Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Female astronomers through the ages, science-inspired phone cases and the return of the incandescent light bulb

Portraits of 21 leading female astronomers

Women and the RAS: portraits of 21 leading astronomers. (Courtesy: Maria Platt-Evans)

By Hamish Johnston

The first documented female astronomer in Britain was Margaret Flamsteed (1670–1739), who worked with her husband John at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. That’s according to astronomer Mandy Bailey of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society, who has written an article entitled “Women and the RAS: 100 years of Fellowship”. As the title suggests, this year is the centenary of the first women becoming fellows of the RAS.

To celebrate the centenary, the RAS commissioned Maria Platt-Evans to photograph 21 leading female fellows. The portraits appear above and are also presented in the slide show “Women of the Royal Astronomical Society”, which includes short biographies.

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Has Advanced LIGO found gravitational waves?

Optics for Advanced LIGO undergoing testing

Rumours of a discovery at Advanced LIGO have resurfaced. (Courtesy: LIGO)

By Hamish Johnston

For the past few days, rumours have been swirling that the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO) has detected gravitiational waves. Advanced LIGO comprises two huge (kilometre-sized) interferometers in the US, which began taking data in September 2015. The source of the rumours seems to be the physicist and author Lawrence Krauss, who wrote on Twitter yesterday that “My earlier rumour about LIGO has been confirmed by independent sources. Stay tuned! Gravitational waves may have been discovered!! Exciting.”

And it would be very exciting, except for the fact that LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González of Louisiana State University has since told the Guardian newspaper that “The LIGO instruments are still taking data today, and it takes us time to analyse, interpret and review results, so we don’t have any results to share yet.”

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Soft hair on black holes, making concrete on Mars and exploring the cosmos in 2016

By Hamish Johnston

 

This week’s Red Folder looks to the cosmos, starting with a spiffy new video from the European Space Agency. The slick presentation is a preview of some of the extra-terrestrial exploits that the agency has planned for 2016. This includes the landing of the Schiaparelli probe on the surface of Mars. This stationery lander will survey its Martian environs to find a suitable location to drop the ExoMars rover in 2018. The mission’s namesake is the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who mapped the surface of Mars and was the first to use the term canali to describe the straight lines that were thought to exist on the surface of the planet.

It’s possible that someday humans will colonize Mars and this will involve building dwellings and other structures on the Red Planet. In preparation, Lin Wan, Roman Wendner and Gianluca Cusatis at Northwestern University in the US have come up with a recipe for making concrete on Mars. The trio reckon that any successful colonization of the Red Planet will have to rely on local building materials because shipping stuff from Earth would be horrendously expensive.

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Santa and the space station, holiday gift suggestions and no Christmas presents for SUSY

Father Christmas will soon be on his way to the International Space Station (Courtesy: NASA)

Father Christmas will soon be on his way to the International Space Station. (Courtesy: NASA)

 

By Hamish Johnston

In this festive edition of the Red Folder, NASA has come up with a great way for youngsters to spot Santa’s sleigh as it streaks across the sky on Christmas Eve. It turns out that Santa hitches a ride with the International Space Station, so you can use NASA’s Spot the Station tool to find out when Father Christmas will be visible above your town. A search on Bristol, UK reveals that Santa will be overhead at 17:21 – perfect for getting the children to bed early.

Hoverboards had looked set to be the hot gift this Christmas, but now the news is full of horror stories about the two-wheeled contraptions bursting into flames. Blogger Sabine Hossenfelder has written a wonderful self-described “rant” about an article in Wired by the physicist Rhett Allain called “You can’t ride a hoverboard without Einstein’s theory of general relativity”. In the true spirit of a Christmas pantomime, Hossenfelder’s response is “Oh yes you can”.

Undeterred, Allain has just posted a new item on Wired that looks at the physics – or lack thereof – in this Christmas’s blockbuster film: “The physics in Star Wars isn’t always right and that’s ok”. I look forward to Hossenfelder’s riposte!

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Commercial quantum computer works, sort of

Is it or isn't it? The D-Wave 2X quantum processor (Courtesy: D-Wave Systems)

Is it or isn’t it? The D-Wave 2X quantum processor. (Courtesy: D-Wave Systems)

By Hamish Johnston

This morning I was speaking to quantum-entanglement expert Jian-Wei Pan, who shares the Physics World Breakthrough of the Year 2015 award for his work on quantum teleportation. Pan briefly mentioned research reported earlier this week by John Martinis, Hartmut Neven and colleagues at Google Research whereby a D-Wave 2X quantum computer was used to perform a computational task 100 million times faster than a classical algorithm.

This is a remarkable result, but does it mean that D-Wave’s controversial processors actually work as quantum computers? Some quantum-computing experts are urging caution in how the research is interpreted.

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Twin alien civilizations, the ancient genetics of cancer, and marvellous Maxwell and his wonderful equations

Life exchange: could two nearby planets exchange living organisms? An artist's impression of one planet in the Kepler 36 system as seen by its neighbour. (Courtesy: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar)

It’s raining life: could two nearby planets exchange living organisms? An artist’s impression of one planet in the Kepler 36 system as seen by its neighbour.
(Courtesy: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar)

By Hamish Johnston and James Dacey

There is an intriguing article about alien life this week in The Conversation. “Twin civilizations? How life on an exoplanet could spread to its neighbour” is by David Rothery of the Open University and is a popular account of a paper that will soon be published in the Astrophysical Journal. The paper is inspired by the star Kepler 36, which has two planets that are in very close proximity to each other. While the Kepler 36 worlds are not suitable for life, the paper’s authors – Jason Steffen and Gongjie Li – explore possible exchanges of life between two Earth-like planets in similarly close orbits. Rothery explains that debris flung off one of the planets would stand a good chance of finding its way to the surface of the other planet after a relatively brief journey through space.

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Who will win the Physics World 2015 Breakthrough of the Year?

Glittering gong: who will be taking home this year's Breakthrough of the Year award?

Glittering gong: who will be taking home this year’s Breakthrough of the Year award?

By Hamish Johnston

This week marks the beginning of awards season here at Physics World and we have been polishing the 2015 Breakthrough of the Year trophy in anticipation of presenting it to the winner on Friday 11 December.

The winning research must have been published in 2015 and also has to meet four criteria:
• fundamental importance of research;
• significant advance in knowledge;
• strong connection between theory and experiment; and
• general interest to all physicists.

Last year’s ESA’s Rosetta mission was our winner for the remarkable feat of landing a spacecraft on a comet while acquiring a wealth of scientific data. In 2013 the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory won for making the first observations of high-energy cosmic neutrinos. But please don’t think that all the winning research is done by large collaborations. Aephraim Steinberg and colleagues from the University of Toronto were winners in 2011 for their bench-top experimental work on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, while the inaugural prize in 2009 went to Jonathan Home and colleagues at NIST for creating the first small-scale device that could be described as a quantum computer.

We also commend nine runners-up each year who we believe deserve recognition for their contributions to physics.

So who do you think should win this year?

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Celebrating the centenary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and asking what theorists have done lately

 

By Hamish Johnston

This week, people all over the world have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (GR). Einstein delivered his theory this week in November 1915. Not surprisingly, the Web has been buzzing with tributes to Einstein and explanations of his theory.

In the above video, the physicist Brian Greene and two young assistants demonstrate Einstein’s explanation of gravity using a huge piece of stretched Spandex. Why they have this Spandex ring in what appears to be their living room remains a mystery, but it and a large number of marbles do the trick when it comes to explaining GR.

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A great day out in celebration of Maxwell’s equations

Pillars of light: this week's meeting at the Royal Society focussed on how Maxwell's equations illuminate physics (Courtesy: Tom Morris/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pillars of light: this week’s meeting at the Royal Society focused on how Maxwell’s equations illuminate physics. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Tom Morris)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week I caught the 6.30 a.m. train from Bristol to London to attend the second day of “Unifying physics and technology in light of Maxwell’s equations” at the Royal Society. It was a particularly damp and gloomy morning as I emerged from Piccadilly Circus station and tramped through St James, my sights set on the Duke of York pillar next to the Royal Society in Carlton House Terrace.

It seemed like the perfect morning to be thankful for the light described by James Clerk Maxwell’s equations, and to ponder how they have since illuminated many shadowy corners of physics.

The meeting was organized by three physicists at nearby King’s College London: biophysicist and nanotechnologist Anatoly Zayats; particle physicist John Ellis and condensed-matter physicist Roy Pike. Already, you can see the breadth of physics covered at the meeting.

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Comic book fusion, Nathan Myhrvold on innovation, and picking winners of the Global Physics Photowalk

Comic book physics. (Courtesy: PPPL)

By Hamish Johnston

The comic book artist Frank Espinosa and Princeton University’s Sajan Saini have joined forces to create a comic book called A Star For Us. The book begins with a brief history of our understanding of nuclear fusion in the Sun and goes on to chronicle the challenges of creating a mini-Sun here on Earth.

Espinosa and Saini – who is a physicist turned professor of writing – spent time with physicists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Espinosa says that he was impressed by the researchers enthusiasm for the future of fusion energy. “I was trying to channel that energy of hope,” he explains.

“The mood of the comic tries to really capture a sense of a vast cosmic scale being made palpable, being made into something that we can realize within our own hands,” says Saini. I agree and you can judge for yourself by downloading a PDF of the comic book free of charge.

The physicist and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, has a nice essay in Scientific American about the roles of the private and public sectors in driving technological innovation. He explains that when Microsoft Research was created in 1991, the company was keen on not making the same mistakes as AT&T, IBM and Xerox – which were all in the process of winding down their world-famous research labs. The problem was that these firms funded research in areas that they were not immediately able to exploit commercially. Myhrvold points out that many of the technologies first developed in those labs – including the transistor and giant magnetoresistance data storage – made much more money for fast-moving competitors such as Microsoft than they did for the companies that did the basic research.

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