Posts by: Michael Banks

The 10 quirkiest physics stories of 2014

By Michael Banks

From a particle collider made of LEGO to physicists taking on the ice-bucket challenge, physics has had its fair share of interesting stories this year. Here is our pick of the 10 best, in chronological order.

The designated survivor

The nuclear physicist and US energy secretary Ernest Moniz may be 14th in the US presidential line of succession, but if something really terrible had happened in late January, then he might have found himself leading the world’s biggest economy. That is because Moniz was appointed the “designated survivor” while US president Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address earlier this year.

Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz: the designated survivor. (Courtesy: MIT Energy Initiative)

The speech, which is attended by the country’s top leaders, including the vice-president, members of the US cabinet and Supreme Court justices, is where US presidents outline their legislative agenda for the coming year. A designated survivor is a member of the cabinet who stays at a distant, secure and undisclosed location during the address to maintain continuity of government in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack that ends up killing officials in the presidential line of succession.

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Physics World Special Report: India

By Michael Banks

Physics World Special Report India 2014

This year has been one of change for India. In May, some 800 million eligible voters went to the polls in an election that was won by the Bhartiya Janata Party. Led by Narendra Modi, the party went on to form a coalition government called the National Democratic Alliance.

Our Special Report, which you can read free online, kicks off by looking at how science is faring under Modi’s fledgling administration. Indeed, in September, Modi was personally on hand at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to laud engineers who had just carefully manoeuvred the Mars Orbiter Mission into position around the red planet – a feat that announced India as a major player in space exploration.

Modi’s personal interest in ISRO will not only please the organization’s chairman K Radhakrishnan, who we interview for the report, but could also be seen as a sign that the new administration is serious about boosting science in the country.

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Build your own LEGO particle collider

 

By Michael Banks

You may remember last year when particle physicist Sascha Mehlhase of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen unveiled a 560-piece LEGO model of CERN’s ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider.

Well, not to be outdone, LEGO fan Jason Allemann has now created a LEGO-inspired particle accelerator. Dubbed the LEGO Brick Collider (LBC), the design has been submitted to LEGO’s CUUSOO site, which lets fans share blueprints of their own models.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Big Science is out now

By Michael Banks

This year has been a special one for the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva as it turns 60 years old. It was back in 1954 when the CERN convention was ratified by its first 12 member states and the European Organization for Nuclear Research was officially established.

Cover of Physics World 2014 Focus on Big ScienceThe past few months have seen CERN celebrate in style with a whole host of symposia, meetings, plays, films, concerts and other events being held at the lab and at member states across Europe.

Indeed, researchers at CERN have had a lot to celebrate recently, following the discovery of the Higgs boson at the lab in 2012, and they will be hoping for yet more success when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) switches on next year following a two-year upgrade and maintenance programme.

In the latest Physics World focus issue on “big science” we look at what has been going on at CERN during the shutdown as the lab gears up to hunt new particles beyond the Higgs boson. Once back online, the LHC will be generating even more data than in its previous run and this focus issue also investigates how researchers are going to deal with the huge volumes of information that will be generated at many upcoming facilities, as well the need to train the next generation of researchers to use them.

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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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