Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

Cracking the earthquake lights mystery and out-of-this-world technology

Old photo of earthquake ights taken in Romania

A photograph of streams of lights taken in 1977 near Brasov, Romania, about 100 km from the epicentre of a M 7.2 earthquake. (Courtesy: Seismological Society of America)

By Tushna Commissariat

In case you missed it, I was at the APS March meeting in Denver, Colorado last week and I was blogging about a whole host of interesting talks and sessions that I attended. Although I am back in Bristol now, there were one or two other talks that I thought covered some very interesting physics, so here’s a catch-up.

Slip slidin’ away
Seasoned physicsworld.com readers will remember that earlier this year, we featured a rather intriguing story on the phenomenon of earthquake lights – the mysterious and unpredictable glowing lights that seem to appear before some earthquakes. First documented in the 1600s and seen as recently as the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, the “unidentified glowing objects” add to the long list of possible earthquake precursors, and so are of interest. The study that we wrote about in January looked at 65 well-documented events of such lights and concluded that they may occur thanks to a particular type of geological fault – a subvertical fault – causing the earthquake.

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Snip and tuck

Silverberg's presentation on origiami at the APS March meeting

A rapt audience watches Silverberg’s presentation on origami.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

Origami – the traditional Japanese art of paper folding – has long intrigued mathematicians and physicists alike. In addition to understanding the mechanics of it, its principles have been applied to the folding of DNA and other nanoscale structural designing, as well as in the folding of rigid sheets using hinges. Indeed, the latter is used for a variety of purposes: from the simple folds of a paper bag with a flat bottom to the folding of airbags and telescopes, and even to simulating the folding of large solar panels for space satellites (known as the Miura fold, named after its inventor the Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura).

This morning, I went along to an APS session that looked at “extreme mechanics”, where researchers were talking about the origami and kirigami – a version of origami that involves folding and making small cuts to a single sheet of paper – of structural metamaterials.

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Robotic cowboys and clams, the SQUID at 50 and more

Pierre-Thomas Brun shows off his lassoing skills

Pierre-Thomas Brun shows off his lassoing skills.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

It has been another exceedingly busy day the APS March Meeting – there were sessions on the SQUID’s many applications, robotic clams, global health physics and the spread of epidemics, and even some toys based on physics principles. Here’s another quick round-up of the fascinating talks.

On SQUID row
It’s the 50th birthday of the superconducting quantum interference device or SQUID – a very sensitive magnetometer that accurately measures extremely subtle magnetic fields – this year, and there were sessions this morning to discuss its impact to date as well as possible future applications. Kent Irwin from Stanford University discussed how superconducting photon detectors that are used in a host of astronomical and cosmological observations are being amplified using SQUIDs. Such SQUID-boosted sensors are being used to make more accurate measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – to look at its power as well as certain polarizations modes it exhibits. As certain experiments look for signs of gravitational waves in in the CMB polarization, this could be particularly helpful.

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Partying bacterial biofilms throw out streamers

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

The word “streamers” doesn’t normally bring bacteria to mind, but it’s all the rage with biophysicists studying the mechanics of bacterial biofilms that grow where there is fluid flowing. A biofilm is any group of microorganisms where cells stick to each other on a surface – either a living or non-living surface will do. A rather simple example of this is the slimy film that develops over our teeth each night.

Biophysicist Knut Drescher from Princeton University gave a fascinating talk at the APS March Meeting on Monday about his research into why biofilms that grow specifically in the presence of a flowing fluid – such as in channels in soil, filtration systems, as well as medical devices such as stents or urinary catheters – are rapidly clogged, causing a variety of problems and infections. Biofilms in such a case form 3D thread-like “streamers” that are responsible for the rapid clogging. It was initially thought that these streamers formed along the walls of the original film and then expanded inwards, but Drescher and colleagues found that it was actually the other way around – the fishing-line-like streamers grew from the middle and rapidly extended outwards, clogging a channel within minutes.

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Magnetic supreme court judges, easier visa access, visualizing arXiv and more

Lee talks about his supreme court model, as Alemi and Zeng listen in.

From left to right, Lee talks about his supreme court model, as Alemi and Zeng listen in.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

With the amazing variety of interesting talks at the APS meeting yesterday, I couldn’t possibly write up each and every one – I’d have to take today off, and there’s yet more physics to be learned today! In light of that, below is a short round-up of some of yesterday’s speakers and their work.

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‘Mile-high’ physics

The Colorado Convention Centre where the APS is being held.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

The city of Denver, Colorado has been invaded…or so I am sure the locals will feel over the next few days, as more than 9000 physicists from all over the world have arrived to take part in the APS March Meeting. I have been here in the “Mile-high city” of Denver – so nicknamed thanks to its official elevation that is exactly one mile or 5280 feet above sea level – since Sunday morning, and physics is the talk of the town as everyone descends upon the Colorado Convention Center (pictured above).

As always, there is a wide variety of interesting talks, sessions and press conferences over the next few days and I would have to clone myself multiple times to get around to all of them. Talking about cloning, though – I have just been to my first session, where Stanford researcher Patrick Hayden was taking about quantum information and asking whether or not it could be cloned in space–time. I will be speaking with Hayden later in the day, so watch this space if you would like to know more.

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Homework help from NASA, rescue missions, top technologies and more

By Tushna Commissariat

Who doesn’t like a bit of help with their homework – not 4-year-old Lucas Whiteley from West Yorkshire in the UK.  When faced with some tough and rather complex scientific questions, the enterprising child filmed a video of himself asking the US space agency NASA for some help. And much to his delight, he got a video response courtesy of NASA engineer Ted Garbeff of the Ames Research Center in California. In the 10-minute video, Garbeff answers Whiteley’s questions including “How many stars are there?” and “Did any animals go to the Moon?” Of course, the story garnered nation-wide interest and was covered by the Huffington Post, the Telegraph and others. Take a look at Garbeff’s response video above.

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Golden-anniversary physics, flaming challenges, smart lists and more

Photo of a rainbow seen in Bristol

How do you explain the science behind a rainbow to a child?

By Tushna Commissariat

It never rains but it pours, they say, and 1964  experienced quite a downpour of amazing “physics firsts” as the first papers about quarks, the Higgs mechanism and the EPR paradox or Belle’s inequality were all published. Also, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson made their first measurement of the cosmic microwave background on 20 May 1964, detecting the whisper of the Big Bang. To celebrate 50 years since these world-changing discoveries were made, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics has produced a webcast (you can watch the video on their YouTube page in a week’s time) featuring leading cosmologists Alan Guth, Robert Woodrow Wilson, Robert Kirshner and Avi Loeb. You can read more about it in this fascinating article by David Kaiser on the Huffington Post website, as he take a deeper look at the eventful year of 1964.

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Are ‘sterile neutrinos’ dark-matter particles after all?

Graph showing recent constrains on sterile neutrino production

Could sterile neutrinos constitute dark matter? (Courtesy: Bubul et al./ arXiv:1402.2301)

 

By Tushna Commissariat

It is always interesting to us at Physics World when a particular topic suddenly attracts the attentions of the physics community, especially when it’s a rather hotly debated subject. The past couple of days, for example, have seen a lot of talk about “sterile neutrinos”, based on two papers – published in quick succession on the arXiv preprint server – that suggest the tentative detection of these hypothetical paricles.

Both papers are based on an unidentified emission line seen in the X-ray spectrum of some galaxy clusters obtained by the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory. Intriguingly, sterile neutrinos are also considered to be possible dark-matter candidates, meaning that – if discovered – they would be the first fundamental particles to lie beyond the bounds of the Standard Model of particle physics.

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Cruise-ship physics, the many ways to tie a tie, shaken-up carbon dating and more

By Tushna Commissariat

If you like piña coladas and quantum mechanics, then we hope you are currently on the two-week “Bright Horizons 19” Southeast Asia cruise, as on board is physicist and writer Sean Carroll. He will be giving multiple lectures over the next 15 days on everything from the Higgs boson to dark matter and other fundamentals of quantum mechanics. Also floating along with Carroll are other lecturers who will cover topics from natural history to genetics to military strategy. If, like us, you are stuck at home, you can take a look at Carroll’s slides on his blog, maybe have a cocktail while you are at it.

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