Posts by: Hamish Johnston

‘New boson’ buzz intensifies at CERN, fire prevention in space and Neil Turok on a bright future for physics

The ATLAS detector at CERN

ATLAS under construction: has the experiment gone beyond the Standard Model? (Courtesy: ATLAS)

By Hamish Johnston

Excitement levels in the world of particle physics hit the roof this week as further evidence emerged that physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may have caught sight of a new particle that is not described by the Standard Model of particle physics. If this turns out to be true, it will be the most profound discovery in particle physics in decades and would surely lead to a Nobel prize.

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Physics versus superheroes, a cosmic landscape and a dress inspired by LIGO

A photograph of the Cosmic Multiverse

Galactic views: the Scottish countryside stretches out beyond the Milky Way. (Courtesy: Crawick Multiverse)

By Hamish Johnston

What to do with an abandoned mine? “Turn it into a neutrino and dark-matter detector” is probably what most physicists would say. But we have lots of those already, so how about “A cosmic landscape worthy of the ancients”? That’s how the artist Charles Jencks describes the Crawick Multiverse, which is located in a former open-cast coal mine in the Scottish countryside about 50 miles south of Glasgow. The “striking landscape of distinctive landforms” includes two mounds representing the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies and a Comet Walk that uses standing stones to emulate a comet’s tail. If the photograh above is any indication, it looks like a lovely day out.

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Sounding off about valleytronics

Photograph of a valley in Glacier National Park in the US

Valley state: real-life landscapes can be as beautiful as their condensed-matter counterparts. (CC BY-SA BorisFromStockdale)

By Hamish Johnston

Condensed matter is a physicist’s paradise because of the seemingly endless number of ways that atoms can be rearranged to create systems with new and exciting behaviours. A great example of this is the emerging field of “valleytronics”, which is concerned with a property of electrons that emerges in some semiconductors and 2D materials such as graphene.

The eponymous valley is a local minimum in the conduction band of a solid that “traps” electrons into a specific momentum state. Things get interesting when a material has two valleys that result in two distinct momentum states. In some materials these states resemble the quantum-mechanical property of spin: an electron can be in one of two spin states (up or down) and it can also be in one of two momentum states. As a result, this property is sometimes referred to as valley pseudospin.

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Celtic god of thunder gets an attosecond makeover

Gods of thunder: Gagik Nersisyan (left) and Matt Zepf at the TARANIS laser facility

Gods of thunder: Gagik Nersisyan (left) and Matt Zepf at the TARANIS laser facility.

By Hamish Johnston

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Matt Zepf, who directs the Centre for Plasma Physics at Queen’s University Belfast. Zepf and his colleague Gagik Nersisyan showed me around the TARANIS laser facility, which creates extremely bright flashes of light just like its namesake the Celtic god of thunder.

TARANIS is about to upgraded to TARANIS-X, which will deliver ultrashort pulses of extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) that are just a few attoseconds (10–18 s) in duration. Each attosecond pulse will deliver more than 10 µJ, which Zepf says will make TARANIS-X the most powerful laser of its kind by a comfortable margin.

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Waves of soup, spying on gravity and touring the solar system

Nathan Myrvold's gravity-inspired soup bowl (Courtesy: Modernist Cuisine).

Nathan Myhrvold’s gravity-inspired soup bowl. (Courtesy: Modernist Cuisine)

By Hamish Johnston

Nathan Myhrvold knows a lot about gravity (he worked with Stephen Hawking) and a lot about food (he wrote Modernist Cuisine) so it’s not really surprising that he has designed a soup bowl inspired by the collision of two black holes. Created in 2014, the bowl was made to hold two different types of soup in swirls of space–time. Now that the LIGO observatory has spotted a gravitational wave from the collision of two such black holes, I’m guessing sales of the bowl will be out of this world.

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A big Lidl telescope in Belfast

Alan Fitzsimmons and his telescope

Not so Lidl: Alan Fitzsimmons and his bargain telescope.

By Hamish Johnston

There is an old joke in the UK about going to the discount supermarket Lidl for a pint of milk and coming home with a new set of power tools or ski-wear for the entire family. That’s because the retailer is famous for its seemingly random special offers. One week it could be car accessories and the following week the same shelves could be stocked with pyjamas or camping gear.

But Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University Belfast deserves an award for best physics-related Lidl bargain with this huge telescope that he bought at the supermarket. It makes perfect sense to me – both Lidl and the telescope’s maker Bresser are German companies and, of course, Germany is famous for its optics.

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Earth-gazing, a very noteworthy astronomer, chilling with Einstein and more

The Earth as seen by Himawari-8 earlier today. (Courtesy: JSA)

The Earth as seen by Himawari-8 earlier today. (Courtesy: JSA)

By Hamish Johnston

Who hasn’t wanted to float high above the Earth and gaze down on our planet as sunlight and clouds dapple across its surface. Thanks to the “Glittering Blue” animation, such views are not just for a privileged few astronauts. This stunning animation of one day’s observations from the Japanese weather satellite Himawari-8 has been put together by satellite-imagery analyst Charlie Lloyd. He has also included a nice FAQ page that explains some of the amazing phenomena captured by the satellite, including a huge tropical storm and the daily cloud cycles of a rainforest.

You can read more about Lloyd and the images in The Atlantic article “A New and Stunning Way to See the Whole Earth”. If you want to know what Himawari-8 is seeing right now, it has its own live webcam.

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Female astronomers through the ages, science-inspired phone cases and the return of the incandescent light bulb

Portraits of 21 leading female astronomers

Women and the RAS: portraits of 21 leading astronomers. (Courtesy: Maria Platt-Evans)

By Hamish Johnston

The first documented female astronomer in Britain was Margaret Flamsteed (1670–1739), who worked with her husband John at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. That’s according to astronomer Mandy Bailey of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society, who has written an article entitled “Women and the RAS: 100 years of Fellowship”. As the title suggests, this year is the centenary of the first women becoming fellows of the RAS.

To celebrate the centenary, the RAS commissioned Maria Platt-Evans to photograph 21 leading female fellows. The portraits appear above and are also presented in the slide show “Women of the Royal Astronomical Society”, which includes short biographies.

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Has Advanced LIGO found gravitational waves?

Optics for Advanced LIGO undergoing testing

Rumours of a discovery at Advanced LIGO have resurfaced. (Courtesy: LIGO)

By Hamish Johnston

For the past few days, rumours have been swirling that the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO) has detected gravitiational waves. Advanced LIGO comprises two huge (kilometre-sized) interferometers in the US, which began taking data in September 2015. The source of the rumours seems to be the physicist and author Lawrence Krauss, who wrote on Twitter yesterday that “My earlier rumour about LIGO has been confirmed by independent sources. Stay tuned! Gravitational waves may have been discovered!! Exciting.”

And it would be very exciting, except for the fact that LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González of Louisiana State University has since told the Guardian newspaper that “The LIGO instruments are still taking data today, and it takes us time to analyse, interpret and review results, so we don’t have any results to share yet.”

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Soft hair on black holes, making concrete on Mars and exploring the cosmos in 2016

By Hamish Johnston

 

This week’s Red Folder looks to the cosmos, starting with a spiffy new video from the European Space Agency. The slick presentation is a preview of some of the extra-terrestrial exploits that the agency has planned for 2016. This includes the landing of the Schiaparelli probe on the surface of Mars. This stationery lander will survey its Martian environs to find a suitable location to drop the ExoMars rover in 2018. The mission’s namesake is the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who mapped the surface of Mars and was the first to use the term canali to describe the straight lines that were thought to exist on the surface of the planet.

It’s possible that someday humans will colonize Mars and this will involve building dwellings and other structures on the Red Planet. In preparation, Lin Wan, Roman Wendner and Gianluca Cusatis at Northwestern University in the US have come up with a recipe for making concrete on Mars. The trio reckon that any successful colonization of the Red Planet will have to rely on local building materials because shipping stuff from Earth would be horrendously expensive.

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