Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Talking about immigration with Nobel laureates in Lindau

Lakeside view: Lindau's harbour on Lake Constance

Lakeside view: Lindau’s harbour on Lake Constance.

By Hamish Johnston at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany

I arrived in the German town of Lindau yesterday evening expecting it to be a sleepy little burg where I would struggle to find somewhere open to get a bite to eat. Instead I was greeted at the station by a cacophony of car horns and singing as Germany had just beat Slovakia and claimed its place in the next round of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

I’m here in the far south of Germany for the 66th Nobel Laureate Meeting. Tomorrow I will be hosting a “press talk” about how immigration continues to shape the scientific world. Last week’s momentous decision by the UK to leave the European Union is sure to come up in the panel discussion, which will include input from two chemistry Nobel laureates – Martin Karplus and Daniel Shechtman. I will also be joined on the panel by two early-career physicists: Winifred Ayinpogbilla Atiah from Ghana and Ana Isabel Maldonado Cid from Spain.

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Cats and causality: is your moggy an Isaac Mewton?

Causal connection: are cats feline physicists? (Courtesy: CC BY/David Corby)

Causal connection: are cats feline physicists? (CC BY David Corby)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s been a very difficult week for some UK-based physicists for reasons that you can read about here. Therefore I thought this week’s Red Folder should be a bit of a tonic, so here’s a combination that’s guaranteed to put smile on even the glummest face: cats, physics and the Internet.

Cats seem to grasp the laws of physics,” at least according to Saho Takagi and colleagues at Kyoto University in Japan. It seems that our feline friends have a firm understanding of causality, as shown by their ability to recognize that an effect (an object falling out of an overturned container) is preceded by its cause (the noisy shaking of the object in the upright container). The cats quickly realized that a noisily shaken container would yield an object, but the silent shaking of an empty container would not.

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Is the 750 GeV bump in LHC data going away?

End of the line: will science journalists be flocking to CERN in August? (Courtesy: CC-BY/Darkzink)

End of the line: will science journalists be flocking to CERN in August? (CC-BY/Darkzink)

 

By Hamish Johnston

Things are heating up in the blogosphere after two A-list physics bloggers have speculated that a tantalizing hint of new physics seen by the CMS and ATLAS experiments at CERN is vanishing now that the latest collision data are being analysed.

The hint is a bump at 750 GeV in the spectrum of photon pairs created when protons collide in the LHC. It is not predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics and has not yet reached a statistical significance of 5σ – the threshold for a discovery. If it turns out to be real, the bump could become one of the most important discoveries in particle physics made so far this century.

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LIGO paints a clearer picture of its merging black holes

Illustration of two black holes spiralling into each other to create a larger black hole (Courtesy: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

Illustration of two black holes spiralling into each other to create a larger black hole. (Courtesy: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

By Hamish Johnston

Physicists working on the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors have released more information about the merging black holes that they announced the discovery of earlier this year. Dubbed GW150914, we now know that the gravitational wave was created by the merger of one black hole that was 36 times as massive as the Sun with a smaller black hole that weighed in at 29 solar masses. The result of the merger was a black hole at 62 solar masses and a spin angular momentum of 0.67, where 1.0 is the maximum value of spin a black hole can have.

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Sea monsters at LIGO, how to become a ‘thought leader’ and why not string theory?

"The art of naming glitches" by Antimatter Webcomic (click to enlarge).

“The art of naming glitches” by Nutsinee Kijbunchoo/Antimatter Webcomics (click to enlarge).

By Hamish Johnston

Have you ever wondered how the LIGO collaboration managed to tease out the tiny signal from gravitational wave GW150914 from all the background noise in its kilometre-sized detectors? Well you’re in luck because experts from the LIGO detector characterization group have written a lively piece on the CQG+ blog called “How do we know LIGO detected gravitational waves?”.

It’s packed full of fun facts; for example, did you know that detecting GW150914 is roughly the same as measuring a change in distance the thickness of a human hair between Earth and Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth? But be warned, the article is also full of technical terms such as “whistles”, “blips”, “koi fish” and even “Fringey the sea monster”. These are illustrated in the above graphic by LIGO physicist and artist Nutsinee Kijbunchoo.

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IUPAC unveils names of four new elements

Portion of the periodic table showing the locations of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. The elements are shown with provisional names, not their new proposed names. (Courtesy: IUPAC)

By Hamish Johnston

The periodic table could soon be graced by four new symbols (Nh, Mc, Ts and Og) as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has just unveiled its proposed names for the four most recently discovered elements. Their discovery had been confirmed earlier this year jointly by IUPAC and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).

Element 113 was discovered at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Japan and will be called nihonium (Nh). Nihon is a transliteration of “land of the rising sun”, which is a Japanese name for Japan.

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LISA Pathfinder opens the door to gravitational-wave detection in space

Flying high: LISA Pathfinder has overcome a major hurdle (Courtesy: ESA)

Flying high: LISA Pathfinder has overcome a major hurdle. (Courtesy: ESA)

By Hamish Johnston

2016 is shaping up to be a bumper year for physicists trying to detect gravitational waves. In February the LIGO collaboration announced the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves using two kilometre-sized detectors in the US.

Now, it looks like an even bigger detector will get permission to launch. Researchers working on the LISA Pathfinder space mission have just announced that they were able to isolate a 2 kg test mass at a special “Lagrangian point” between the Earth and the Sun. This is important because the planned LISA gravitational-wave observatory will use test masses located at three points in space (each separated by about one million kilometres) as the basis for a huge detector.

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Killer asteroid bust-up, exposing academic plagiarism, #IAmAPhysicist and more

Time-lapse image of the asteroid Euphrosyne as seen by NASA’s WISE space telescope

Time-lapse image of the asteroid Euphrosyne as seen by NASA’s WISE space telescope, which is used by NEOWISE to measure asteroid sizes. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

First-up in this week’s Red Folder is a tale of killer asteroids, hubris and peer review from the Washington Post. The science writer Rachel Feltman has written a nice article about a claim by physicist-turned-entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold that NASA’s research on asteroids that could potentially collide with Earth is deeply flawed. On Monday, Myhrvold posted a 111-page preprint on arXiv that argues that asteroid radii measured by NASA’s NEOWISE project are far less accurate than stated by NASA scientists. What’s more, Myhrvold seems to suggest that NEOWISE scientists have “copied” some results from previous asteroid studies.

Myhrvold began his career as a theoretical physicist and, after a stint as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, founded an intellectual-property firm. He has never worked in the field of asteroids, yet he has taken great exception to some of the physics and statistical analysis underlying the NEOWISE results. His paper has been submitted to the journal Icarus, but has not yet passed peer review – unlike the NEOWISE results. In her article, Feltman ponders why Myhrvold is actively promoting his controversial work – he was featured in a New York Times article on Monday – before it has passed peer review. She also speaks to several NEOWISE scientists, who are not amused.

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Skateboard videos reveal the physics of doing an ‘ollie’

Free-body problem: how do skateboarders do an "Ollie"?

Free-body problem: how do skateboarders do an “ollie”? (Courtesy: Paulo Simeão Carvalho/Physics Education)

By Hamish Johnston

Here’s a problem for keen students of classical mechanics: how can a skateboarder cause their board to leap into the air by pressing down on it with their feet?

What I’ve described is a trick called the “ollie”, which first emerged on the skateboarding scene in the late 1970s and is now an essential part of the skating repertoire. There’s a fascinating paper in the journal Physics Education, which shows how digital videos of people doing an ollie can be analysed to get to grips with the physics underlying the trick.

The above image shows six video frames of someone executing an ollie – with time moving from right to left over a period of about 2 s. If you delve into the paper, you will find out how its authors – Marco Adriano Dias, Paulo Simeão Carvalho and Deise Miranda Vianna – used video images to track the motion of the tail of the board as well as its front and back wheels. This was then compared to a free-body diagram analysis of the forces of the board.

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Mercury’s transit across the Sun has begun, check out our guide on how to view it safely

 

By Hamish Johnston

The transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun has begun. Alas here in Bristol the skies are grey and I have been watching a live feed of the transit from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – which has been blessed with clear skies. That’s a real shame, because I had brought a small telescope into work and I was looking forward to projecting a magnified image of the Sun onto a screen to see the transit for myself.

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