Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

Getting a fix on quantum computations

Nine superconducting qubit

Bit of choice: A photograph of the nine superconducting qubit device developed by the Martinis group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where, for the first time, the qubits are able to detect and effectively protect each other from bit errors. (Courtesy: Julian Kelly/Martinis group)

By Tushna Commissariat in New York City, US

Although the APS March meeting finished last Friday and I am now in New York visiting a few more labs and physicists in the city (more on that later), I am still playing catch-up, thanks to the vast number of interesting talks at the conference. One of the most interesting sessions of last week, and a pretty popular one at that, was based on “20 years of quantum error correction” and I went along to the opening talk by physicist John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology. I had the chance to catch up with Preskill after his talk and we discussed just why he thinks that we are not too far away from a true quantum revolution.

Just in case you haven’t come across the subject already, quantum error correction is the science of protecting quantum information (or qubits) from errors that would occur as the information is influenced by the environment and other sorts of quantum noise, causing it to “decohere” and lose its quantum state. Although it may seem premature that scientists have been working on this problem for nearly two decades when an actual quantum computer has yet to be built, we know that we must account for such errors if our quantum computers are ever to succeed. It will be essential if we want to achieve fault-tolerant quantum computation that can deal with all sorts of noise within the system, as well as faults in the hardware (such as a faulty gate) or even a measurement.

Over the past 20 years, theoretical work in the field has made scientists confident that quantum computing of the future will be scalable. Preskill says that “it’s exciting because the experimentalists are taking it quite seriously now”, while initially the interest was mainly theoretical. Previously, scientists would artificially create the noise in the quantum systems that they would correct but now actual quantum computations can be fixed. Indeed, Preskill says that one of the key things that has really moved quantum error correction along in the past few years is the concentrated improvement of the hardware used, i.e. better gates with multiple qubits being processed simultaneously.

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LEGO bricks, bony foams and Islamic art aid metamaterial advances

Photograph of Paolo Celli with his LEGO brick platform

Play time: Paolo Celli with his LEGO platform. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat in Baltimore, Maryland, US

Metamaterials are always a hot topic at the APS March meetings, and this afternoon we were treated to an array of the latest developments in the field. Just in case you have not come across the term before, a metamaterial is an artificially crafted material that aims to achieve the naturally unattainable. These materials are engineered to have special physical properties – some metamaterials act as optical or acoustic cloaks, while some can harvest energy or be used to dissipate it in some form.

Paolo Celli of the University of Minnesota in the US loved playing with LEGO bricks as a child. Now, the physicist still gets to play with LEGO, as his team has been using the bricks both to understand how metamaterials interact with waves and also as an inexpensive and accessible outreach medium. While the researchers initially looked at 3D printing to develop their platform material, they soon found that LEGO bricks attached to a baseplate made for an agile, versatile, low-cost platform that was not highly damped and could be easily reconfigured.

Celli and colleagues have already used the LEGO to experimentally demonstrate phononic band gaps and the associated energy-trapping mechanisms. They are currently working on demonstrating the control of wavelengths that are larger than the width of waveguides realized in the brick pattern, with potential applications in subwavelength wave focusing and imaging. We will be talking to Celli tomorrow, so watch out for more on LEGO metamaterials soon.

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The everyday physics of knitting, ribbon-curling and more

Frédéric Lechenault talked about the physics of knitted materials

Knit stitch: Frédéric Lechenault talks about the physics of knitted materials. (Courtesy: James Riordon/APS)

By Tushna Commissariat in Baltimore, Maryland, US

You may think that a simple occurrence such as a tree shedding its leaves or an everyday activity such as knitting or ribbon-curling does not involve a great deal of physics, but you would be wrong. In a press session here at the APS March meeting entitled “The physics of everyday life”, three different groups of researches talked about the unexpectedly complex physical principles that govern all of the above mentioned instances.

Sunny Jung of the Bio-Inspired Fluid Lab at Virginia Tech in the US studies the shapes of different leaves and the thickness of their “petioles” or stalks – both of which determine the stresses a leaf can withstand on a windy day and what happens when it ultimately falls. Jung’s team studies this because leaves are actually very good at withstanding all kinds of stress and strain without buckling – something that could be applied to large man-made industrial objects such as suspended road-signs.

The researchers found that slender leaves are more likely to bend under high winds, whereas a flat leaf is more likely to twist at the stem before falling.  They also discovered that the length of the stalk is determined by the size of the leaf, with larger leaves needing longer stems so that sunlight can cover more of their surface area.

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Would you encourage your grandchildren into condensed-matter physics?

A packed room for Sir Anthony's talk at APS March 2016

Packed in: a full room for Anthony Leggett’s talk. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat in Baltimore, Maryland, US

One of the most popular talks this morning at the APS March meeting was almost certainly given by Nobel-prize-winning physicist Anthony Leggett of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US.  Leggett, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on superconductors and superfluids, talked about his “Reflections on the past present and future of of condensed-matter physics”.

As the abstract of his talk suggests, Leggett looked at the ways, means and even the very definition of “condensed-matter physics” has changed and “evolved since its inception in the early 20th century, with particular reference to its relationship to neighbouring and even distant disciplines”. He went on to “speculate on some possible directions in which the discipline may develop over the next few decades, emphasizing that there are still some very basic questions to which we currently have no satisfactory answers”.

I missed the beginning of his talk as I was attending the morning’s first set of press briefings (more on those later) but when I did walk into the packed hall for his talk, his slide had the rather interesting title: “Would I encourage my grandchildren to go into condensed-matter physics?” Happlily enough, his answer at the end of his talk was a resounding “yes”.

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Baltimore braces itself for physics

The APS March meeting at the Baltimoe Convention Center (top) and the IOP Publishing stand at the exhibition.

March madness: the APS March meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center (top) and the IOP Publishing stand at the exhibition. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Matin Durrani and Tushna Commissariat in Baltimore, Maryland, US

So here we are in Baltimore to attend the 2016 March meeting of the American Physical Society (APS). We’re writing this at the window seats in a burrito bar on Pratt Street while staring at the hulk that is the Baltimore Convention Center, where nigh-on 10,000 physicists will be congregating all week.

We’ve been playing a game of “spot the APS attendee” while tucking into our burritos. Without wishing to stereotype physicists (okay, go on then, we will) they’re the ones with the backpacks stuffed with poster tubes, pulling little trolley suitcases, looking lost before veering towards the convention centre.

There are also some physicists inside Chipotle Mexican Grill – you can tell because they’re huddled around laptops looking at PowerPoint presentations showing graphs of Fermi surfaces and topological insultators. Probably not the usual subject of discussion in here.

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Lilting to the LIGO tune, Fukushima five years on and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Looks as if LIGO’s gravitational-wave discovery is still rocking all over the world, as you can now groove to the dulcet tones of singer and physicist Tim Blais, who runs the acapellascience channel on YouTube. With some help from the Perimeter Institute in Canada, the singer has created his latest “nerd-pop” parody, titled “LIGO Feel That Space” (sung to the tune of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face”). After you listen to the catchy tune above, take a look at this interview with Blais on the Perimeter website to find out just how he creates his songs and how he went from physicist to a viral YouTuber.

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Primates and paradoxical twins in the ISS, cosmic musicals, alien advertising and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

The International Space Station (ISS) usually has only the human variety of primate on board, but earlier this week a gorilla seemed to have joined the crew. If you thought that this was part of one of the hundreds of planned experiments on the ISS you would be wrong. Instead, it was crew member Scott Kelly’s birthday hijinks after his twin brother sent him the suit for his birthday as the astronaut celebrated a year in space. Kelly will return to Earth in six days’ time.

Interestingly, this is the first time NASA has sent up one half of a pair of twins into space and is studying just how life on the ISS will change Scott’s physiology from that of his twin Mark. Apart from looking at how life in space will alter everything from Scott’s DNA to his gut microbes, this is also a real-life variation of the “twin paradox” experiment where Scott will return to the planet a bit “younger” than his twin in that Scott’s clock runs a bit slower than Mark’s, thanks to the ISS’s orbital speed of 17,000 mph. After reading this, if you feel like you would like a go on the ISS, NASA is currently hiring.

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Surfing the LIGO wave, sounding out black holes and more

 

By Matin Durrani and Tushna Commissariat

Unless you are completely disconnected from all electronic media, the Internet and don’t read a newspaper, by now you must have heard that the LIGO Virgo collaboration has made the first ever detection of gravitational waves, spewed out by two black holes merging into one. The story made waves across the world, if you will excuse the pun, and seemed to capture the interest of scientists and the public alike. Above you can listen to the chirp of the merger event, dubbed GW150914, that occurred 1.3 billion years ago, when multicellular life was just emerging on Earth. Indeed, these sounds are so intriguing that they are being turned into musical compositions.

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Scientists battle celebrities, a quantum ‘unconference’ and space travel, past and future

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Its been a strange week for scientists and celebrities popping up together on the world stage – what with rapper B.o.B and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s very public face-off about the former’s conspiracy theory claims of the Earth being flat  – but it didn’t end there. In a celebrity trio that is even more surprising, physicist Stephen Hawking has come together with Hollywood actor Paul Rudd, (most recently starring in the film Ant-Man) in a video narrated by Keanu Reeves. Earlier this week, Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter hosted the event One Entangled Evening: a Celebration of Richard Feynman’s Legacy. As a promo of sorts for the event – which had special appearances by Rudd, Reeves, Hawking, Bill Gates and even Yuri Milner, apart from actual quantum physicists such as John Preskill and Dave Wineland – they filmed the above video with Rudd and Hawking battling each other at a game of quantum chess. You will have to watch the video to see who wins.

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Scientists officially ground Spider-Man

Image of gecko and ant

Stick together: both ants and geckos have adhesive pads that let them scale vertical surfaces. (Courtesy: A Hackmann/D Labonte)

By Tushna Commissariat

Don’t tell the kids just yet, but becoming Spider-Man, even after being bitten by a radioactive spider, is looking less and less likely for us humans – we are just too big. The latest work, done by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK, has shown that gecko-sized is pretty much the largest you can be if you realistically want to scale up walls with adhesive pads. Any bigger, and most of your surface area would need to be covered in large sticky pads to pull off the gravity-defying walk. Indeed, the team estimates that roughly 40% of an average human being’s total body surface would need to be sticky – this means a whopping 80% of your front would be covered in adhesive pads.

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