Posts by: Michael Banks

Pushing the frontiers of precision

High Precision Laboratory

The €25m Precision Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany. (Courtesy: MPI-FKF)

By Michael Banks in Stuttgart, Germany

“There is nothing like this in Germany,” states Klaus Kern, a director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany, as we walk around the institute’s Precision Laboratory, which opened in 2012 at a cost of €25m.

Kern took me on a guided tour of the the centre, which he has been involved with since its conception in 2008, during a break from attending a symposium celebrating the life of Manuel Cardona, a former institute director who passed away earlier this year.

The building is unique, not only in Germany but worldwide, as it offers researchers a space in which to do experiments that are seismically, acoustically and electrically isolated from the environment.

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Physicists take on the ice bucket challenge

 

By Michael Banks

The ice bucket challenge, which involves people pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads, has taken the social media world by storm raising millions of pounds for motor neurone disease and other charities.

Not wanting to miss out, researchers have also got involved in the act. One of those to take part is the Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, who has suffered with the disease since he was 21. He stepped up to the challenge – albeit with a twist. In a video filmed outside his family home in Cambridge, UK, Hawking says that as he suffered from a bout of pneumonia last year it would “not be wise” to have a bucket of ice-cold water poured over him. So instead he passed over the challenge to his children – Robert, Lucy and Tim – who were then doused with three buckets of icy water, while Hawking watched on.

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Rebuilding Tesla Tower

Tesla tower

Artist’s impression of the revamped Tesla Tower. (Global Energy Transmission)

By Michael Banks

Two Russian physicists have turned to the fundraising website Indiegogo in the hope of raising a cool $800,000 to build a Tesla Tower.

Leonid and Sergey Plekhanov – graduates of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology but now working in industry – want to reconstruct the famous Wardenclyffe Tower that was built by the inventor and engineer Nicola Tesla to find a commercial application for long-distance wireless energy transmission.

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Setting the standard for Brazilian materials science

Brazil's standards lab, Inmetro

Long and low – Inmetro, Brazil’s standards lab.

By Michael Banks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As part of my road-trip round Brazil, I visited Inmetro – the Brazilian standards lab. Located around 50 km north of Rio de Janeiro, Inmetro certainly has the feeling of being well away from the hustle and bustle of one of Brazil’s major cities.

The first thing that you notice when you enter Inmetro’s vast campus is that the buildings have a unique architecture (see above). The bunker-like structures are built in such a way that they are protected from the Sun, which can deliver 40 °C temperatures in summer. (Thankfully, I am here in autumn, but the temperature is still a warm 30 °C.)

Inmetro’s campus was built about 40 years ago with the help of the PTB – the German standards lab. The buildings were also specially designed so that the labs are vibrationally separate from the offices. So, any wild jumping around at your desk won’t affect the sensitive measurements in the lab.

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Boosting innovation in Brazil

Evaldo Ferreira Vilela

FAPEMIG boss Evaldo Ferreira Vilela.

By Michael Banks in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

I’m writing this while on a week-long road trip across Brazil to gather information for a new report that IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, is producing for the Brazilian Materials Research Society.

While on my trip, I have visited a number of institutes that focus on materials research. But I also had the chance to talk a bit of policy when visiting FAPEMIG – the main state funder for research in Minas Gerais, which is the second most populous state in Brazil.

In Belo Horizonte, which is the capital of Minas Gerais, I met Evaldo Ferreira Vilela, who is director of science, technology and innovation at FAPEMIG.

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Could a canned UK-led telescope have discovered B-modes before BICEP2?

The BICEP2 telescope

Researchers working on the BICEP2 telescope announced on Monday that they had detected the first evidence for the primordial B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Michael Banks

This week has seen physics news hit the mainstream in a way not seen since the Higgs boson was discovered at the CERN particle-physics lab in 2012.

On Monday, researchers working on the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope at the South Pole revealed that they have detected the first evidence for the primordial B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). You can read our news stories about the finding here and here.

Yet could scientists in the UK have got there first if a telescope they had been planning to build – dubbed Clover – hadn’t been axed in 2009?

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Rebirth of the SSC?

The derelict site of the Superconducting Super Collider

Physicists entering the derelict site of the Superconducting Super Collider in 2011.

By Michael Banks

Following the closure of Fermilab’s 1 TeV Tevatron particle collider near Chicago in 2011 – and with no similar facility being planned to replace it in the US – many physicists in the country felt not surprisingly concerned that America was losing its place at the “energy frontier”. That baton had already passed to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva when its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) fired up in 2008, and with collisions set to restart there next year at 13 TeV, the US’s day looked certain to have passed.

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Giving the public access to research

By Michael Banks

Library users in the UK now have access to hundreds of thousands of journal articles following a new initiative called Access to Research, which was rolled out yesterday.

The two-year pilot programme will allow public-library users in the UK to freely access 8000 journals from 17 publishers including IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, as well as Elsevier, Nature Publishing Group and Wiley.

Last year, about 250 libraries from 10 local authorities, the majority of which are in southern England, were involved in testing the programme, with the initiative now being launched nationwide.

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Life on Mars?

Rock on the surface of Mars

Magic mushroom? (Courtesy: NASA)

By Michael Banks

You may remember the story of Walter Wagner, the Hawaii resident who set his sights on stopping CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Wagner, together with his colleague Luis Sancho, filed a federal lawsuit in the US District Court in Honolulu in 2008 to prevent the LHC from starting up. In the lawsuit, Wagner and Sancho claimed that if the LHC were switched on, then the Earth would eventually fall into a growing micro black hole, thus converting our planet into a medium-sized black hole, around which the Moon, artificial satellites and the International Space Station would orbit.

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The designated survivor

By Michael Banks

Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz: the designated survivor.

It is not unusual for physicists to find themselves leading a country. Angela Merkel, who studied physics at the University of Leipzig from 1973 to 1978, has been Germany’s chancellor since 2005, while in 2010 Japan elected former physicist Naoto Kan as its prime minister – a position he held for just over a year.

Yet while the nuclear physicist and current US energy secretary Ernest Moniz may be 14th in the US presidential line of succession, if something really terrible had happened yesterday, he may have found himself leading the world’s biggest economy.

That is because he was appointed “designated survivor” while US president Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address.

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