

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Exploring the expanding world of high-temperature superconductors

Layer by layer:  iron (red) and arsenic (green) atoms in the conducting layer of a pnictide

Layered look: iron (brown) and arsenic (green) atoms in the conducting layer of a pnictide.

By Hamish Johnston

High-temperature (high-Tc) superconductivity has given hope and heartbreak in equal measure to physicists since the phenomenon was first discovered in 1986.

The hope is two-fold: that we will soon understand why superconductivity arises in this complex group of materials; and that this knowledge will lead us to a material that is a superconductor at room temperature. The former would be a triumph of the physics of highly correlated systems and the latter would spark a technological revolution.

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All hail the Standard Model, once again

 

By Hamish Johnston

I am a condensed-matter physicist by training and sometimes I struggle to get excited by the latest breakthrough in particle physics – usually because most don’t seem much like breakthroughs to me. The latest hot paper from physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is a perfect example of what I am talking about.

Writing in Nature this week, physicists working on the CMS and LHCb experiments at CERN announced the discovery of a rare decay of the strange B-meson, as well as further information regarding an even rarer decay of the B0-meson. In both cases the decays produce two oppositely charged muons. An animation of how the strange B-meson decay is detected by the CMS appears in the video above.

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A guided tour inside D-Wave’s iconic black box

By Hamish Johnston

Has D-Wave Systems built the world’s first commercial quantum computer? The Canada-based company says it has but some physicists in the quantum-information community beg to differ. Putting aside heady questions like “Does it work?”, I think everyone agrees that the Tardis-sized black boxes that house D-Wave’s processors look great. But what exactly is inside?

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