Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

‘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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Spacecraft duets, suprise supernovae, the dark side of physics and more

By Tushna Commissariat

While you would not actually be able to hear the uplifting notes of the music in the vast emptiness of space, a newly composed string and piano orchestral piece has unexpected ties to the cosmos. That’s because it is based on 36 years’ worth of data from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Domenico Vicinanza, a trained musician with a PhD in physics who works at GÉANT, a European data-network company, says that he “wanted to compose a musical piece celebrating Voyager 1 and 2 together, so I used the same measurements (proton counts from the cosmic-ray detector over the last 37 years) from both spacecrafts, at the exactly same point in time, but at several billions of kilometres of distance [of] one from the other”. The result of this “data sonification” is a rather beautiful piece of music – one of the best examples of physics and the arts coming together that we have heard. Of course, the story garnered considerable interest…you can read more about on the Wired and Guardian websites.

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Nuclear-explosion survival tips, gravity-defying beads, big questions and more

By Tushna Comissariat

Would you know exactly where to run and shelter in the event of nuclear fallout in your city? Would it be best to stay where you are or move, and for how long should you stay inside before venturing out into your post-apocalyptic world? If these questions have plagued your mind, you can now turn to a new model developed by Michael Dillon, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, US. Dillon’s practical model outlines simple ideas and suggestions that the average person – without advanced equipment and know-how – could apply in the event of a low-level nuclear attack, which is the most plausible type likely to take place in today’s political climate. You can read all about about the model on both the io9 website and in Science magazine, and then map out your perfect route.

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Cress on the Moon, more physics books, a radioactive ‘foot’ and more

A small green sprout of cinnamon basil, grown on board the International Space Station in 2007

A small green sprout of cinnamon basil, growing on board the International Space Station in 2007. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early this week, a story in the Telegraph caught our eye – NASA is planning on sending turnip, cress and basil seeds to the Moon to germinate them! This is most definitely not the first time that plants have been grown beyond the realms of Earth. Indeed, potatoes were grown on board during a 1995 Space Shuttle mission and many experiments involving germinating seeds were done on the International Space Station. The goal of these studies was to understand the effects of microgravity on plant growth. But now, NASA plans to take this one step further in 2015 with their Moon Express mission, which will include the Lunar Plant Growth Chamber that will carry seeds and enough air and nutrients to allow the seeds to sprout and grow. Will fresh salad be on an astronaut’s menu soon?

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Sun-skimming comets, the future of the Space Race, scientists on record and more

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, professional astronomers and enthusiasts all over the world pointed their telescopes (and satellites) at the comet ISON as it raced towards the Sun and had its closest encounter with our star yesterday. Of course, the big question was whether the “Sungrazing comet” would survive its close call. Now, it seems that no-one is quite sure – early on, it looked as if the comet faded rather dramatically, suggesting that its nucleus disintegrated, and then it disappeared completely as it made its way through the solar atmosphere, making scientists mourn its fiery death. But lo, today a very faint smudge of dust was seen again, and seems to be brightening up once more. For now, researchers are referring to ISON as “Schrödinger’s Comet” and we may have to wait a while to know for sure. Right now, it seems that some of the comet has survived, but just how much of it made it through and if it will be visible in the sky in December is unknown. In case you missed all the action yesterday, take a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he was posting live updates on the comet and Karl Battams’s blog on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign site, where he explains what happens next.

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Pop-culture mathematics

By Tushna Commissariat

Earlier this week I went to hear a talk about mathematics…and The Simpsons. That’s right, I am indeed referring to the long-running animated TV show that is a satirical parody of middle-class American life and its unexpected but concrete mathematical vein. Surprising as it may sound, some of show’s scriptwriters have degrees in maths and physics, meaning that some very advanced concepts, problems and ideas from all of 20th-century mathematics and physics are littered around many of the show’s 535 episodes. Regular Physics World readers will have already seen that we have released the shortlist for our Book of the Year 2013 and that physicist and science communicator Simon Singh’s latest offering – The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – is one of 10 books on the list. I had the happy job of reading and reviewing Singh’s book for our “Between the lines: Christmas special” section in the December issue of the magazine.

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