Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Why is quantum physics so hard to write about?

Live at Leeds: George Musser riffs on writing about quantum mechanics (Courtesy: H Johnston)

Live at Leeds: George Musser riffs on writing about quantum mechanics (Courtesy: H Johnston)

By Hamish Johnston

Why is quantum physics so hard to write about?

That was the theme of George Musser’s keynote talk at a seminar for science communicators held this week at the University of Leeds. Musser – who has written extensively on topics such as quantum entanglement and string theory – gave several reasons and here are a few that stuck in my mind.
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A punt on Planck, physicist puts Frankenstein to music, would Brian Cox cope on Mars?

Fancy a flutter? The NIST napkin (Courtesy: NIST)

Fancy a flutter? The NIST napkin. (Courtesy: NIST)

By Hamish Johnston

A paper napkin with a load of numbers scrawled on top has been an unusual source of excitement for physicists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. One evening in December 2013, a group of them had gathered at a local watering hole to celebrate the success of NIST’s latest watt balance – NIST-3 – that had just determined Planck’s constant to a new accuracy. While enjoying “happy hour”, NIST researcher Dave Newell pulled out a napkin and the 10 researchers began to write down their predictions for the final value of Planck’s constant that NIST would submit to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris to help redefine the kilogram. The researchers then sealed the napkin in a plastic bottle and buried it inside a cavity within the foundation of NIST-3’s successor NIST-4, which was then being constructed.

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The sounds of Saturn, dancing particles, distracted funding agency

 

By Hamish Johnston

Astronomy can be a highly visual science and therefore developing ways of sharing data with visually impaired colleagues – and the public – is an important challenge. Sound offers one way forward, as astrophysicist Wanda Diaz Merced explains in “The sounds of science”. Now, fellow astrophysicists Matt Russo and Dan Tamayo at the University of Toronto have converted the motions of the rings and moons of Saturn into two musical compositions. You can listen to a composition based on the orbital frequencies of moons and rings by playing the video above. The second piece is called “Resonances of Janus translated into music”.

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LIGO–Virgo comments on neutron star rumours, sort of

Caught in the act: has LIGO-Virgo detected merging neutron stars? (Courtesy: NASA)

Caught in the act: has LIGO–Virgo detected merging neutron stars? (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

Have gravitational waves from merging neutron stars been detected for the first time?

Physicists working on the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave detectors have issued a statement that appears to be a response to rumours that both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation from an astronomical event have been detected.

LIGO has already detected gravitational waves from three different binary black-hole mergers. But none of these events appeared to emit electromagnetic radiation that could be detected by astronomers using telescopes on Earth or in space.

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The Doomsday Clock ticks over 70 years, an exoplanet Westeros

Circa 1988: the Doomsday Clock during safer times (Courtesy: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Circa 1988: the Doomsday Clock during safer times. (Courtesy: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

By Hamish Johnston

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock that is produced by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Currently at two and a half minutes to midnight, the clock represents the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe. Originally, it focused exclusively on a nuclear Armageddon, but in 2007 climate change and other technologically-driven processes were added to the mix. The clock was initially set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947 and the Bulletin has produced a video that charts the ups and downs over the past seven decades. Is there any good news? In the image above you can see that South Africa was a nuclear power in 1988, and it has since disarmed.

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Snapping the Milky Way, art inspired by SLAC blueprints, doppelganger magazine covers

Top tip: use a remote shutter control (Courtesy: Clifton Cameras)

Top tip: use a remote shutter control. (Courtesy: Clifton Cameras)

By Hamish Johnston

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with dark skies, you know that the Milky Way is a truly majestic sight. But how exactly would you go about capturing its magnificence with a camera? UK-based Clifton Cameras has put together an infographic with a few helpful hints. The image above is an excerpt and you can view the entire infographic here.

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Canada’s birthday physics, Liberty’s true colours, Trump’s Science cover

Famous Canadian: nuclear pioneer Harriett Brooks (Courtesy: PI)

Famous Canadian: nuclear pioneer Harriett Brooks. (Courtesy: PI)

By Hamish Johnston

Tomorrow (1 July) is the 150th birthday of Canada. Or more precisely the anniversary of the day when three British colonies (one of which was already called Canada) joined together and started the long and peaceful journey to becoming fully independent of the UK in 1982. How very Canadian, and I should know because I am one of the 36 million Canadians who will be celebrating tomorrow.

Synonymous with physics in Canada over the past decade or so is the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. Folks there have put together a selection of “13 physics innovations you may not know are Canadian”. I wasn’t aware of some of the innovations, including the work of Harriett Brooks (above). But I am pleased to say that I have met both of the physics Nobel laureates mentioned in the article – Art McDonald and Bert Brockhouse.

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Chicken sandwich goes stratospheric, socks for space, dressmakers have needle-sharp vision

Space sandwich: a Zinger floats high above Earth (Courtesy: KFC)

Space sandwich: a Zinger floats high above Earth. (Courtesy: KFC)

By Sarah Tesh and Hamish Johnston

If you could put anything on a high-altitude balloon, what would it be? World View Enterprises has opted for a spicy chicken sandwich. The company plans to run balloon excursions to the stratosphere and on 21 June it will make its debut voyage carrying a Zinger sandwich from Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) – but with no-one on board to eat it. According to the New York Times the flight is tied in with KFC’s current space-based advertising campaign and the sandwich will spend at least four days in the stratosphere. As well as planning to charge tourists $75,000 per person for a ride, World View Enterprises says that its balloons could also be used to create an early warning system for tornadoes. (more…)

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NASA showcases its latest tech investments

Cutting edge: NASA's latest X-Plane (Courtesy: Lucina Melesio)

Cutting edge: NASA’s latest X-Plane (Courtesy: Lucina Melesio)

By Lucina Melesio in Washington DC

Yesterday in Washington DC NASA showcased its latest technology investments.  The event took place just few steps away from Capitol Hill, where the US Congress will decide on the current administration’s proposed budget cuts for the agency.

“The technologies displayed here today illustrate how sustained investments made by NASA, industry and academia directly benefit our nation’s innovation economy,” reads the event’s brochure. “These technologies help America maintain its global leadership in aerospace and enable NASA’s current and future missions of exploration and discovery,” it continues.

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Send a birthday card to Fermilab, a huge periodic table, art meets quantum computing

Best wishes: a birthday card for Fermilab (Courtesy: Corinne Mucha/ Symmetry)

Best wishes: a birthday card for Fermilab (Courtesy: Corinne Mucha/ Symmetry)

By Hamish Johnston and Sarah Tesh

50 years ago this month, the particle physics facility that was to become Fermilab opened its doors for the first time. To celebrate a half a century of physics on the Illinois prairie, the folks at Symmetry have produced a set of themed birthday cards that you can print-out and send to your friends and family. Indeed, there is still time to send a card to Fermilab itself, because the big day isn’t until next Thursday (15th of June). My favourite card (above) uses colliding piñatas to illustrate the plethora of particles that were produced in Fermilab’s Tevatron  – which smashed together protons and antiprotons between 1983-2011.

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