Posts by: Hamish Johnston

How to win a Nobel prize

By Hamish Johnston

Takaaki Kajita

Eureka moment: Takaaki Kajita’s Nobel journey began when he was improving software. (Courtesy: Takaaki Kajita)

This morning I had the pleasure of speaking with Takaaki Kajita, who shared this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics. He won for discovering that some of the muon neutrinos produced by cosmic-ray collisions in the atmosphere change flavour as they travel to Earth. This phenomenon, called neutrino oscillation, tells us that neutrinos have mass – something that was not initially included in the Standard Model of particle physics.

From his office at the University of Tokyo, Kajita told me that the story began in 1986 when he was working on a proton-decay experiment at the Kamioka underground lab in Japan. He was trying to improve some software that was designed to discriminate between electrons and muons created within the detector. He noticed that there were fewer events associated with muon neutrinos than expected. Muon neutrinos are created in the atmosphere when cosmic rays collide with air molecules and a possible explanation for the deficit was that some of the muon neutrinos were oscillating into electron neutrinos on their journey to the detector. Looking back, however, Kajita told me that his initial reaction to the deficit was that he must have made a mistake in his analysis.

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Quantum cats, physicists and stamp collecting, extraterrestrial building work

Calculating cat: Schrö makes her way through a quantum computer (Courtesy: IQC)

Calculating cat: Schrö makes her way through a quantum computer. (Courtesy: IQC)

By Hamish Johnston

The Internet loves cats and our readers love quantum mechanics so a new mobile app called Quantum Cats just has to be the lead item in this week’s Red Folder. Created by physicists at the Institute for Quantum Computing and researchers at the University of Waterloo Games Institute, the app immerses the user in the adventures of four cats: Classy, who obeys classical physics; Digger, who is a master of quantum tunnelling; Schrö, (above) who is a superposition of quantum states; and Fuzzy, who embodies the uncertainty principle. It’s available on Google Play and the App Store, so have a go and tell us what you think.

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And the winner is: our 2015 Nobel-prize predictions

Psychic world: we are prepared to be wrong about this year's prize

Psychic world: we have another go at predicting the Nobel winners. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/shutter_m)

By Tushna Commissariat and Hamish Johnston

 

Update: Looks like we were quite spectacularly wrong this time around with our predictions as this year’s Nobel has been awarded to Arthur McDonald and Takaaki Kajita “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass”. While Physics World’s news editor Michael Banks did predict this in 2013, we did not think this would be the year. Clearly, as our “Which physics disciplines attract the most Nobel prizes” infographic suggests, the field of particle physics still seems to be the most Nobel-worthy one.

It’s a mug’s game, we know, but come the start of October we just can’t resist trying to predict who will win the Nobel Prize for Physics, which this year will be announced on Tuesday 6 October.

With the exception of 2013 – when most pundits were right in thinking that the prize would be related to the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson – predicting the next Nobel winners (or winners) is a tough call. If you want to take an analytical approach, check out the infographic we published last year: “Which physics disciplines attract the most Nobel prizes”. It suggests that the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics is due a prize, and one of us (Hamish Johnston) thinks an excellent bet is Deborah Jin for her work on fermionic condensates. If Jin were to win, she would be only the third woman ever to win a physics Nobel – the other two being Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

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New infographics show that more than one-quarter of physics Nobel laureates are immigrants

Maps showing the movement of physics Nobel laureates

Migration of minds: maps showing the movement of Nobel laureates (click to see full infographic). (Design: Paul Matson)

By Hamish Johnston

Next Tuesday the Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced at 11:45 CEST and I am making the bold prediction that the winner – or one of the winners – will be an immigrant. Why? Because this year’s Physics World Nobel-prize infographics show that of the 198 people who have won the prize, 51 are immigrants – so I reckon there is a reasonable chance that I will be right.

What do we mean by an immigrant? This is a tough question, especially in science, where people tend to move around a lot and don’t always settle in one place. For the purposes of these infographics, we have used a rather crude definition of an immigrant laureate: someone who died or currently lives in a country other than that of their birth. There is more about how we made the infographics later in this post – but first, what do they tell us?

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Physicists in motion: immigration and the Nobel prize

PW-2015-09-30-blog-migration

Around the world: how has immigration shaped the global physics community? (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Joel Carillet)

By Hamish Johnston

In December 1938 Enrico Fermi travelled to Stockholm, where he was presented with that year’s Nobel Prize for Physics for his insights into the atomic nucleus. But after the ceremony, Fermi did not return to his native Italy. Instead, he joined his wife and young children on a voyage to the US. Fermi went on to make major contributions to physics in that country – including playing crucial roles in developing nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

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Whisky in space, methane-capturing coffee, conference disasters and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

Fancy a wee dram while you are orbiting the Earth? With the growing interest in space tourism, travellers could soon be enjoying a sip or two of whisky in space. To make such tipples as enjoyable as possible, the Scotch whisky maker Ballantine’s has developed a special “space glass” that works in the free-fall conditions of Earth orbit. The firm is also developing a special blend of whisky to be enjoyed in space.

Created by Ballantine’s master whisky blender Sandy Hyslop and James Parr from the Open Space Agency, the new glass was filled with Scotch and tested in free-fall at the ZARM drop tower in Bremen, Germany. You can find out more about how one’s palate changes in space and the challenges facing the glass designers in the above video. And if you want to know if the glass passed the free-fall test, there is a second video called “Space Glass Project: the microgravity test”.

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Physics World 2015 Focus on Vacuum Technology is out now

By Hamish Johnston

PW_VAC-15cover-200

Fusion power, redefining the kilogram and mimicking the Martian surface are three exciting areas of science and technology that are benefiting from the latest vacuum equipment. In our latest Focus on Vacuum Technology, which you can read free of charge, Christian Day of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany explains how new pumping technologies will be crucial to the successful operation of future fusion power plants. “Proving the power of fusion” focuses on the extraordinary vacuum challenges facing the designers of the planned DEMO reactor, which is expected to generate 2 GW of electrical power by the mid-2030s.

Today, the kilogram is defined in terms of a cylinder of a platinum–iridium alloy that was made in the 1880s. Metrology has moved on since then and all of the other SI base units are now defined in terms of fundamental constants. In “The kilogram’s constant struggle”, Stuart Davidson and Ian Robinson of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, UK, explain how vacuum technology is playing a crucial role in the development of new ways of defining the kilogram, one of which will ultimately be chosen as the new global standard.

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Quantum mechanics in a cup of coffee, hamming it up to the space station, the laws of political physics and more

 

By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks

Physicists tend to drink lots of coffee so I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the above video of Philip Moriarty explaining quantum mechanics using a vibrating cup of coffee. Moriarty, who is at the University of Nottingham, uses the coffee to explain the physics underlying his favourite image in physics. You will have to watch the video to find out which image that is, and there is more about the physics discussed in the video on Moriarty’s blog Symptoms of the Universe.

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Browsing the Milky Way at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu

 

Artist's impression showing the Milky Way over Hawaii

Kai‘aleleiaka: artist’s impression showing the Milky Way over Hawaii. (Courtesy: IAU)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week the triennial XXIX General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) kicked off in Honolulu, Hawaii. Founded in 1919, the IUA has about 10,000 members based in 96 countries worldwide. About 3500 astronomers are attending this year’s meeting, which runs until 14 August and is hosted by the American Astronomical Society.

A long-standing tradition of the congress is the production of a daily newspaper for delegates and 2015 is the first year that an electronic version is available to the general public. You can catch up with all the daily news by downloading a copy of Kai‘aleleiaka, which is pronounced “kah EE ah lay-lay-ee AH kah” and means “the Milky Way” in Hawaiian.

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Re-examining the decision to bomb Hiroshima

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Not forgotten: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is dedicated to the 140,000 people killed in the city. (Courtesty: iStockphoto/Colin13362)

By Hamish Johnston

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima – the first time that a nuclear weapon was used in war. Many argue that the bombing of Hiroshima, and three days later Nagasaki, was a necessary evil that saved hundreds of thousands of lives by ending the war and avoiding an allied invasion of Japan.

Over on The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, the science historian Alex Wellerstein asks “Were there alternatives to the atomic bombings?”. Wellerstein argues that the choice facing the US in 1945 was not as simple as whether to bomb or to invade. He points out that some physicists working on the Manhattan Project – which built the bombs – argued for a “technical demonstration” of the weapons.

In June 1945 the Nobel laureate James Franck and some colleagues wrote a report that argued that the bomb should first be demonstrated to the world by detonating it over a barren island. Wellerstein surmised that “If the Japanese still refused to surrender, then the further use of the weapon, and its further responsibility, could be considered by an informed world community”. Another idea being circulated at the time was a detonation high over Tokyo Bay that would be visible from the Imperial Palace but would result in far fewer casualties than at Hiroshima, where about 140,000 people were killed.

On the other hand, Wellerstein points out that Robert Oppenheimer and three Nobel laureates wrote a report that concluded “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use”. This report was written for a US government committee, which decided to use the weapon against a “dual target” of military and civilian use.

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