Posts by: Michael Banks

Physics World 2016 Focus on Nuclear Energy is out now

By Michael Banks

Proponents of nuclear power in the UK have endured an agonizing wait for Hinckley Point C – a European pressurized water reactor (EPR) to be built in south-west England that would fulfil 3.5% of the UK’s electricity needs. Earlier this year, it looked as if the French utility giant EDF would finally give the project the thumbs up and start construction. However, following months of political wrangling – and resignations by senior EDF executives – a final decision by the EDF board is yet to see the light of day.

Cover of the 2016 Physics World Focus on Nuclear Energy

Hinckley Point C is not the only EPR under construction that has been beset with delays and cost hikes: two in China, one in France and one in Finland have also had issues. In this first-ever Physics World Focus on Nuclear Energy, we delve into the EPR design and Hinckley Point C, as well as look ahead to other, more ambitious reactor designs in the pipeline – known as generation-IV designs – that could vastly reduce the amount of nuclear waste produced. Although work on such designs has slowed following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, supporters argue that generation IV will still play a vital role in the long term.

The focus issue is not only devoted to fission, but fusion too. For decades physicists have dreamed of using fusion to generate electricity and, with construction well under way on the ITER fusion tokamak in Cadarache, France, that vision is now getting closer to a reality. But is ITER the only way forward? We explore how several private firms are developing small-scale fusion technologies, while in Germany a novel “stellarator” device has just started up that promises to deliver a “steady state” plasma.

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Go wins for Google AI program

Go board

Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo programme has won the first two games against Go champion Lee Sedol from South Korea. (Courtesy: iStock/Peerayot)

By Michael Banks

It is a battle between man and machine, but one that has been ultimately won by the brute force of computation.

Yesterday as well as today, Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo program has made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence by defeating Lee Sedol – the current world champion from South Korea – at the game of Go.

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Perimeter Institute discuss LIGO findings

 

By Michael Banks

Following the exciting news that the US-based Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory has discovered gravitational waves, the folks at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada are hosting a live webcast panel discussion at 13:00 EST (18:00 GMT) today.

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Name the element, continued

(Courtesy: Shutterstock/Nerthuz)

(Courtesy: Shutterstock/Nerthuz)

By Michael Banks

It will soon be time to get the Tipp-Ex out on your copy of the periodic table.

That is because the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) have announced the discovery of four new elements: 113, 115, 117 and 118 – completing the table’s seventh row.

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The 10 quirkiest physics stories of 2015

By Michael Banks

From a physicist creating an award-winning beer to a font based on Albert Einstein’s handwriting, physics has offered up its fair share of interesting stories this year. Here is our pick of the 10 best, in chronological order.

UK to open its first “pub observatory”

Fancy having a few pints while gazing at the stars? Well soon you could do just that, thanks to a new initiative at the Barge Inn in Honeystreet on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire, UK.

Photograph of the Barge Inn

The Barge Inn. (Courtesy: The Barge Inn)

The boozer is already a favourite among UFO aficionados and crop-circle hunters, but now the free house, which has its own brewery making beers such as Alien Abduction and Roswell, is creating the UK’s first pub observatory. The 205-year-old, rural inn received planning permission earlier this year from Wiltshire County Council to construct a 6 m-tall domed observatory in its neighbouring campsite.

Dubbed the Honeystreet Observatory, it will be able to accommodate groups of about 20 people and will feature a Celestron 14″ 1400 Pro telescope. Images from the instrument will also be relayed onto screens in the pub.

But will it be a good idea to mix alcohol with astronomy, particularly with the tricky ascent to the telescope? “Gazing at the stars and falling down the stairs is a regular activity, so we think it will be business as usual,” says pub landlord Ian McIvor. The observatory is set to open in spring 2016 and Physics World editorial staff are looking forward to checking out this important new scientific venue.

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CMS on canvas

Collage of the CMS detector at CERN

Collage of the CMS detector at CERN created by Genevieve Lovegrove.

By Michael Banks

We’ve already had a LEGO model of the giant CMS detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) but now University of Leicester modern literature student Genevieve Lovegrove has attempted to go one better by creating a collage of the LHC detector made from everyday objects.

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Homebrew physics

Will Alston with Rhubarbe de Saison

Cambridge astrophysicist Will Alston together with his winning tipple. (Courtesy: Will Alston/Thornbridge)

By Michael Banks

An astrophysicist from the University of Cambridge has bagged this year’s Great British Homebrew Challenge award for the quality of his beer.

Seeing off some 200 rival entries, the tipple was created by postdoc Will Alston using rhubarbs from his allotment to provide an extra twist.

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Physics World 2015 Focus on Neutron Science is out now

By Michael Banks

PWneutron15cover-200

For physicists who love scattering neutrons off materials, the recent ground-breaking ceremony at the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, will have been a long time coming. First proposed more than two decades ago, the ESS will – when it finally opens in 2020 – generate the world’s most intense beams of neutrons and help satisfy demand for these most useful of particles.

Neutron scattering has emerged as a mainstream scientific endeavour over the last 20–30 years, which is one reason why this month sees the first-ever Physics World focus issue on neutron science. We take a look at how researchers at the ESS are designing the facility’s tungsten target, as well as a new neutron source being built in China and how the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source in the UK is looking to bring in more users from industry.

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Friction between the sheets

Interleaved phone directories

Physics helps to explain why it is so hard to pull apart two interleaved phone directories. (CC  BY SA Mark Longair)

By Michael Banks

Ever tried – and duly failed – to pull apart two interleaved phone books? Well, a team of researchers from France and Canada, led by Héctor Alarcón of the University Paris-Sud, has now studied why this is such an impossible task.

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Space Station vacancy, lead balloons on the fly and more

 

By Michael Banks and Tushna Commissariat

You may remember that the “classical crossover” soprano star Sarah Brightman had been undergoing strenuous training at Moscow’s Star City complex before hitching a ride on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) in September. The singer was set to pay a whopping £30m for a ticket that would have seen her embark on a 10-day journey into space. Brightman even recorded a special song in March that she was planned to perform on the ISS itself – you can watch the 5 News report above. But Brightman has now postponed the trip, putting out a brief statement on her website citing “personal family reasons” for the decision. One beneficiary of Brightman’s no-show will be the Japanese entrepreneur Satoshi Takamatsu, who had been training as Brightman’s back-up. Whether he’ll do his own version of her planned performance isn’t clear.

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