Posts by: Michael Banks

A look at physics in Japan

PW-20121002-blog-sandhu.jpg

By Michael Banks

If you have ever thought about studying or working in Japan, or are just curious about the high-profile international research facilities the country has, then make sure you don’t miss a special online lecture next week given by Adarsh Sandhu from the Toyohashi University of Technology (right).

Sandhu has spent around 25 years working in Japan and he will give his personal take on physics in the country, including outlining key international research centres as well as what careers there are for researchers.

Indeed, there are both challenges and opportunities for physicists from abroad to go and work in Japan or to collaborate with Japanese researchers and Sandhu will address these as well as answer any questions you have.

The lecture is on Wednesday 10 October 2012 at 2.00 p.m. BST (9.00 a.m. EDT) and you can register for the free event via this link.

Also, make sure you don’t miss our special report on Japan, which you can view online here. The report draws together a selection of our recent articles about physics in Japan looking at, for example, the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser as well as a major upgrade to Japan’s famous KEKB collider.

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Focus on: Big Science

By Michael Banks

POct12-BigScience-cover200.jpg

Just a couple of weeks ago the European Commission kick-started the Extreme Light Infrastructure Nuclear Physics Facility (ELI-NP) project by announcing €180m towards its construction.

ELI-NP, costing €350m and to be built near Bucharest in Romania, will generate laser pulses with a power of some 10 petawatts (1016 W) – intense enough to study nuclear transitions in unprecedented detail.

The facility is one of four centres planned as part of the huge ELI project – the others being a centre in Hungary for attosecond physics, a third working on laser-based particle-beam production in the Czech Republic, and a fourth on ultrahigh-powered lasers. The latter’s location is still up for grabs.

Along with the ITER experimental fusion reactor in Cadarache, France, and the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, ELI is just one of a whole host of “big science” facilities set to come online in the coming decade. Indeed, the Square Kilometre Array is now nearer to construction following a decision in May to split the facility between Australia and southern Africa.

It doesn’t stop there, with physicists looking even further ahead such as to a successor to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a muon collider, as well as an electron–ion collider that would be able to study gluons in unprecedented detail.

In a special focus issue accompanying the October edition of Physics World, and available to view free here, we take a look at the technical challenges in building and designing some of these big science facilities.

I hope you find this focus issue stimulating and please do let us have your comments by e-mailing pwld@iop.org.

Here’s a rundown of what’s inside:

• A phased approach – Jon Cartwright looks at the technology behind phased arrays – a key part of the planned Square Kilometre Array

• Planning the world’s next collider – An interview with linear collider director Lyn Evans on what comes next after CERN’s Large Hadron Collider

• The attraction of superconductors – Development of a magnet built from high-temperature superconductors will be at the heart of a proposed muon collider, as Tim Wogan reports

• Exploring “the mass that matters” – Peter Gwynne describes plans for an electron–ion collider – a new kind of facility that would study the properties of gluons

• New eyes for a dark world – Technology based on superconducting circuits will allow astronomers to detect every photon that arrives at a telescope’s lens, as David Appell explains

• Turkey accelerates ahead – Michael Banks travels to Ankara to hear plans for a Turkish Accelerator Centre

• Illuminating new frontiers – Brian Stephenson, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source, gives his opinion on why the future is bright for light sources

Read the Focus on Big Science now

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Special Report: Japan

By Michael Banks

Japan is certainly not resting on its laurels in maintaining its world-leading position in physics.

Only last week a Japanese government committee on high-energy physics released the English-language version of its highly anticipated report looking into the country’s particle-physics research programme for the coming decade.

 Physics World Special Report: Japan

The 19-member committee not only recommended that Japan should take a lead in the design for a collider to study the Higgs boson, such as the International Linear Collider, but also that it should lead on plans to build a large-scale neutrino facility to study charge–parity violations in neutrino oscillations.

It is exactly for this reason – Japan’s history as a leading nation in physics – that we decided to take a closer look at physics in the country. Not only the many successes it has enjoyed, but also what challenges it faces in staying ahead.

We’ve now put together a new Physics World special report, which you can view online here, that draws together a selection of our recent articles about physics in Japan. Several of the articles are based on a week-long road trip to Japan that I went on earlier this year that included visiting Tokyo and Osaka.

In the issue we look, for example, at a major upgrade to Japan’s famous KEKB collider, a new asteroid-sample-return mission, as well as the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser. But Japan also faces many challenges to its world-beating status in physics, including how to entice foreign scientists to work and study in the country as well as attracting more women into physics.

I hope you find this special report stimulating and please do let us have your comments by e-mailing pwld@iop.org.

Here’s a rundown of what’s inside.

• Recovering from the quake – I discuss how Japan’s World Premier Institutes – set up to attract international researchers – have fared following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011

• The only woman in town – Mio Murao of the University of Tokyo explains how to get more women interested in physics in Japan

• Japan’s X-ray vision for the future – I travel to the remote SACLA facility, which houses the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser

• JAXA pushes for asteroid encore – Dennis Normile looks at plans to launch a second asteroid-sample-return mission after Japan’s successful Hayabusa probe

• Getting a grip on antimatter – Yasunori Yamazaki of the RIKEN laboratory in Tokyo describes his research on antimatter

• Coping with “Galapagos syndrome” – although Japan has introduced a number of reforms to reverse a trend of increasing isolation, some fear they may not be enough, as Dennis Normile reports

• Revamping Japan’s atom smasher – with the KEKB facility in Tsukuba undergoing a major upgrade, I describe how it could one day help to explain why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe

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Giving physics some soul

The Congregation


The Congregation performing live (Hooper is fourth from right). (Courtesy: D T Kindler)


By Michael Banks

It seems as if Fermilab physicist Dan Hooper has finally hit the big time. Not for his latest theory on the Higgs boson or dark matter but rather through his involvement in the soul band The Congregation.

Guitarist Hooper formed the band about three years ago and it now consists of a drummer, bass player, singer, horn player and keyboard player.

On 9 August the “60s-era soul band” opened a joint gig by the US rock bands Garbage and the Flaming Lips in Madison, Wisconsin. “The show went great – although we did get some rain,” Hooper told physicsworld.com. “We were well received, and had a great time.”

Not resting on their laurels, the band is getting ready to release its latest album on 28 September. Right Now Everything will be available to buy on the band’s website.

Hooper, who goes by the stage name Charlie Wayne and who also writes the band’s lyrics, says that the band steers clear of anything physics related, as well as any rock-band antics. “We don’t do a lot of smashing guitars and such anymore,” says Hooper.

So will the band’s success force Hooper to give up his physics career? “I can’t imagine doing that,” he says. “Doing physics is the best job someone like me could have – even compared with playing rock and roll for a living.”

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Nine physicists bag $27m prize

Andrei Linde


Andrei Linde from Stanford University was one of nine physicists to receive the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize. (Courtesy: L A Cicero)



By Michael Banks

Nine physicists just got one hell of a lot richer after bagging the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize together with a cool $3m each.

If you haven’t heard of the prize before, don’t worry – I hadn’t either until last Tuesday, when it was announced that Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten, all from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, had won the prize.

They shared it with Alan Guth from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alexei Kitaev from the California Institute of Technology, Maxim Kontsevich from the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies in Paris, Andrei Linde from Stanford University and Ashoke Sen from the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India. They all bagged $3m each, taking the total prize fund to a whopping $27m.

The prize has been awarded by the Russian investor Yuri Milner, who has a degree in physics from Moscow State University but who dropped out of a PhD in theoretical physics at the Lebedev Physical Institute. After a stint working at the World Bank in Washington, DC, he turned to investing in start-up companies, apparently making his millions by investing in Internet firms such as Facebook, Twitter and Zynga.

Milner has now set up the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that, according to its website, is “dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the universe at the deepest level”.

The foundation has established two prizes: the Fundamental Physics Prize, which “recognizes transformative advances in the field” and which was won by the nine physicists above; and the New Horizons in Physics Prize, which will be awarded to “promising junior researchers” and carries a cash reward of $100,000 for each recipient.

The Fundamental Physics Prize is even bigger than the annual science-and-religion gong from the Templeton Foundation, which gives a single winner $1.7m, as well as the Nobel Prize for Physics, which this year will be $1.2m (and possibly shared by three people) after the prize fund was cut by 20% from last year’s total.

Speaking to physicworld.com, Linde says he heard that he had won the prize only a few days before the announcement. He says he was surprised by the amount of cash on offer, but added that “physicists always complained that they get less money than the football coaches of the teams of their universities”. Linde hopes that the prize will “increase [the] prestige and morale of all people in [the] scientific community”.

This year’s winners were chosen by Milner himself, but next year’s recipients will be chosen by a selection committee of previous winners.

So if you want to get your hands on next year’s prize, then you will have to be nominated online by someone else, but there are no age restrictions and previous winners can also win the prize again.

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The Fukushima accident: ‘made in Japan’

By Michael Banks

The Fukushima nuclear accident last year “could and should have been foreseen and prevented” according to a report released yesterday by the 10-member Fukushima nuclear accident independent investigation commission. Chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former president of the Science Council of Japan, the report says the accident was a profoundly “man-made disaster” that was “made in Japan” and could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.

The 88-page English version of the report says the accident was the result of “collusion” between the government, regulators and the plant’s operators. “They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents,” the authors write.

In its introduction, Kurokawa writes that the commission’s report “catalogues a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared”. Kurokawa adds that the “fundamental” failures of the plant were because of the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflective obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity”.

The Fukushima nuclear accident was caused by an earthquake and tsunami of a scale not seen in more than 1000 years, which struck north-eastern Japan at 2.46 p.m. local time on 11 March 2011.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, located some 225 km north-east of Tokyo, seemed to withstand the 9.0 Richter-scale earthquake, with the three operating reactors turning off automatically as it struck. However, the tsunami that followed a few minutes later poured over a seawall designed to protect the nuclear plant from waves up to about 6 m high (the tsunami produced waves more than 14 m high).

The plant was then flooded, causing the back-up diesel generators to fail, and – with nothing to cool the reactors – their cores started to melt.

The report offers seven recommendations, including establishing a new regulator for nuclear power as well as a committee that would monitor this new body.

See also “In the wake of Fukushima” and “Lessons from Fukushima“.

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Picture of a new particle

event data

By Michael Banks

This is what a new boson looks like.

Presenting the latest results in the search for the Higgs boson at CERN this morning, Joe Incandela of the CMS experiment displayed a plot showing a clear bump in the data centred at around 125 GeV.

Incandela reported that CMS has indeed seen a new particle – that looks at the moment to be the Higgs boson – with a mass of 125 GeV. The result was given with a statistical significance of 5σ – a level that physicists call a “discovery”.

Shortly after Incandela’s talk, ATLAS spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti also reported that its detector has seen something at 126 GeV with a statistical significance of 5σ.

So we have a new particle, but more effort will be needed to work out the details.

Look out for more news and analysis on the latest results on physicsworld.com in the coming days.

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Five questions for SKA

SKA

An artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array.
(Courtesy: SKA organization/Swinburne Astronomy)


By Michael Banks

After months of political wrangling, a decision finally emerged on Friday afternoon about where the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be built.

SKA is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of about 2000 to 3000 linked antennas that will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy.

For more than five years, two rival bids have been going head-to-head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

On Friday at a meeting in Amsterdam, the SKA organization opted to split the project between the two hosts, with South Africa building a long-baseline high-resolution telescope and Australia constructing a lower-resolution array but one that can survey a wider field.

Yet, while all this seems like good news – and that was certainly the message from the dozens of press releases that appeared after the announcement – it does throw up some interesting questions.

So here are my five burning questions for SKA officials.

1. Why did the SKA organization not follow the recommendation by the independent SKA Site Advisory Committee that the project would best be built in South Africa?

2. If a split-site option was such a good solution in the first place, why was there not a solid case made for it from the start, thus potentially eliminating the need for a drawn-out site-selection process?

3. When SKA is fully complete, the South Africa bid will get the majority of the antennas – was this just a weak political decision to give the Australian-led bid some part of the project?

4. Is there a risk that SKA now effectively devolves into two separate and thus distinct projects?

5. How much will this decision increase the cost of the SKA project, given the need for more infrastructure to develop two sites; in a time of austerity could this hinder the overall plan?

We will be tackling these questions in detail for an in-depth report in the July issue of Physics World.

If you have any comments, e-mail pwld@iop.org.

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Split decision for SKA?

SKA


Artist’s impression of the dishes for the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array.
(Courtesy: SPDO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

By Michael Banks

A decision on who will build the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will have to wait after the SKA Organisation announced yesterday that no outcome had been achieved.

SKA is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of around 2000–3000 linked antennas that will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy.

Two rival bids are going head-to-head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

The eight members of the SKA Organisation – including China, Italy and the UK – have the final say in who will host the telescope. They met yesterday at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in the Netherlands to discuss the site selection advisory committee’s report, which according to leaks suggested that southern Africa had got the nod.

After the meeting the SKA Organisation issued a press release that gave no indication of a site choice, only saying that it “wished to move ahead with the site selection process”.

However, instead of going for a single winner, rumours on the blogs suggest that the SKA Organisation may opt for splitting the SKA antennas between Africa and Australasia. Indeed, this is already happening on a smaller scale via the two SKA prototypes: the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder in mid-west Australia and the MeerKAT array in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.

Yesterday’s press release alluded that the SKA Organisation may be heading in this direction. The statement says that the members “recognised that it is desirable to maintain an inclusive approach to SKA”, adding that “it is important to maximize the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions”.

The SKA Organisation has now set up a scientific working group to “explore possible implementation options that would achieve this”. The working group will report back to the SKA Organisation at a meeting in mid-May, when perhaps a final decision will be made.

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Blow for Australian SKA bid?

Square Kilometre Array


Artist’s impression of the proposed Square Kilometre Array site in Austrialia (Courtesy: Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

By Michael Banks

Is southern Africa a step nearer to hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)? That is what an unconfirmed report in the Sydney Morning Herald is suggesting.

SKA, costing €1.5bn, is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of around 2000–3000 linked antennas that will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy. Two rival bids are going head to head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

Last month, an independent SKA site advisory committee sent its evaluation report and site-selection recommendation to SKA’s board of directors. The report was not published and only a vague press release was issued stating that a recommendation had been made. Since then, members of SKA have been tight-lipped about which bid may have got the thumbs up from the committee.

However, according to the report today in the Sydney Morning Herald, the site advisory committee has opted for southern Africa. “Australia, in a joint bid with New Zealand, has failed to convince an expert panel it offers a superior location for the project,” the report says.

Indeed, the rumour mill for a winning southern Africa bid was already set in motion late last month when African ambassadors meeting in Beijing issued a statement calling on the SKA organization to build the telescope “on the site recommended by the independent SKA site advisory committee”. The statement inferred that the South Africa-led bid had won the recommendation of the site committee. However, within a few hours of being posted on the press site AlphaGalileo the statement was taken down.

That is not the only recent SKA-related incident. A few days after the withdrawal of the press release, a server managing documents for SKA was apparently breached. However, according to Colin Greenwood, company secretary of the SKA Organisation, only “links to publicly available documents, such as the SKA research papers, were affected”.

The site advisory committee does not have the final say in where SKA will be sited. That will come when the seven members of the SKA organization – which includes China, Italy and the UK – meet in “late March or early April” to consider the report’s conclusions and make a decision about the location of the site. Only by then will we know for sure whether SKA is heading to southern Africa.

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