Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

Second wave: all about LIGO, black holes, gravitational ripples and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

What an exciting week it has been, as the LIGO and Virgo collaborations announced that they have definitely detected a second gravitational wave event using the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (aLIGO) in the US.  These waves made their way into aLIGO early on Boxing Day last year (in fact it was still very late on Christmas Day in the US states where the twin detectors are located), a mere three months after the first gravitational-wave event was detected on 14 September 2015.

This event once again involved the collision and merger of two stellar-mass black holes, and since the “Boxing Day binary” is still on my mind, this week’s Red Folder is a collection of all the lovely images, videos, infographics and learning tools that have emerged since Wednesday.

LIGO physicist and comic artist Nutsinee Kijbunchoo has drawn a cartoon showing that while the researchers were excited about the swift second wave, they were a bit spoilt by the first, which was loud and clear – and could be seen by naked eye in the data. The black holes involved in the latest wave were smaller and a bit further away, meaning the signal was fainter, but actually lasted for longer in the detectors.

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Fractals and infinite curves, sonified data and farewell to Sir Tom Kibble

By Tushna Commissariat

Fractals have always fascinated me and I am sure it’s the same for many of you. What I find most intriguing about them is how the relatively simple base pattern, or “seed”, quickly scales up to form the intricate designs we see in a snowflake or a coastline. In the video above, mathematician and animator Grant Sanderson has created a montage of “space filling curves” – theoretically speaking, such curves can endlessly expand without every crossing its own path to fill an infinite space. Following on from these curves, Sanderson shows you just how a simple seed pattern grows into a fractal and also describes how small changes to a seed property – such as an angle in a V – can alter the final image. The above video follows from a previous one Sanderson created on “Hilbert’s curve, and the usefulness of infinite results in a finite world” so check them both out.

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Rosetta and bedbugs, LIGO and dark matter, arXiving science and more…

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Space missions and insects are not the most usual of bedfellows. But in a wonderful example of how space technology can be translated into practical devices for use here on Earth,  a UK company has repurposed and adapted an analyser used onboard the Rosetta mission – that in 2014 landed a probe on a comet for the first time – to sniff out bedbugs. The pest-control company, Insect Research Systems, has created a 3D-printed detector that picks up bodily gas emissions from bedbugs – such a device could be of particular use in the hotel industry, for example, where many rooms need to be quickly scanned. The device is based on the Ptolemy analyser on the Philae lander, which was designed to use mass spectroscopy to study the comet’s surface.

“Thanks to the latest 3D-printing capabilities, excellent design input and technical support available at the Campus Technology Hub, we have been able to optimize the design of our prototype and now have a product that we can demonstrate to future investors,” says Taff Morgan, Insect Research Systems chief technical officer, who was one of the main scientists on Ptolemy. In the TEDx video above, he talks about the many technological spin-offs that came from Ptolemy – skip ahead to 13:45 if you only want to hear about the bedbugs, though.

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Spiralling temperatures, physics legacies, the science of mac and cheese

Spiralling global temperatures

Ring of fire: spiralling global temperatures. Created by climate scientist Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading.

 

By Tushna Commissariat

As we face up to the realities of global warming and see the effects of climate change become apparent, it’s more important than ever that people the world over truly grasp its impact. With this in mind, University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins has created the above animated spiral, which shows how the global temperature has changed over the past 166 years. Using data from the Met Office’s Hadley Centre observations datasets, Hawkins’ animation presents data in a a clear and artistic way. “The pace of change is immediately obvious, especially over the past few decades. The relationship between current global temperatures and the internationally discussed target limits are also clear without much complex interpretation needed,” says Hawkins, who is based at the university’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science. Take a look at his webpage to learn more about the project and for a list of specific weather events that are noticeable in the data.

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Looking toward the quantum-technology landscape of the future

Looking to the future: Sir peter Knight opening the Quantum technology for the 21st Century conference at the RSC (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Futuristic views: Peter Knight opening the conference at the Royal Society in London. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat

Not a week goes by here at Physics World that we don’t cover some advance in quantum mechanics – be it another step towards quantum computing or error correction, or a new type of quantum sensor, or another basic principle being verified and tested at new scales. While each advance may not always be a breakthrough, it is fair to say that the field has grown by leaps and bound in the last 20 years or so. Indeed, it has seen at least two “revolutions” since it first began and is now poised on the brink of a third, as scientific groups and companies around  the world race to build the first quantum computer.

With this in mind, some of the stalwarts of the field – including Peter Knight, Ian Walmsley, Gerard Milburn, Stephen Till and Jonathan Pritchard – organized a two-day discussion meeting at the Royal Society in London, titled “Quantum technology for the 21st century“, which I decided to attend. The meeting’s main aim was to bring together academic and industry leaders “in quantum physics and engineering to identify the next generation of quantum technologies for translational development”. As Knight said during his opening speech, the time has come to “balance the massive leaps that the science has made with actual practical technology”.

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Climate change and chaos, the many faces of physics, spider-silk superlenses and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

In case you have ever wondered why so many theoretical physicists study climate change, physicist Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford in the UK has a simple answer: “because climate change is a problem in theoretical physics”. Indeed, Palmer, who won the Institute of Physics’ 2014 Dirac medal, studies the predictability and dynamics of weather and climate, in the hopes of developing accurate predictions of long-term climate change. The answer, according to Palmer, lies at the intersection between chaos theory and inexact computing – which requires us to stop thinking of computers as deterministic calculating machines and to instead “embrace inexactness” in computing. Palmer talked about all this and more in the latest public lecture from the Perimeter Institute in Canada – you can watch his full talk above.

When someone says the word “physicist”, what image or persona comes to mind? That is the question the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) was hoping to answer with its recent member survey based on diversity, titled “What Does a Physicist Look Like?” The Institute’s main aim with this diversity survey, which about 13% of its members responded to, was “to understand the profile of our members and gain some insights into who they are – diverse people with different ages, ethnicities, beliefs and much more”. You can read its entire results here.

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The toll of a year in space, running a marathon on the ISS, skip-diving at CERN and more

By Tushna Commissariat and Michael Banks

“A year here is a really really long time,” says astronaut Scott Kelly in an interview (watch the video above) that he did on board the International Space Station (ISS) just a month before he returned to Earth in March this year. The retired astronaut is talking about the very real effects of spending a long period in space, specifically citing both the physical effects as well as the “psychological stress” involved. “During my time in orbit, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained my heart. Every day I was exposed to 10 times the radiation of a person on Earth, which will increase my risk of developing a fatal cancer for the rest of my life. Not to mention the psychological stress, which is harder to quantify and is perhaps as damaging,” he says.

The comments were part of the announcement of his upcoming memoir, Endurance: My Year in Space and Our Journey to Mars, which will be published later this year. Despite the damming tone, Kelly is still a staunch supporter of manned spaceflight and missions such as those to Mars, he just has a much clearer view on the realities involved. Read more about his announcement over at the GeekWire website.

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3D-printed dog’s nose sniffs out why canines are excellent chemical analysers

 

By Tushna Commissariat

After a long trip in the US – attending the APS March meeting and visiting both the Maryland campus of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, as well as the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York – I finally made my way back home yesterday. As I flew out of New York, I was reminded of my visit to NIST’s Surface and Trace Chemical Analysis Group, where researchers develop a variety of ways to detect contraband substances at airports and other public locations. While the team looks into a variety of ways to detect trace residues of banned substances such as drugs or explosives that may be found on people or objects – from mass spectroscopy to thermal desorption to vapour-sampling – my favourite was their canine research that led them to create a 3D-printed dog’s nose!

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The unexpected benefit of a malfunctioning magnet at RHIC

Inside the RHIC tunnel

Beam me down: in the RHIC tunnel. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat in New York City, US

I’m not one to rejoice in someone else’s misfortune, but I must admit that I couldn’t help but be a bit pleased when I heard that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) had a malfunction last Friday. You see, I happened to be visiting the collider and its detectors yesterday, and if a malfunctioning superconducting magnet had not shorted a diode last Friday, I would not have had the chance to go down into the collider tunnel, which was a great experience.

RHIC – which, along with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, is the only other detector capable of colliding heavy ions and is, in fact, the only spin-polarized collider in the world – has been running since the year 2000, and accelerator director Wolfram Fischer tells me that I am rather “lucky” as “failed magnets are very rare”. Indeed, he said that after initial teething problems when RHIC was switched on, this was the first such magnet failure that has occurred in the past 15 years. But fear not, the RHIC maintenance crew is already hard at work – the diode will soon be replaced and the collider should be up and running again in the next few days.

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Setting the standards for physics

The NIST campus in Gaithersburg

Keepers of time: at the NIST campus in Gaithersburg. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat in New York City, US

As most of our regular blog readers will know, last week Physics World‘s Matin Durrani and I were in Baltimore attending the APS March meeting. While we spent most of the week at the conference centre, last Friday we visited the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Gaithersburg campus, as well as the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), which is based at the University of Maryland. It was a jam-packed, exciting day that we spent zipping around to and from more than 10 different labs and departments, meeting people who use physics to do everything from improve the safety of body armour to redefining the kilogram.

As we saw so many interesting projects, covering them all would make for a rather long read. Instead, join me for a quick visual tour of NIST below (I will cover our JQI visit in a separate blog) to get a small taste of the physics and people involved.

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