Posts by: Michael Banks

Ravens at LIGO, stained-glass physics, fake space pics

Stained glass physics plots

Grand designs: Los Alamos physicist Hubert van Hecke combines his hobby of stained-glass windows with physics. (Courtesy: Hubert van Hecke)

By Michael Banks and Sarah Tesh

Researchers working on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory might be answering some of the biggest questions in astrophysics, but last week they had a rather more down-to-Earth problem to solve. When spurious glitches were picked up by the detector characterization group at the LIGO detector based in Hanford, Washington, they went on an investigation to find the culprit. The team suspected that ravens were to blame as they had been seen causing mischief on tubes that vent nitrogen gas. These pipes are connected to the vacuum enclosure and any vibration could change the optical path length of light that is scattered from the test mass and reflected back. Upon closer inspection, LIGO researchers found peck marks that were “consistent with the size of a raven’s beak”. Not content with just watching the birds at play, the team even performed “simulated pecking” to see how this affected the machine’s performance. With the culprit now identified, you will be pleased to hear that the lines are set to be insulated to fend off the birds. “I guess we can’t blame [the ravens] for desiring ice on a hot desert afternoon,” writes Robert Schofield in a LIGO logbook post.

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Physics World’s latest special report on China is out now

By Michael Banks

The pace of change in China can be bewildering – and science is no exception. With every year that goes by, the country publishes more papers, spends more cash on research and opens up yet more world-class facilities.

PWChina17cover-200This is the third Physics World special report on physics in China – following publications last year and in 2011.

Most of this year’s report was based on an action-packed schedule of visits and interviews earlier this year at institutes and labs in Shanghai and Beijing.

Speaking to researchers during my travels, it became clear that China is reaping particular benefits from its 1000 Talents programme, which seeks to persuade top Chinese  researchers who have spent time abroad to return home. Such scientists are bringing huge experience back and using it to put China at the forefront of many fields of research.

China is also showing a growing appetite to attract foreign scientists who have not worked there before. Getting overseas researchers to move to China is not always easy, so one solution has been for China to encourage Western institutions to branch out into the country. The Kavli Foundation, for example, has just opened a new Kavli Institute for Theoretical Sciences in Beijing, which aims to have about a third of its faculty from outside China.

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Sculpture inspired by neutrino lab unveiled

SNO sculpture

Putting it all together. (Courtesy: Garrett Elliott)

By Michael Banks

A sculpture inspired by the geometry of the neutrino detector at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) has been unveiled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada.

SNO, which operated from 1999 to 2006, was located 2.1 km underground in Sudbury, Ontario, and designed to detect neutrinos from the Sun through their interactions with a large tank of heavy water.

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The STAR of the show

Tokamak design from Applied Fusion Systems

Grand designs. (courtesy: Applied Fusion Systems)

By Michael Banks

You may remember in 2014 when we reported that entrepreneur Richard Dinan – a former star of the UK reality-TV programme Made in Chelsea – was venturing into fusion energy.

He founded the firm Applied Fusion Systems with the aim of building a prototype fusion reactor. The 30 year old, who doesn’t have a university degree, claims to have taught himself tokamak design and employs a small team of scientists who are working on a design.

Well, the firm has now released its first blueprint for a spherical fusion tokamak and is seeking £200m in investment to build not one, but two of the machines.

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Building bridges with the west

Fuchun Zhang, director of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Sciences

Physicist Fuchun Zhang, director of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Sciences.

By Michael Banks in Beijing, China

It’s my final day in Beijing and keeping up with the daily weather reports, it is still raining. But that is better than the snow that was forecast only a couple of days ago.

My time in Beijing has been short, but packed full of interesting discussions with researchers.

Yesterday I headed to the Beijing Institute for Nanoenergy and Nanosystems. Today, I visited the theoretical condensed-matter physicist Fuchun Zhang, who is director of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Sciences (KITS).

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A blue energy dream

Zhong Lin Wang

Zhong Lin Wang, director of the Beijing Institute of Nanoeergy and Nanosystems.

By Michael Banks in Beijing, China

I was told that it wouldn’t rain much in Beijing, a city known for its dry air – and pollution.

But since I arrived here last night courtesy of the bullet train, all I have seen is drizzle. The wet weather also made it a challenge during rush hour, but I finally made it to the Beijing Institute for Nanoenergy and Nanosystems (BINN).

I met with BINN’s director, Zhong Lin Wang, who has been in the US for more than 39 years, most of which has been spent at the Georgia Institute of Technology. While he is still affiliated to Georgia Tech, he came back to China in 2012 to establish BINN.

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Shanghai round-up

NYU Shanghai

NYU Shanghai is the first Sino–US joint-venture university

By Michael Banks in Shanghai, China

It’s been a busy three days in Shanghai and now I’m on my way to Beijing to continue reporting for the China special report, which will be published in June.

As I mentioned in previous blog posts, Shanghai has thrown up some interesting stories. I heard about plans for a new 12 m telescope and also received a progress update on the construction of a new X-ray free electron laser in the city.

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China outlines free-electron laser plans

Zhenjiang Zhao, director of the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics

Zhentang Zhao, director of the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics.

By Michael Banks in Shanghai, China

There was a noticeable step change in the weather today in Shanghai as the Sun finally emerged and the temperature rose somewhat.

This time I braved the rush-hour metro system to head to the Zhangjiang Technology Park in the south of the city.

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Chinese astronomers pin their hopes on LOT

Lei Hao from the Shanghai Astonomical Observatory

Lei Hao from the Shanghai Astonomical Observatory.

By Michael Banks in Shanghai, China

It was a cold, rainy day here in Shanghai, so coming from the UK, I felt right at home.

Jumping into a Shanghai taxi to avoid the downpour, I headed to the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, belonging to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to meet astronomer Lei Hao.

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China bound

Evening image of Shanghai

Courtesy: Shutterstock/ArtisticPhoto

By Michael Banks

I am heading to China tomorrow for a five-day trip in what promises to be a fascinating update on some of the physics that is being carried out in the country.

The purpose of my journey is to gather material for an upcoming special report on China, which will be published later this year.

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