Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

What can you learn at a quantum ‘boot camp’?

By Tushna Commissariat in Stockholm, Sweden

Google the word “quantum” and take a look at what comes up.
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In addition to the obvious news articles about the latest developments in the field and the Wikipedia entries on quantum mechanics, you’ll undoubtedly come across a heap of other, seemingly random, stories.

I found, for example, a David Bowie song being compared to a quantum wavefunction (by none other than British science popularizer Brian Cox), as well as a new cruise ship being named Quantum of the Seas. Then there’s the usual jumble of pseudo-scientific “wellness” therapies that misguidedly adopt the word in a strange attempt to give their treatments some sort of credibility.

So while it seems that everyone is talking about quantum something or other, how much do we really understand this notoriously difficult subject? More to the point, how much do science journalists, like me, really know about the subject? I write stories about quantum mechanics from time to time for Physics World and the subject can, I assure you, be fiendish and quite mind-bending.

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Physics World’s futuristic look

Physics World magazine seen through the NPL device

Holographic view: The August 2014 issue of Physics World, seen through the NPL device. (Courtesy: NPL/Richard Stevens)

By Tushna Commissariat

Some of you may remember a news story I wrote last month that looked at a new optical gadget that uses a holographic waveguide to augment reality. The device hopes to transform the wearable-display market – it allows users to overlay full-colour, 3D, high-definition images into their normal line of sight, thereby interacting with their surroundings. The waveguide was developed by UK-based company TruLife Optics, along with researchers from the adaptive-optics group at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) near London.

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Hello Kitty in space, Lord of the Rings physics homework and more

Image of Yi So-yeon

Yi on the day of her launch – 8 April 2008. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, South Korea’s one and only astronaut, 36-year-old Yi So-yeon, has quit her job, thereby signalling the end of the country’s manned space programme for the time being. In 2008 Yi became the first Korean to go into space, when for 11 days she travelled on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, after being chosen through the government-run Korean Astronaut Program. Yi cited personal reasons for quitting, but has been studying for an MBA in the US since 2012. You can read more about her work and reasons for leaving in articles from Australia Network News and abc News.

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Rise of the real transformers, a celestial farewell for your furry friend and more

A view of the robot in three stages

Ready, steady, go: a profile view of the “transformer” robot. (Courtesy: Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute)

By Tushna Commissariat and Michael Banks

While the latest Transformers film hit cinemas in the UK earlier this month, scientists in the US at Harvard University, along with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have developed the very first “real life” transformer: a robot that starts out flat, folds and assembles itself into a complex shape and can then crawl away – all without any human intervention. Indeed, these printed robots can self-fold themselves in about four minutes – a huge improvement on previous models that could take up to two hours. They can even turn and naviagte around, making them a handy and practical tool.

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Seismic study digs into volcanic plumbing

Map of the seisemic velocity of Mount Fuji

What lies beneath?: Mapping Mount Fuji. (Courtesy: Florent Brenguier)

By Tushna Commissariat

Plumbing problems do not get any bigger and more complicated than a backed-up volcano. But geophysicists looking at the responses of ground waves below Japanese volcanoes have now come up with a technique for identifying where pressurized volcanic fluids build up, allowing them to better anticipate when a volcano may erupt. Scientists already knew that seismic waves from large earthquakes agitate volcanic systems and that large eruptions generally follow a build-up of pressurized fluids at some depth. But they had been unable to pin down the specific physical changes that seismic waves cause. Now though, Florent Brenguier of the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in Grenoble, France, and colleagues at the University of Tokyo have used recordings of seismic-wave velocity from the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake to create a map of seismic-velocity changes in its aftermath. Surprisingly, the largest changes were not observed in the area closest to the earthquake epicentre near the Pacific coast but farther inland, immediately below volcanic regions. The image above highlights an anomalously low seismic velocity below the Mount Fuji volcano after the earthquake, despite it being some 500 km from the epicentre. The drop in velocity is because the regions are susceptible to earthquake shaking – cracks in the crust open so that fluids at high pressures can escape, and could be seen as proxies for the high-pressure fluid build-up (Science 345 80).

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Extraterrestrial espressos, quantum card-games, misunderstood science and more

Cartoon photo of astronaut enjoying espresso in space

Mmm…ISSpresso in space. (Courtesy: Lavazza)

 By Tushna Commissariat

Most of us can’t get our day started without a fortifying cup of coffee and astronauts are just the same. To help those on the International Space Station meet their caffeine cravings, Italian coffee king Lavazza has designed and built an espresso machine that will work in space! Called “ISSpresso” the machine will be blasted off into space in the possession of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who will also be the first Italian woman in space. You can read all about the ISSpresso and its supreme blends on the Wired website.

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Extra dimensions, other-worldly football, the ISS at night and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, we came across the above video on “extra dimensions”, in which physicist Don Lincoln talks about the possible physical reality of such dimensions and why we need them. The video begins with Lincoln pointing out just how weak a force gravity is, especially when compared with, say, magnetism. He then goes on to talk about how gravity may exist in more than the three dimensions we experience, making sure to point out that these “extra dimensions” are not of the Hollywood variety in which a different reality may exist. This video is part of Fermilab’s “Big Mysteries” video series – be sure to take a look at the rest.

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SPHERE opens its ‘all-seeing’ eye

SPHERE images the dust ring around HR 4796A (Courtesy: ESO/J-L Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium)

The dust ring around HR 4796A. (Courtesy: ESO/J-L Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium)

By Tushna Commissariat

While the fiery shades of the image above may seem familiar to fans of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, pictured above in exquisite clarity is a ring of dust that surrounds the near-by star HR 4796A. The young, hot star – located a scant 240 light-years from Earth – has been of significant interest to astronomers since the circumstellar ring of debris was detected, thanks to an excess of infrared emissions from the star. While there have been many other images of the HR 4796A system, this particular image has been obtained by the new Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE), which was installed in May this year on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Thanks to the instrument, not only is the dust-ring clearly outlined, but the glare of the bright star at the centre of the picture has been supressed. This has provided a much clearer view of the whole system, which researchers think also harbours an exoplanet or two.

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A day in the life of an astronaut, Hawking’s football conclusions, politics and science and more

Image from Tim Dodd's Everydat Astronaut photo series

“Good morning world” (Courtesy: Tim Dodd)

By Tushna Commissariat

For most of us, the life of an astronaut is one of excitement and adventure. Indeed, the mere thought of being a “real live astronaut” brings out the gleeful inner child in many, and photographer Tim Dodd is much the same. After purchasing a Russian high-altitude space suit from an online auction website, Dodd put together a series of photographs titled “A day in the life of Everyday Astronaut”, my favourite of which you can see above. Do take a look at the rest of the excellent series on Dodd’s website and follow him on Instagram for even more of the same.

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BICEP2′s findings trigger new kind of ‘inflation’

The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole

Sunrise over the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Tushna Commissariat

Scientists and laypeople the world over were intrigued by the announcement made by the BICEP2 collaboration earlier last month, when it claimed to have detected the primordial “B-mode polarization” of the cosmic microwave signal (CMB). Many researchers have hailed it as the first evidence for cosmic inflation – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe our universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang.

Indeed, after a quick search of the arXiv preprint server, I found nearly 172 papers based on the BICEP2 data that have been written since the team’s announcement on 17 March. Some 200 individual citations to the original BICEP2 paper can also be found on the server.

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