Posts by: Michael Banks

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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Curiosity on Mars


By Michael Banks in Boston

John Grotzinger, project scientist for NASA’s Curiosity mission, might be best known for whipping up a media frenzy in late November when he told NPR that data from one of the probe’s 10 instruments was “gonna be one for the history books”.

While the news that the probe had discovered evidence of organic molecules in the soil but more tests were needed was less than earth shattering, today at the 2013 AAAS meeting in Boston, Grotzinger gave an update on the mission that touched down on Mars on 6 August 2012.

If you don’t fancy reading any more, the bottom line is that everything is working as expected.


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Boston bound


(CC BY-SA 3.0 Riptor 3000)

By Michael Banks

I have just arrived in Boston for the 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, which began in earnest today.


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Quantum pioneers bag Wolf prize

By Michael Banks

Photographs of Peter Zoller and Juan Ignacio Cirac

Winners of the Wolf prize: Peter Zoller (left) and Juan Ignacio Cirac.
(Courtesy: University of Innsbruck; EFE)

The 2013 Wolf Prize in Physics has been awarded to Juan Ignacio Cirac of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany, and Peter Zoller of Innsbruck University in Austria for “groundbreaking theoretical contributions to quantum-information processing, quantum optics and the physics of quantum gases”. The duo will share the $100,000 prize, which will be presented by the president of Israel at the Israeli parliament (Knesset) in May.

Both Zoller and Cirac are key figures in the burgeoning field of quantum information, having, for example, devised several protocols for quantum communication based on entangling two or more ultra-cold atoms, as well as developed methods for quantum computing based on trapped ions.

“It is very exciting to receive one of the top prizes in physics, and even more so to share this award with Cirac, who has been a long-time friend and colleague,” Zoller told “I feel very lucky to have been working as a theorist in the field of quantum optics, which during the last 20 years has redefined itself by building interdisciplinary bridges to quantum information and quantum many-body physics.”

Cirac also told that it is a “great honour” to receive the Wolf prize. “I think it is fair to say that [we] represent several scientists who have made many contributions to the field of quantum information – a field that is still progressing and attracting many different scientific communities,” he says. He adds much of the work was carried out in collaboration with other scientists and that the prize “also recognizes their work”.

The Wolf prize is awarded by the Wolf Foundation in Israel and is thought to be one of the most prestigious prizes in physics after the Nobel prize. The foundation was created in 1975 by Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor and diplomat.

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Best of the blog 2012

By Michael Banks

From determining the “equation of state” of a ponytail to a zombie film shot at CERN, the world of physics has had its fair share of bizarre stories this year. Here is our pick of the best from the blog.

Physicists ponder flowering masonry

Photograph of efflorescence

Efflorescence on a masonry wall (Courtesy: Mattes)

One thing you can say about most houses is that they are solid – built from bricks or cement blocks. But there is a downside to such solid construction. Masonry – and older bricks in particular – tend to suck-up moisture from the ground. One symptom of rising damp is efflorescence (or “flowering out”), which refers to crystals of salts that grow out from the surface of masonry as the damp evaporates into the air. However, rather than emerging as a uniform coating of salt, the crystals tend to appear in clumps – but exactly why remained a mystery. That was until February when Marc Prat and colleagues at the University of Toulouse, France, performed experiments and computer simulations suggesting that salt flowers form where “efficient pathways” emerge at the surface. Once a crystal is established on the surface, its presence increases the flow of water through that particular pathway, further depriving surrounding less-efficient pathways of liquid. The result is regions with large crystals, and other regions with no salt. Mystery solved.

Fringe science

Physicists in the UK took the whole concept of “fringe science” to a new level in February by studying that hairstyle of choice for men and women of a certain disposition – the ponytail. Raymond Goldstein of the University of Cambridge, Robin Ball of the University of Warwick and Patrick Warren from shampoo-maker Unilever claim that the shape of a ponytail is defined by a competition between gravity, the elasticity of individual hairs and their mutual interactions (Phys. Rev. Lett. 108 078101). And because a ponytail can contain as many as 100,000 hairs, the problem is best addressed using statistical physics. The researchers even derived an “equation of state” for a ponytail that includes what they dub a “Rapunzel number” – a dimensionless measure of ponytail length. The equation was then used to predict how the shape of a ponytail varies with length, with a real ponytail requiring an additional term that reflects hair getting frizzier as it grows longer.

Unravelling the physics of curling


The physics of hair didn’t stop there. In May Andrew Callan-Jones of the University of Montpellier, France, and colleagues at the University of Paris made a theoretical and experimental study of how things such as hair, plant tendrils and even red blood cells curl and uncurl. Despite these processes being all around us, it turns out that physicists have a relatively poor understanding of the dynamics of curling. Callan-Jones and colleagues studied how a steel strip curls by taking images – at a rate of 7000 frames per second – as it does so. The behaviour was successfully described by a mathematical model created by the team and then incorporated into a computer simulation. The researchers even applied their new-found knowledge of curling to the bursting of red blood cells – which is caused by certain nasty bacteria and involves the curling back of the cell membrane.

The graphene name game

University of Exeter researchers

University of Exeter researchers Saverio Russo and Monica Craciun.
(Courtesy: University of Exeter)

A day rarely goes by here at HQ when the word graphene is not mentioned; after all, it is the “wonder material”, with a seemingly endless list of bizarre properties and a plethora of potential applications. But it seems that researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK ran out of suitable, and indeed imaginative, names when describing their new graphene-based material. In May the researchers, led by physicist Monica Craciun, claimed to have created the most transparent, lightweight and flexible version of graphene yet by sandwiching molecules of ferric chloride between two layers of graphene (Adv. Mat. 10.1002/adma.201200489). So what did they call their exciting new material? Behold “GraphExeter”. “[The name] clearly delivers two key messages: the material is based on graphene and it was synthesized and characterized at Exeter,” Craciun told She also rejected suggestions from “some Internet blogs” for the slimmed-down “GraphEx”.

A ringing endorsement


In what seemed like an impeccably well timed research finding, researchers at the Royal Society of Chemistry, the University of Warwick in the UK and IBM Research in Zurich released an image in late May of a new molecule they had synthesized that had an uncanny likeness to the five rings reminiscent of an event that happened in London this summer (no prizes for guessing which one). Given the resemblance, the press were all over it: “Scientists create smallest ever version of Olympics logo” screamed a headline in the Daily Mail. However, the team, led by David Fox from Warwick, had already synthesized the compound, which is dubbed Olympicene and has the chemical formula C19H12, back in 2011. What the researchers did that was new was to make an image of Olympicene with the help of an atomic force microscope at the IBM labs. The researchers are still yet to hear from the International Olympic Committee given how protective they can be of their image rights.

The lightest material in the world


(Courtesy: TUHH)

In July two teams of researchers from Kiel University and Hamburg University of Technology, both in Germany, fabricated a material they claim to be the lightest in the world. Dubbed Aerographite, it is a 3D network of porous carbon nanotubes and weighs only 0.2 mg per cubic centimetre, making it 75 times lighter than Styrofoam. Most lightweight materials can easily be compressed but become weak when exposed to large amounts of stress. Aerographite, however, actually becomes stronger. Aerographite weighs four times less than the hitherto lightest material in the world – a nickel material that was revealed only six months ago. The researchers say that aerographite could have innumerable applications – it could be used to make lightweight lithium-ion batteries, to build satellites and even in water-purification systems.

Giving physics some soul

It seems that Fermilab physicist Dan Hooper finally hit the big time this year. Not for his latest theory on the Higgs boson or dark matter but rather through his involvement in a band called the Congregation. Guitarist Hooper formed the band around three years ago and it now consists of a drummer, bassist, singer, hornist and keyboard player. On 9 August the 1960s-style soul band opened a joint gig by US rock bands Garbage and the Flaming Lips in Madison, Wisconsin. Not resting on their laurels, band members released a new album in September. Hooper, who goes by the stage name Charlie Wayne and also writes the band’s lyrics, says that they steer clear of anything physics-related as well as any rock-band antics. “We don’t do a lot of smashing guitars and such anymore,” Hooper told

Zombies in the machine

A group of PhD students have made a feature-length zombie film at the CERN particle-physics lab. Called Decay, the 75 min film follows a group of students – played by actual physicists – who are desperately trying to escape the lab while being pursued by a bunch of bloodthirsty maintenance workers who have turned into zombies after exposure to the newly discovered Higgs boson. Writer and director Luke Thompson, a PhD student at the University of Manchester in the UK, came up with the idea back in 2010. Armed with a budget of just £2000 of his own cash but with no previous experience in film-making, he assembled a cast and crew of 20 who have spent the past two years filming in basement level tunnels at CERN, which he says have a “dark, creepy atmosphere”. The film has not been authorized or endorsed by CERN, but Thompson says the lab has a “relaxed attitude” towards the project, seeing the “fun side of it”.

Take a chance on Turing

Alan Turing Monopoly board

(Courtesy: Bletchley Park/Winning Moves)

And finally, for those of you looking for a last-minute Christmas present, how about the Alan Turing Monopoly board? Centred around the life of the mathematician and computer scientist who played a key role at the UK government’s Bletchley Park estate in deciphering German army messages during the Second World War, Alan Turing Monopoly costs a bargain £29.99. The new board is based on one housed in the Bletchley Park Museum that was hand-drawn in 1950 by William Newman – the son of Turing’s Bletchley Park mentor Max Newman. All the banknotes in the new version feature Turing’s face and instead of the usual London, Berlin or Atlantic City haunts occupying the squares, the board features locations that had an important part in Turing’s life such as Kings College, Cambridge. The special edition also includes a copy of the original hand-drawn board, complete with Newman’s own rules, as well as historical references for all the places mentioned.

You can be sure of more quirky stories from the world of physics next year. See you in 2013!

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A look at physics in Japan


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


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

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

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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