Posts by: Michael Banks

The joke’s on Chu

Steven Chu

Caught on camera. (Courtesy: The Onion)

By Michael Banks

With Steven Chu nearing towards his final days in office as US energy secretary we couldn’t help but highlight a recent spoof of the Nobel laureate in the satirical The Onion magazine.

The Onion may have recently duped China’s People’s Daily newspaper into thinking that North Korea’s leader had been voted the sexiest man alive in 2012, but the magazine failed to fool people that the spoof of Chu was true.

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Don Glaser: 1926–2013

Don Glaser

Don Glaser giving a talk at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2010.
(Courtesy: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

By Michael Banks

The US physicist Don Glaser has died at the age of 86. Glaser was instrumental in inventing the bubble chamber – a vessel filled with a superheated transparent liquid such as liquid hydrogen that can be used to detect electrically charged particles moving through it. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for this work in 1960, aged just 34.

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Opening up research

David Willetts speaking at the open access meeting at the Royal Society (courtesy: Jesse Karjalainen/IOP Publishing)

David Willetts speaking at the open-access meeting at the Royal Society.
(Courtesy: Jesse Karjalainen/IOP Publishing)

By Michael Banks

Yesterday I headed to the Royal Society in London to attend a meeting on open access and what it means for scientific research.

From what I heard at the meeting, I was surprised to learn that some scientists were largely unaware of how it could change scientific publishing.

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Hunting the Higgs

By Michael Banks in Boston

“It looks like a Standard Model Higgs,” remarks Christopher Hill from Ohio State University. “Everything we have measured has strengthened that position.”

Last year, researchers working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN reported they had found a Higgs-like particle with an energy of around 126 GeV.

Yet while the Higgs looks like that predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, further measurements were needed before researchers could be sure.

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Shining a light on dark energy

By Michael Banks in Boston

Robert Kirshner

Robert Kirshner (Courtesy: Lynn Barry Hetherington).

Dust is annoying, particularly when you want to obtain a precise measurement of the expansion of the universe.

Today, Robert Kirshner from Harvard University gave a plenary lecture at the 2013 AAAS meeting in Boston giving participants a tour of the latest in dark-energy research.

Kirshner is a member of the High-Z team that some 15 years ago used observations of supernovae to discover that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Indeed, his former students – Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess – shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics together with Saul Perlmutter for this discovery.

Riess, a graduate student at the time, played an important part in figuring out how to account for dust when measuring supernovae distances. This dust surrounding a supernovae is annoying as it absorbs light, which introduces uncertainties in deducing how far away supernovae are.

Reiss managed to account for this well enough to measure the brightness of supernovae to a reasonable precision that could then be used to deduce the accelerating expansion of the universe; but now Kirshner’s team is planning to go a few steps further by doing better measurements.

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Japan 101

Stand from Japanese research bodies at the 2013 AAAS meeting

Stand from Japanese research bodies at the 2013 AAAS meeting.

By Michael Banks in Boston

There is certainly a big presence from Japanese research bodies at the 2013 AAAS meeting in Boston.

In the exhibitors’ hall, the World Premier Institutes (WPI), RIKEN and the Okinawa Institute for Science and Technology all share a large central stall plugging their research and facilities.

Indeed, this presence may well be part of Japan’s drive to increase the number of foreign researchers and students in the country by actively highlighting its top research and facilities, a topic Physics World touched upon in a special report published last September.

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First results due from AMS

By Michael Banks in Boston

The first results from the $1.5bn Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) are expected to be released in the coming two weeks, according to AMS principal investigator Samuel Ting.

Ting, who shared the 1976 Nobel Prize for Physics, was speaking at the 2013 AAAS meeting in Boston.

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A factor of two

conference image

Worrying signs at the National Ignition Facility.

By Michael Banks in Boston

“A factor of two is not a small thing, it is quite a challenge,” says Robert McCory from the University of Rochester in New York.

McCory was speaking about the latest in laser-based fusion research (known as inertial confinement fusion) at the 2013 AAAS conference.

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Infinite BBQs

By Michael Banks in Boston

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold.
(Courtesy: Ryan Matthew Smith)

Here is a good quiz question. What contains more water: a cucumber or a glass of milk?

If you happened to guess the humble cucumber then you would be correct.

At least that is, according to Nathan Myhrvold, who says the water content of a glass of milk is around 85%, while for a cucumber it is more like 95%.  This is because milk is made up of other things such as proteins and fat.

Myhrvold, who has a PhD in physics, was speaking at the 2013 AAAS meeting in Boston where he gave a plenary lecture to a packed audience on the science of cooking.

Myhrvold is the brains behind the recently published six-volume, 2400-page tome  Modernist Cuisine that took him and his staff of eight researchers around five years to put together.

Apart from talking about the novel cooking techniques he has developed such as making crispy chips in an ultrasonic bath and spinning peas in a centrifuge to bring out more flavour, Myhrvold had some tidbits of information we could all put to use.

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A trip to MIT

By Michael Banks in Boston

Alcator C-Mod

Alcator C-Mod at MIT.

It may have been the prospect of free pizza that led me to hop on a bus heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

But apart from a free lunch, we were also promised a tour of MIT’s fusion facilities, which are based at institute’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

So after a few slices of pepperoni pizza, we donned the hard hats and moved on to the tour, which included a look at MIT’s main experimental fusion facility – the Alcator C-Mod fusion tokamak.

Operating since 1991 and with a budget of around $25m per year, Alcator C-Mod is a magnetic-confinement fusion device. It heats up a plasma of deuterium and tritium atoms to millions of degrees kelvin, which causes the hydrogen isotopes to fuse and release energy.

However, Alcator C-Mod faces an uncertain future. Last year Congress slated the facility for closure after increasing the budget for the ITER fusion reactor in France. Given no increase in the Department of Energy’s budget for fusion – standing at around $450m per year – the cut had to then come from the domestic fusion programme.

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