Posts by: Hamish Johnston

Winning rock-paper-scissors, meeting a future Nobel laureate, hot new batteries and more

By Hamish Johnston

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries. (Courtesy: MIT/M Scott Brauer)

When I was a PhD student, there was a group of retired professors that shared a tiny office in the physics department. It was whispered that one of them was extremely wealthy thanks to a successful commercial spin-out and we marvelled at the fact that he came in to work every day rather than enjoying the fruits of his labours. However, it wasn’t the wealthy professor who was destined for international fame. In 1994 his officemate Bertram Brockhouse shared the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Brockhouse’s quiet life changed dramatically. Indeed, he got his own office!

I was reminded of this little group when I read ZapperZ’s blog entry about his encounter with Ray Davis before Davis bagged the 2002 Nobel for his work on neutrinos. Sitting next to Davis on a two-hour flight, ZapperZ had an inkling that he was beside an interesting character after their brief chat about physics. But it wasn’t until the Nobel was announced several years later that he realized the opportunity he had missed.

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Hi-tech giants eschew corporate R&D, says report

IBM's latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

IBM’s latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

By Hamish Johnston

“Think” has been motto of the US-based computer giant IBM since it was coined in the early 20th century by founder Thomas Watson. Many would argue that IBM has succeeded over the past 100 years because physicists and other scientists were given the freedom to think while working at the company’s research labs. And science has benefitted too, with three Nobel prizes won or shared by physicists working at the firm’s labs. Even more impressive is that a whopping seven physics Nobels have been awarded to physicists at Bell Labs – originally Bell Telephone Laboratories.

But the days of these corporate “idea factories” are over according to a new study published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Entitled Physics Entrepreneurship and Innovation (PDF), the 308-page report argues that many large businesses are closing in-house research facilities and instead buying in new expertise and technologies by acquiring hi-tech start-ups.

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Why electricity grids fail, what to do if your PhD is stolen, and what is a ‘Suris tetron’?

 

By Hamish Johnston

It’s the nightmare scenario for any PhD student: losing all those research results that you carefully squirreled away for when you finally sit down to write your thesis. That’s just what happened to biologist Billy Hinchen, who lost four years’ worth of 3D time-lapse videos of developing crustacean embryos when his laptop and back-up drives were stolen. Find out what happened next in “What would happen if you lost all of your research data?” by Julia Giddings at the scientific software firm Digital Science. Hinchen also tells his tale of woe in the video above.

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Cakes that are out of this world, what’s on Andre Geim’s iPod and who’s the April fool?

The joke’s on me: click on the image for a larger version where you can see the instruction for users

The joke’s on me: click on the image for a larger version where you can see the instruction for users

By Hamish Johnston

On Tuesday I was feeling particularly pleased with myself over the April Fool’s piece that I penned. It was about a fictitious microwave-oven ban organized by radio astronomers at the UK’s Jodrell Bank Observatory. But now it looks like I might have a bit of microwaved egg on my face because two of my colleagues visited Jodrell Bank this week and guess what? Astronomers there have built a Faraday cage around the microwave in their tearoom to stop it from interfering with their equipment. Louise Mayor took the above photos: click on the image to read the reminder to microwave users.

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Silence the ping: astronomers urge 24-hour microwave-oven ban

By Ken Heartly-Wright

Switch Microwaves Off Now

(Shutterstock/Andris Torms)

An international group of astronomers is calling for people to stop using their microwave ovens for 24 hours next April to give scientists a better chance of finding gravitational waves.

The ubiquitous kitchen gadgets broadcast copious amounts of electromagnetic radiation at frequencies around 2.45 GHz – exactly that of the cosmic microwave background, which bears the signature of gravitational waves from the early universe.

The call for a one-day global microwave oven ban comes just a fortnight after scientists detected B-mode polarization from the early universe using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole.

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We are ill-prepared for climate-change risks

By Hamish Johnston

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Working Group II (WGII) report entitled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability“. Over on our sister website environmentalresearchweb.org, editor Liz Kalaugher has written a news-analysis piece about the report that looks at the major risks facing different regions of the globe; who is most vulnerable to change; and why we must build on early efforts to adapt to climate change.

Earth from space: adaptation to climate change is a clobal challenge

Earth from space: adaptation to climate change is a global challenge. (Courtesy: NASA)

Kalaugher’s piece includes commentary from leading IPCC members, including Vicente Barros, co-chair of working group II. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future,” says Barros.

Chris Field, WGII co-chair, adds “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.”

However, the report also warns that adaptation will be very difficult with high levels of warming. In that case, Field says that “even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits”.

You can read Kalaugher’s piece here:  “IPCC: world is ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate”.

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In praise of rocket scientists, ironworkers, superheroes and more

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics.

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics. (Courtesy: Brittney Williams/Symmetry magazine)

By Hamish Johnston

Q: What do you call physicists studying the electrical properties of salad greens?
A: Rocket scientists!

But that’s old news, so lettuce move on to this week’s highlights from the Red Folder…

The rocket scientists referred to in the headline are econophysicists, who got a bad rap from Warren Buffet and others during the financial crisis of 2008. Now that the great depression is nearly over, physicist and author Mark Buchanan has a much more upbeat assessment of those who have made the transition from physics to economics in his blog entry “What’s the use of ‘econo-physics’?”.

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BICEP2 surprise visit, a bizarre rant, credible science fiction and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

The big story this week is that astronomers working on the BICEP2 telescope may have spotted the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation.  This is very good news for the physicist Andrei Linde, who along with Alan Guth and others did much of the early work on inflation. In the above YouTube video Linde, who is certainly in the running for a Nobel prize, receives a surprise visit from BICEP2 team member Chao-Lin Kuo. Kuo is the first to tell Linde and his wife, the physicist Renata Kallosh, the news that the theory that Linde developed more than 30 years earlier had finally been backed up by direct observational evidence. Not surprisingly, champagne glasses are clinking!

Here at physicsworld.com we have tried to tell both sides of the story: the thrill of seeing the first hints of cosmic inflation, tempered with calls for caution that more data are needed before inflation is victorious over other theories describing the early universe.

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Exoplanets are everywhere

Known exoplanets

The latest haul of exoplanets is skewed towards Earth-like masses. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

Just a few years ago the idea that more than 700 exoplanets could be discovered in a single study would seem fantastical. But that’s exactly what astronomers working on NASA’s Kepler mission have just done.

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CERN creates new office for medical research

Steve Myers (far left) and colleagues at the LEIR facility

Steve Myers (far left) and colleagues at the LEIR facility.

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this month my colleague Tami Freeman was at CERN where she had a tour of what will soon be the Geneva-based lab’s first major facility for biomedical research. Called BioLEIR, the facility is now being created by modifying the existing Low Energy Ion Ring (LEIR).

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