Posts by: Joe McEntee

Earth sciences: unlocking the secrets of a dynamic planet

By Joe McEntee, group editor at IOP Publishing

The latest video report from our globe-trotting multimedia team offers an “up close and personal” take from the bleeding edge of the Earth sciences, as told to us by faculty and graduate students in the geosciences department at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas).

Filmed in the spring as an add-on to our coverage of the American Physical Society March Meeting in Dallas, the interviews cover a lot of ground – to be expected for a discipline that aims to unlock the secrets of the solar system’s most active planet.

Carlos Aiken and colleagues, for example, are using an approach called cybermapping (which integrates laser scanning, digital photography and satellite positioning, among other sensors) to build 3D photorealistic models of surface geology around the world. Their work is being applied in oil exploration and education (for virtual field trips).

Meanwhile, fellow researcher John Ferguson is applying a technique called 4D microgravity – essentially ultraprecise gravitational measurements, a few parts per billion of the Earth’s gravitational field – to monitor the success (or otherwise) of CO2 sequestration in underground reservoirs.

Another important strand of the UT Dallas geosciences programme is the use of remote sensing (specifically, space geodetic satellite observation) to understand changes in Earth systems over time. “There’s much more to it [remote sensing] than pretty pictures,” explains Alexander Braun.

“You can actually measure real physical parameters – such as the [Earth's] gravity field or magnetic field – and, more importantly, you can detect surface deformation. The Earth is a very active planet and it is crucial for us to understand when and where it is moving.”

In the second video (below), senior scientists in the UT Dallas geosciences programme explain what attracted them to a career in the Earth sciences. It seems if you like to travel and have a hankering for the outdoors then Earth sciences could be just the ticket.

Or, as Bob Stern puts it, “It’s really a remarkable opportunity to get out and see things that no-one else gets to see – that you would never see as a tourist.”

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Moving pictures

By Joe McEntee

Where to start? What to watch? What to watch it on? In the brave, new cross-platform world of iPads, smarter smartphones, Internet-enabled TVs and the like, channel surfing is no longer just a matter of putting your feet up and grabbing the remote.

Consider the latest service offering from New Journal of Physics (NJP), an open-access journal co-owned by the Institute of Physics and the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft and published by IOP Publishing (which also publishes physicsworld.com).

With the launch of its video-abstracts channel last month, NJP is shaping up as a prime destination for a new wave of scientifically minded channel-surfers – students, researchers and educators who like their content open and with plenty of added value thrown in.

It’s early days, but the video service is already winning plaudits from authors and viewers alike. “A great way to communicate our excitement and enthusiasm,” notes one early-adopter, while another adds that the video-abstract format makes the paper “more visible and accessible and is ideal for outreach”.

How all this plays out in the battle for online clicks and eyeballs remains to be seen, though in its favour NJP’s cross-disciplinary remit does map well against a broad chunk of the physics community. Press play on the latest videos and you’ll encounter everything from modelling of the financial crisis through the whispering-gallery effect in neutron scattering to the survival of competing languages.

My own favourite is this piece on nanoscale effects in amorphous carbon:

More TV, where you want it, when you need it. All you need to do now is figure out whether to watch those abstracts on your sleek new iPad2 or your laptop.

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A cross-disciplinary melting pot

BARC
Learning and networking at the COMSOL
short courses.

By Joe McEntee, group editor, Boston

Earlier this month, I spent a day at the sixth annual COMSOL User Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. For those who don’t know, COMSOL is the company behind the COMSOL Multiphysics software platform for the modelling and simulation of all manner of physics-based systems.

The conference, like COMSOL’s customer base, isn’t short on variety. With more than 350 attendees, 150 user presentations and 20 short courses, the programme ranges across many areas of academic and industrial research, among them acoustics, bioengineering, heat transfer, electromagnetic fields, microfluidics, fuel cells and photonics.

The keynote presentations reinforced the multidisciplinary feel. Thomas Dreeben of US lighting company OSRAM SYLVANIA, for example, explained how his team is using multiphysics modelling to study energy-efficiency improvements in high-intensity discharge lamps that exploit “acoustic streaming”.

Dreeben and his colleagues hope that one day their endeavours will yield an “increase in lamp efficiency over current technology”, and in turn put a significant dent in global electricity consumption – 20% of which is currently used to keep the lights on.

Meanwhile, fellow keynote speaker Mihan McKenna of the US Army Engineer R&D Center put the focus on the here and now – and specifically the use of COMSOL in a disaster-prevention context for civil and military geophysics applications ranging from modelling of water intrusion in levees to evaluating the structural integrity of bridges.

Lest anyone forget, COMSOL is in business to shift product and the wide-ranging scientific programme is ultimately a means to that end. To oil the wheels of commerce, each conference delegate got to play with the pre-release of COMSOL Multiphysics version 4.1, with “enhanced productivity” billed as the headline selling point.

For Bernt Nilsson, COMSOL’s senior vice-president of marketing, the User Conference works on a number of levels, but most important is the “deeper engagement” it provides with scientific and industrial researchers. “This is a cross-disciplinary melting pot where high-end users can come together to network and learn from each other,” he explained.

“We’re seeing more users wanting to present too. It’s become a notable career event because we promote the content so widely. Your presentation in the conference proceedings alone means that it reaches more than 100,000 engineers and scientists worldwide.”

• The proceedings of the COMSOL User Conference will be available in December. Readers interested in ordering a free copy can register here.

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Simulate to accumulate

Multiphysics in action
COMSOL Multiphysics in action: Courtesy Metelli SpA (Cologne, Italy)

By Joe McEntee, group editor, in Boston

I’ve been on something of an east-coast road trip this past week – Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston and several points inbetween.

Just outside Boston, in the high-tech corridor in and around Burlington, Massachusetts, I spent a morning at the North American headquarters of COMSOL, a firm that develops the COMSOL Multiphysics software platform for the modelling and simulation of all manner of physics-based systems.

Regular readers of physicsworld.com will doubtless be familiar with COMSOL Multiphysics and its range of scientific applications. If you’re not, you can get up to speed easily enough by checking out COMSOL’s series of popular tutorial webinars over on the multimedia channel.

Webinars aside, COMSOL is also a player in the live-events business. Planning for the company’s sixth annual user conference in Boston (7–9 October 2010) is well advanced, according to Bernt Nilsson, COMSOL’s senior vice-president of marketing.

“The conference is a great way to create community – to get COMSOL Multiphysics users together so that they can share ideas and learn from others about the software tools used to solve physics problems,” Nilsson told me.

He described the user conference as “a smorgasbord of different applications”, spanning acoustics, computational fluid dynamics, electromagnetics, batteries and fuel cells, and many other areas of physics.

For the record, last year’s conference in Boston pulled in 300 delegates from 11 countries with a programme comprising more than 130 user presentations and a supporting schedule of Multiphysics courses and tutorial sessions.

Right now, scientists and engineers are being invited to submit abstracts describing projects in which COMSOL Multiphysics has played a key role. If your submission gets accepted, you’ll be invited to present your work at the conference and submit a paper or poster for the CD version of the proceedings (more than 100,000 of which are distributed to COMSOL’s worldwide contacts).

Full guidelines on submitting an abstract can be found on the COMSOL Conference website.

P.S. Don’t miss the next instalment in COMSOL’s webinar series, “Plasma modelling with COMSOL Multiphysics”, which is scheduled for Thursday 17 June at 10.00 a.m. BST on physicsworld.com. Click here to register.

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Science meets innovation at Stanford Photonics Research Center

By Joe McEntee

It’s 50 years since the birth of the laser and to mark the imminent anniversary physicsworld.com will be cranking up its coverage of photonic science, technologies and applications over the coming weeks.

For starters, there’s our latest video exclusive, a vox pop with faculty and students at the Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC), part of Stanford University in California and home to one of largest photonics research programmes in the US.

SPRC’s Ginzton Laboratory is the focal point for that programme and an interdisciplinary research team that comprises around 40 professors and 200 graduate students and postdocs. Theirs is a wide-ranging brief – SPRC working groups span information technology, telecommunications, integrated photonics, microscopy, neuroscience and solar cells – though with a common objective: to partner with industry to bring innovative photonic technologies to market.

With innovation a defining metric, a sizeable slice of SPRC’s activity comprises contract research funded by industry. The centre has 20+ commercial partners, among them the likes of SONY, Agilent Technologies, Lockheed Martin and NTT Communications.

Partnership is the key word here. The affiliates don’t just give their name to SPRC or sponsor a meeting, they actively support the research programme. Tom Baer, executive director of SPRC, reckons the affiliates are a “unique interface” between industry and the science and engineering taught at Stanford.

“SPRC provides the opportunity for students to work closely with our [industry] affiliates…and helps the students become exposed to scientific and technical problems that are current and relevant to the commercial sector,” he told physicsworld.com.

Equally significant, the SPRC reflects the research culture at Stanford, which has been cross-disciplinary for many decades. And that multidisciplinary effort is more than just a bunch of people from different disciplines working together, it’s about nurturing teams of “multidisciplinarians”.

“You really need to encourage the physicists to learn the biology, the engineers to learn the chemistry and so on,” Baer explained. “Something I instill in SPRC students from the off is that the more unique fields of enquiry you have knowledge of, the more you become unique in the eyes of your employers.”

• Our filming project at SPRC’s Ginzton Laboratory was a one-day excursion to the cutting edge of photonics. If you want to learn more, be sure to check out our other exclusive video interviews with Stanford physicists Steven Block (on single-molecule biophysics) and Phil Bucksbaum (on the world’s brightest X-ray source).

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New video on the biomedical attraction of magnetic nanoparticles

By Joe McEntee

Think small, win big. That’s the headline message coming across loud and clear in our latest video feature exploring the biomedical applications of magnetic nanoparticles, a multidisciplinary field of endeavour that’s witnessed rapid growth over the past five years.

Just press “Play” on the video Q&A with Kevin O’Grady, professor of physics at the University of York, UK, for an engaging overview that covers the fundamental science of magnetic nanoparticles as well as looking ahead to the delivery of real-world diagnostic and therapeutic nanoparticle technologies.

Right now, magnetic nanoparticles are the focus of fast-moving R&D efforts in areas like targeted drug delivery, gene therapy, heat treatment of cancerous tumours (hyperthermia) and magnetic-particle imaging.

Tailoring magnetic properties
When it comes to the science, a recurring theme is the ability to tailor the magnetic properties of nanomaterials by reducing the length scale of certain critical dimensions – for example, particle diameter, separation distance and thickness.

Equally important is the creation of cross-disciplinary research teams. “It’s absolutely critical,” notes O’Grady. “You not only need to make the particles and to understand the physics of their magnetic properties. Then you need chemistry – because you need to separate the particles so that they can act individually to provide the functionality that you’re trying to achieve.”

To add a further level of complexity, scientists must tailor the performance of the nanoparticle, so that it does exactly what it’s intended to do in vivo or in vitro.

Functionalized nanoparticles
“[For example], you possibly want the particle to attach to one type of cell but not to another,” explains O’Grady. “Therefore you need to ‘functionalize’ the nanoparticle and that takes you immediately into the realm of biochemistry.”

He concludes: “In this area, as in many areas of biomedical technology, you need the full complement of skills. There can’t be any boundaries in this kind of science.”

If you want to find out more about this field of research, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics has just published a cluster of three review articles on the biomedical applications of magnetic nanoparticles. The reviews are free to download until November 2010.

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