Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Physics saves humanity, the large rainfall collider and other environmental highlights on Earth Day

Gravity's pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

Gravity’s pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

By James Dacey and Hamish Johnston

Today is Earth Day, so let’s temporarily rename this regular Red Folder column as the Green Folder. Either way, today we’re going to focus on the Earth and environmental issues. The official website of Earth Day – an initiative now in its 46th year – has details about the various initiatives and events taking place around the world today.

First, let’s pay tribute to a physicist whose work had a profound influence on the climate and energy debate in the UK and beyond. Sir David Mackay died on 14 April aged 48 following a battle with cancer. Mackay is remembered among other things for his pragmatic approach to energy and his 2008 book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (free access) was hailed for its rigour and refreshing absence of rhetoric. Mackay’s writings attracted the interest of the British government who appointed him as chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2009, a post he held for five years. Ever prolific, Mackay was blogging about his experiences right up until two days before his death.

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Cosmic rays, diamond anvils and spintronics in Utah

Gardens at the University of Utah

A blooming marvellous afternoon at the University of Utah.

By Hamish Johnston in Salt Lake City

Yesterday afternoon I hopped on a tram bound for the University of Utah. As you can see in the above photo, spring has sprung in Salt Lake City and the campus was resplendent in blossoms with views over snow-capped mountains.

I was at the university to film several 100 Second Science videos with Utah physicists including Shanti Deemyad, who studies the properties of matter under extremely high pressures. She is particularly interested in understanding the quantum properties of solids at temperatures near absolute zero – properties that can be enhanced when materials such as lithium are squeezed at pressures that are more than 10 million times greater than Earth’s atmosphere. This is done using a diamond anvil and Deemyad’s lab has 20 or so of them.

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LIGO could soon detect one gravitational wave per week

The LIGO detectors in Louisiana

The LIGO detectors in Louisiana (above) and Washington are currently being upgraded. (Courtesy: LIGO/Caltech)

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

I came to Salt Lake City hoping to glean a few golden nuggets of information about what future gravitational-wave detections we can expect from LIGO. What I found is that the collaboration is as tight-lipped as ever about discussing potential results. That’s fair enough and I understand the caution. However, I was hoping that the researchers would have loosened up a bit after their February announcement of the first gravitational-wave detection and share a little more with the general public.

So, what have I learned?

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HAWC spots TeV gamma ray flare

A TeV gamma-ray flare spotted by HAWC

Now you see it, now you don’t: a TeV gamma-ray flare spotted by HAWC. (Courtesy: Michelle Hui)

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

Talk about luck. Just 10 days before the April Meeting the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) gamma-ray observatory lit up with the detection of a galaxy that produced large numbers of teraelectronvolt (TeV) gamma rays for just one day (see image).

Dubbed Markarian 501, HAWC astrophysicists believe that the flare could be driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy. However, they admit that they don’t really understand how such flares occur.

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Feedback on a scheme to cloak Earth from hostile aliens

David Kipping

David Kipping doesn’t want to hide from aliens.

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

Earlier today I caught up with David Kipping of Columbia University in the US after his fascinating talk about what could make an exoplanet habitable. I wanted to ask Kipping about a quirky paper that he and Alex Teachey published a few weeks ago, which I wrote about in the The Red Folder.

Kipping and Teachey described how a laser could be used to cloak the Earth from the prying eyes of an extraterrestrial civilization. The paper was published just before 1 April, so at the time I wasn’t sure whether the paper was legitimate (it is) and Kipping told me that publishing before April Fools’ Day did cause some confusion.

So what feedback has Kipping had about the paper?

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The accelerator tree bears fruit

Photograph of a tree in Salt Lake City

Accelerator science is blossoming in Salt Lake City.

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City

This morning Mei Bai of the Jülich Institute for Nuclear Physics in Germany used a lovely phrase during her talk at the APS April Meeting. She showed a slide called the “accelerator tree”‘, which refers to a paper by Ugo Amaldi called “The importance of particle accelerators“.

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Merging black holes come to Salt Lake City

The Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

By Hamish Johnston at the APS April Meeting in Salt Lake City 

Will the LIGO collaboration announce today that it has detected more gravitational waves? There is a session this morning at 10.45 a.m. at the APS April Meeting with the enticing name “Results from Advanced LIGO“, and I think it’s safe to say that you should get there early if you want to get a seat.

In February the LIGO announced the first ever detection of a gravitational wave, which was made while the collaboration’s two detectors were being calibrated. Now that the experiment has been running since September 2015, it will be interesting to see if the first detection was a rare event that they were lucky to see,  or if LIGO will be detecting the mergers of black-hole pairs on a regular basis.

Stay tuned to for updates, and in the meantime enjoy this photograph I took of the Mormon Temple, which is across the road from the convention centre here in Salt Lake City.

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Riding a laser beam to Alpha Centauri, how the Sun pushes on the Earth and 22 kinds of space tape

Photograph of Yuri Milner (left) and Stephen Hawking

Stars in their eyes: Yuri Milner (left) and Stephen Hawking. (Courtesy: Bryan Bedder)

By Hamish Johnston

What to do if you have millions of dollars lying around and a keen interest in physics? The physicist turned Internet tycoon Yuri Milner has already spent some of his fortune rewarding leading scientists and funding research. His latest project is called “Starshot” and involves spending a cool $100m on sending a spaceship to Alpha Centuri – the closest star system to Earth at just 40 trillion kilometres away.

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How to make money by quantum computing

Quantum temple: will the congregation at Bristol's Wills Memorial Building convert to quantum annealing?

Quantum temple: will the congregation at Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building convert to quantum annealing?

By Hamish Johnston at the BQIT:16 conference in Bristol

Today I have made the short trip from the office to the University of Bristol, which is hosting the BQIT:16 conference on quantum information. I had been looking forward to the “Industry Perspective” session, which was headlined by Steve Adachi of the US defence supplier Lockheed Martin. Several years ago the firm was the first commercial buyer of what some consider to be the world’s first commercial quantum computer – a device made by Canada’s D-Wave Systems – and I wanted to know what Lockheed Martin was doing with it.

To say that D-Wave and its products are controversial is an understatement. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some delegates to this conference are brought to fisticuffs over D-Wave’s quantum annealing protocols later this evening in Bristol’s cider pubs.

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Thwarting an alien invasion, pi in the sky, listening to the LHC and more

A guide laser

Not bright enough: this adaptive-optics laser would have to be a million times brighter to cloak the Earth. (Courtesy: ESO/G Hüdepohl)

By Hamish Johnston

Sometimes, the biggest laughs on April Fools’ Day come from the stories that read like hoaxes but are actually true. One such item is a proposal by David Kipping and Alex Teachy of Columbia University in the US, who have come up with a way of hiding the Earth from aggressive civilizations on distant planets (at least I think this is real, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were an elaborate hoax!).

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