Posts by: Hamish Johnston

How common are Earth-like planets?

Are Earth-like planets very common? (Courtesy: Petigura/UC Berkeley, Howard/UH-Manoa, Marcy/UC Berkeley)

Are Earth-like planets very common? (Courtesy: Petigura/UC Berkeley, Howard/UH-Manoa, Marcy/UC Berkeley)

By Hamish Johnston

A decade or so ago it would have been reasonable to wonder if the universe contained any planets that resemble Earth. But now that astronomers have discovered more than 1000 planets orbiting stars other than the Sun, it seems perfectly sensible to think that the number of Earth-like planets could be huge. However, actually finding such planets remains a challenge.

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Project Einstein, NASA shares its wealth, how the kettle got its whistle and more

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares (Courtesy: Marblar)

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares. (Courtesy: Marblar)

By Hamish Johnston

The best thing about science fiction is that it is fiction, and nit-picking about scientific accuracy shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good story. That’s the theme of Roger Highfield’s review of the latest blockbuster Gravity. Writing in his old paper The Daily Telegraph, Highfield – who now works at London’s Science Museum – takes exception to a series of Tweets by the celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the film. Among other things, the Tweets complain that Sandra Bullock’s hair should be wafting around in zero gravity, not hanging down as it would on Earth. Despite these and other “scientific holes big enough to fly a Saturn V rocket through” both Highfield and Tyson agree that Gravity is a film well worth seeing. The review is called “Gravity: how real is the science?“.

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How to build brain-like circuits

Jim Gimzewski speaking about art and science at Institute of Physics Publishing

Jim Gimzewski speaking about art and science at IOP Publishing.

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday Jim Gimzewski, who is professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, paid a visit to IOP Publishing – which publishes Physics World. Gimzewski was here to give a lecture about his two professional passions: art and science. He spoke about his involvement in a travelling art installation that was inspired by butterfly metamorphosis and also about his work in synaptic electronics

Jim Gimzewski on synaptic electronics
Why scientists are trying to build artificial brains
This text will be replaced

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Laser accelerator breaks the gigaelectronvolt barrier

Schematic showing the laser passing through the two gas jets (Courtesy: Hyung Taek Kim et al Phys Rev Lett 111 165002)

Schematic showing the laser passing through the two gas jets.
(Courtesy: Hyung Taek Kim et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. 111 165002)

By Hamish Johnston

There is an interesting paper in Physical Review Letters this week with the mouthful of a title: “Enhancement of electron energy to the multi-GeV regime by a dual-stage laser-wakefield accelerator pumped by petawatt laser pulses“. This piqued my interest because I recently wrote an article for the 25th anniversary issue of Physics World  that looks at how laser acceleration of protons and other hadrons could make certain cancer therapies more accessible.

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Nobel trivia, turn your phone into a spectrometer and more

APS Outreach Specialist James Roche shows off SpectraSnapp. (Courtesy: Mike Lucibella/APS)

APS Outreach Specialist James Roche shows off SpectraSnapp. (Courtesy: Mike Lucibella/APS)

By Hamish Johnston and Tushna Commissariat

This was Nobel week, and physicists had two prizes to celebrate this year. Of course there was the prize for physics, which this year went to Peter Higgs and François Englert for their theoretical prediction of the Higgs boson in 1964.

Shortly after the physics-prize announcement, Englert was on the phone to Stockholm, but the Nobel officials couldn’t seem to find Higgs. Early rumours were that he had retreated to the Highlands of Scotland to avoid the media glare, but a few hours later he was photographed outside his Edinburgh home by The Scotsman newspaper.

Later, the BBC reported that Higgs was told about his Nobel win by a passer-by on an Edinburgh street, who stopped her car when she spotted the physics laureate on the pavement. “She congratulated me on the news and I said ‘Oh, what news?’,” Higgs is quoted as saying.

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Stings, furloughs and women in physics

The National Institute of Standards and Technology website is on furlough this week

The National Institute of Standards and Technology website is on furlough this week.

By Hamish Johnston

This week the magazine and journal Science published an article called “Who’s afraid of peer review?“. It describes a remarkable “sting” operation by the journalist John Bohannon, who submitted a spoof scientific paper to 300 or so open-access scientific journals. The  paper claimed to offer evidence for the anti-cancer properties of a naturally occurring compound. It contained several fundamental errors that should have been caught by the peer-review process, not to mention made-up authors working at fictitious institutes.  Instead of being rejected by all the journals, more than half of the submissions (157 in total) were accepted for publication.

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Reawakening the Kelvin wake

Wake pattern

Wake angles: the black dashed line shows the outer edge of the wake and is at the angle predicted by Lord Kelvin. The red line shows the maximum amplitude of the wake and is at the angle predicted by Marc Rabaud and Frédéric Moisy. (Courtesy: A Darmon, M Benzaquen, E Raphaël)

By Hamish Johnston

Loyal readers may recall that earlier this year we published a news article entitled “Physicists rethink celebrated Kelvin wake pattern for ships” that reported on work done by two French physicists. While looking at Google Earth images of ships moving through the sea, Marc Rabaud and Frédéric Moisy noticed that some of the wakes did not conform to a prediction made years ago by Lord Kelvin, the renowned Victorian physicist, engineer and entrepreneur.

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Quantum hackers foiled – for now

By Hamish Johnston

QKD is a popular quantum-cryptography technique that is already being used commercially. It allows two parties, usually called Alice and Bob,  to exchange an encryption key, secure in the knowledge that the key will not have been read by an eavesdropper (Eve). This guarantee is possible because the key is transmitted in terms of quantum bits (qubits) of information, which if intercepted and read are changed irrevocably, thus revealing the actions of Eve.

QKD cannot be cracked if it is implemented using equipment that behaves exactly as expected. Qubits are normally transmitted as single photons, for example, and therefore Alice and Bob must be equipped with single-photon detectors. The problem is that these detectors are not perfect and by simply shining a bright laser at a detector, Eve can trick it into thinking that it has detected a single photon even though that photon has been read by her.

While physicists have come up with several ways of thwarting such attacks, these tend to complicate the QKD process so as to make it impractical. Now, two independent teams of physicists have demonstrated aspects of a new scheme called measurement device independent QKD (MDI-QKD) that seems to close the loophole.

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What can superconductivity do for the environment?

Trains levitated by superconducting magnets could be in commercial service in less than 15 years

Trains levitated by superconducting magnets could be in commercial service in less than 15 years (Courtesy: Shigehiro Nishijima et al.)

By Hamish Johnston

When I think of superconductivity, applications that could improve the environment don’t usually come to mind. Perhaps that’s because superconductors only work at very low temperatures and lots of energy is needed to cool them. However, a review article just published in the IOP Publishing journal Superconductor Science and Technology points out some interesting environmental applications.

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Voyager 1: a peer-reviewed day to remember

Voyager 1 has left the solar system (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Voyager 1 has left the solar system. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday a paper appeared in Science that makes the case that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has left the solar system. The response from the press and commenters has been to declare this a day to remember. Indeed, some have likened it to 20 July 1969 when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon.

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