Posts by: Hamish Johnston

A great day out in celebration of Maxwell’s equations

Pillars of light: this week's meeting at the Royal Society focussed on how Maxwell's equations illuminate physics (Courtesy: Tom Morris/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pillars of light: this week’s meeting at the Royal Society focused on how Maxwell’s equations illuminate physics. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Tom Morris)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week I caught the 6.30 a.m. train from Bristol to London to attend the second day of “Unifying physics and technology in light of Maxwell’s equations” at the Royal Society. It was a particularly damp and gloomy morning as I emerged from Piccadilly Circus station and tramped through St James, my sights set on the Duke of York pillar next to the Royal Society in Carlton House Terrace.

It seemed like the perfect morning to be thankful for the light described by James Clerk Maxwell’s equations, and to ponder how they have since illuminated many shadowy corners of physics.

The meeting was organized by three physicists at nearby King’s College London: biophysicist and nanotechnologist Anatoly Zayats; particle physicist John Ellis and condensed-matter physicist Roy Pike. Already, you can see the breadth of physics covered at the meeting.

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Comic book fusion, Nathan Myhrvold on innovation, and picking winners of the Global Physics Photowalk

Comic book physics. (Courtesy: PPPL)

By Hamish Johnston

The comic book artist Frank Espinosa and Princeton University’s Sajan Saini have joined forces to create a comic book called A Star For Us. The book begins with a brief history of our understanding of nuclear fusion in the Sun and goes on to chronicle the challenges of creating a mini-Sun here on Earth.

Espinosa and Saini – who is a physicist turned professor of writing – spent time with physicists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Espinosa says that he was impressed by the researchers enthusiasm for the future of fusion energy. “I was trying to channel that energy of hope,” he explains.

“The mood of the comic tries to really capture a sense of a vast cosmic scale being made palpable, being made into something that we can realize within our own hands,” says Saini. I agree and you can judge for yourself by downloading a PDF of the comic book free of charge.

The physicist and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, has a nice essay in Scientific American about the roles of the private and public sectors in driving technological innovation. He explains that when Microsoft Research was created in 1991, the company was keen on not making the same mistakes as AT&T, IBM and Xerox – which were all in the process of winding down their world-famous research labs. The problem was that these firms funded research in areas that they were not immediately able to exploit commercially. Myhrvold points out that many of the technologies first developed in those labs – including the transistor and giant magnetoresistance data storage – made much more money for fast-moving competitors such as Microsoft than they did for the companies that did the basic research.

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Zapping head lice and a job that is out of this world

Nit picker: the cold atmospheric pressure plasma lice killer (Courtesy: Fraunhofer IST)

Nit picker: the cold plasma lice killer. (Courtesy: Fraunhofer IST)

By Hamish Johnston

Do your children have head lice again? Now you don’t have to comb their hair until your arm goes numb or cover their head with goop. Instead, you can zap them away using a plasma. I’m not suggesting that you put your child’s head into ionized gas that’s hotter than the Sun – it turns out that a “cold atmospheric pressure plasma” will do the trick.

That’s the claim of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films in Göttingen, Germany. The team has created the above prototype, which creates a plasma using a high-voltage generator that sends short pulses to the teeth of the comb. The pulses ionize air molecules surrounding the teeth, but they are so short that the resulting plasma does not heat up. The charged ions and electrons in the plasma make short work of killing lice and their eggs, but are harmless to humans – at least according to Wolfgang Viöl and colleagues, who will be unveiling their device later this month at the MEDICA trade fair in Düsseldorf.

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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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