Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Season’s greetings

Screenshot of Hubblecast 71: Visible echoes around RS Puppis.

A star glowing in the night. (Courtesy: ESA/Hubble)

By Hamish Johnston

Things are winding down for the holidays at Physics World and this afternoon the team will be enjoying our Christmas lunch at a local brewpub. Hopefully they will have a festive ale or two on tap! To brighten up this festive blog, we have chosen this stunning image of the variable star RS Puppis as our Christmas picture.  It was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and shows starlight reverberating through the foggy environment around the star.

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Why do beer bottles foam when struck on top?

A foamy mess in the making (Courtesy: Javier Rodríguez-Rodríguez)

A foamy mess in the making. (Courtesy: Javier Rodríguez-Rodríguez)

By Hamish Johnston

We’ve all had a friend who does it – you’re deep in conversation at a party, beer bottle in hand, when someone sneaks up and taps the top of your bottle with theirs, causing a foamy mess to erupt from your bottle. And to add insult to injury, their bottle doesn’t foam.

Now, physicists in Spain and France have studied this curious effect and gained a better understanding of how it occurs. While their work won’t prevent wet shoes and slippery floors at university social gatherings, the researchers believe their work could provide insights into geological features such as oil reservoirs, mud volcanoes and “exploding lakes”.

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How to build a “memcomputer”

Is this a nascent memcomputer? (Courtesy: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

Is this a nascent memcomputer? (Courtesy: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

By Hamish Johnston

There is a fascinating paper this week in Nature Physics about chaotic behaviour that has been spotted in a ferroelectric material. It’s an unexpected discovery that the researchers claim could lead to the development of computers that resemble the human brain.

The story begins with Anton Ievlev and colleagues at Oak Ridge National Lab in the US using the tip of a scanning probe microscope (SPM) to draw patterns on the surface of a ferroelectric material. Ferroelectrics have a spontaneous electric polarization, the direction of which can be reversed by applying an electric field.

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Waiter, there’s a bug in my cocktail!

By Hamish Johnston

Just in time for Christmas, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have unveiled the ultimate “cocktail accessory”. It’s an edible self-propelled boat that whizzes around on the surface of an alcoholic drink.

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A new way to look for axions

The ADMX experiment being installed at the University of Washington (Courtesy: Mary Levin / University of Washington)

The ADMX experiment. (Courtesy: Mary Levin/University of Washington)

By Hamish Johnston

There’s an interesting preprint on the arXiv server that proposes a new way of detecting dark-matter particles. I’ve been thinking about dark matter because last week physicists working on the LUX experiment announced that the underground detector had failed to find any dark-matter particles in the first three months of its operation. LUX was designed to look for WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), but WIMPs are not the only game in town when it comes to dark matter. There are also axions, which are the quarry of this latest proposal by three physicists in the US.

Axions are hypothetical particles that were first postulated in the 1970s to help explain puzzling aspects of quantum chromodynamics, which is the theory that describes interactions between quarks and gluons. Axions are also interesting from a cosmological point of view because they have mass but do not interact strongly with electromagnetic radiation. These properties make them prime candidates for dark matter, a mysterious substance that appears to make up most of the matter in the universe.

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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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