Category Archives: APS March Meeting 2009

Happy birthday, JPCM!

Metal letters defy gravity as Jocelyn Bell Burnell addresses the crowd

The world-famous IOP Publishing journals reception was held last night here in Pittsburgh — and this year revellers were toasting 20 years of the Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter.

The history of the journal can actually be traced back a further two decades to 1968, when the Journal of Physics C: Solid State Physics was born. This publication merged with Journal of Physics F: Metal Physics (launched in 1971) to create JPCM in 1989.

The Institute of Physics chief executive Robert Kirby-Harris was on hand to introduce the Institute’s president Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (above) — who addressed the throng of journal board members and other friends of IOP Publishing.

One person who wasn’t there was Richard Palmer , who recently retired from IOP Publishing. Richard worked on the journal and its predecessors for 37 years — and was awarded an MBE in 2006 for his services to scientific publishing.

And yes, there was a cake but sadly it was cut before I had a chance to snap a picture. I hope someone saved a piece for Richard!

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How to focus a tsunami

The 2004 tsunami strikes Thailand: was the wave focussed by underwater features? (Courtesy: David Rydevik)

By Hamish Johnston

One terrifying thing about the Asian Tsunami of 2004 is that some coastlines were devastated, while others had much less damage inflicted on them.

That got Bristol’s own Michael Berry thinking about whether such massive waves could be focussed by underwater features towards unfortunate places.

In an invited talk at the APS March Meeting here in Pittsburgh, Berry took us through the mathematics of how an underwater island could focus a tsumani at a region where it would unleash ten times more energy than had it not been focussed. The effect occurs because the change in depth associated with the island affects the wave much like a change in refractive index at the surface of a lens.

The intitial conditions — island size; distance to the source of the tsunami; and the size of the source — affect the degree of focussing. Berry found that in some cases the island scatters the tsumani and reduces the energy in the region directly in front of it.

Berry described this effect as “very significant and something that should be taken into account” by those investigating the possible effects of such waves.

He left us with the scary thought that a wave created by a well-placed manmade explosion at sea could in principle be focussed at unlucky coastal dwellers. Let’s hope that never happens.

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Beautifully hewn experiments

George Herold and Teach Spin’s spectroscopy experiment — note the wooden coil holders and the detail in the optical table’s wooden feet.


I was strolling though the exhibition here at the March Meeting when my eyes were drawn to a collection of beautifully-crafted lab equipment.

Housed in polished wooden cabinets and sporting retro dials and script — the equipment is made by Teach Spin of Buffalo New York.

Now when I was an undergraduate I thought that all that wooden kit was ancient (even back then) but it turns out that at least one company is lovingly building the stuff.

The company’s research physicist George Herold gave me a demonstration of a spectroscopy experiment (above) and a torsion pendulum (right). You can read all about the latter in the compay’s latest newsletter

According to Herold, the company has its own carpenter — how many scientific equipment companies can say that?

Below are a few more photos from Teach Spin’s stand.



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Nanotubes and desalination

Is there anything that carbon nanotubes can’t do?

I know I’ve asked that question before — but I can’t stop being amazed at the fantastic properties of the tiny tubes.

This morning I heard Olgica Bakajin of Lawrence Livermore National Lab describe how she made a water filter using carbon nanotubes.

She did this by growing a forest of nanotubes on a silicon substrate and then filling in the gaps between the tubes with a nitride material.

After removing the silicon substrate, her team were left with a thin film that is permeated by nanotubes with an average diameter of about 1.6 nm — each of which turns out to be an excellent conductor of water.

Indeed, experiments showed that water flows through the nanotubes about four times faster than what would be expected from simple pipes.

The reason, according to Bakajin, is two fold. Firstly the walls of the nanotubes are hydrophobic — water molecules avoid the walls — which reduces drag. Also, the nanotubes are exceptionally smooth, again reducing drag.

And if that wasn’t good enough, the team found that the nanotube filters are very good at removing ions from water as it passes through. Bakajin thinks that the broken bonds at either end of the tubes attract the ions.

As a result, the filters could play an important role in the desalination of seawater — Bakajin’s filters were able to remove 40% of the chloride ions at a relatively high flow rate. This means that they already outperform commercial nanofilters.

The filters could be improved significantly by increasing the density of nanotubes in the filter; and optimizing the ends of the nanotubes for removing salt.

All of could mean highly-permeable filters that would reduce the amount of energy required in a desalination facility — perhaps making it economically viable.

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Cooling polar molecules

How to cool polar molecules

By Hamish Johnston

Talks at the APS are very hit and miss — especially for someone like me who wants a gentle introduction to a field rather than a full-on blitz of data and equations.

However, some talks are pure gold…it was definitely worth getting up early to hear Silke Ospelkaus’s 8 am lecture on how to create a gas of ultracold polar molecules.

Physicists have already perfected cooling atomic gases to very low temperatures using lasers — leading to a renaissance in the study of quantum systems.

Polar molecules are attractive because unlike ultracold atoms, they interact via long-range forces and thefore could be used to investigate a broader range of quantum phenomenon.

But molecules pose an additional challenge because they have rotational and vibrational energy, which must also be removed.

Although one could try to cool the atoms directly — or cool individual atoms and then combine them to make molecules — but both of these approaches have their problems.

According to Ospelkaus — who is at JILA in Boulder, Colorado — there is a better way. Her team began with “Feshbach molecules” which are made by taking ultracold potassium rubidium atoms and binding pairs together very weakly by applying an external magnetic field.

Although the molecules are ultracold, the separation between atoms is great, which means that they have a tiny dipole moment.

The next step is to gently coax the Feshbach molecules into the ground state of potassium-rubidium, which has a much higher dipole moment. This is tricky because there is very little overlap between the states. To get around this problem, Ospelkaus and crew shunted the Feshbach molecules into a third state that overlaps the two.

Easy right? Except that transition requires a 125 THz laser — and such things don’t exist!

Undaunted, Ospelkaus used the “beating” of two lasers to obtain light at the right frequency.

So after all that, did they manage to create a “quantum degenerate” gas?

Not quite, the team managed to get the molecules as cold as 400nK, whereas the onset of degeneracy is at about 100nK.

But now that they have a nearly degenerate gas of polar molecules Ospelkaus believes that it could be cooled further by applying electric fields.

…who said this sort of work was complicated?

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Pollution writ in stone

Once a treasure trove of pollutants

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier today I caught a few talks in a session called “The Greening of Pittsburgh”.

One talk could have been called “The Cleaning of the Cathedral of Learning” because it focused on how that building’s limestone facade was first blackened by smoke and then blasted clean by the rain.

The study of the Pittsburgh landmark was done by Cliff Davidson and colleagues at Carnergie Mellon University, who looked at historical photos of the building; took samples of the material staining the building; studied how the building is affected by driving rain; and did computer simulations of the wind patterns around the building.

They found that just a few years after the cream-coloured building was completed in 1930 it was completely blackened by smoke. But around 1945 the city began to enforce anti-smoke rules and by 1950 erosion caused by driving rain was beginning to clean the 42-storey building.

The team using wind and rain measurements and simulations the team were able to understand why some sides of the building were getting cleaner, while others remained relatively sooty — because they were exposed to pollutants from a nearby steel works. This was confirmed by studying the chemical composition of the staining, some of which was iron-based.

Sadly, the study came to an abrupt end a few years when the University of Pittsburgh had the entire building sand-blasted clean.

In a different study, Davidson and colleagues discovered that about 75% of particulate-matter pollution in Pittsburgh today comes from outside the city — mostly from coal-fired generators in the Midwest as far away as Iowa.

So if you have a bad air day it Pittsburgh — or anywhere else in Eastern North America — it’s probably because millions of people to the west of you are turning up their air conditioners.

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What physicists can learn from industry

Adam Kollin shows off R9

By Hamish Johnston

If you are struggling to get your experiment to work, you might want to pop into a local manufacturing plant or hospital for a few tips.

That’s the impression I was left with after a fascinating conversation with Adam Kollin — the founder and president of RHK Technology.

The company makes atomic force microscopes. But it is probably most famous for its control units — ultraprecise electronics that allow AFMs to resolve single atoms on a surface.

An AFM works by positioning a tiny tip with great precision near the surface of a sample. The tip is designed to vibrate at a certain frequency, and properties of this vibration change depending on the structure of the nearby surface.

An image is taken by moving the tip from one place to another — but this also affects the vibrations — so its important to let the tip settle down for a while before making a measurement. The key to making a rapid scan is to wait long enough to achieve the desired resolution, but not too long or the scan will take forever.

Physicsts that use AFM had worked out a way to deal with this problem, but according to Kollin they had it all wrong. He knows this because he happened to be talking to an engineer with a background in automated manufacturing.

It turns out that robots used in manufacturing suffer from the same problem — their arms move quickly from one place to another and then settle down to perform a very precise function. And the engineers who design manufacturing lines have devoted alot of time to understanding the best way to do this.

According to Kollin, RHK Technology has embraced this knowledge to improve its products — as well a borrowing ideas from medical imaging and particle physics.

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Diapers, DNA and very few knots


By Hamish Johnston

Many important biological processes involve the packing and unpacking of long stringy molecules such as DNA into very dense structures.

One of the most amazing aspects of this little-understood process is that the stringy molecules don’t get all tied up into a mess of knots.

According to Alexander Grosberg of New York University — who was speaking about this knotty issue this morning — collapsing proteins are thought to form 19 distinct types of knots. Compare this to simple chains of the same length, which can get knotted up in about 3000 different ways.

“Evolution avoids or supresses knots in proteins”, he declared.

Grosberg argues that physicists need a new model for describing how biomolecules collapse. The key features, he says are the process being driven by pressure from the outside — and a mathematical way of avoiding knots.

One approach he has taken is to model proteins as rings instead of single strands. Why this seems to work was beyond me, but Grosberg seems to have made some progress in describing the collapse mathematically.

And what does this have do do with diapers? Well it seems that the water-hungry material in nappies undergoes a similar collapse — but as the photo above suggests, the actual process of compaction is unknown.

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Fancy a bacterium wrap?


By Hamish Johnston

I came across this fantasic poster this afternoon. It tells how Vihar Mohanty and Vikas Berry went about wrapping a live bacterium in a sheet of graphene.

The point of the work, which was done at Kansas State University, is to explore ways of combining manmade nanodevices with naturally occuring ones such as bacteria. This could lead to “bio batteries” in which biochemical processes within bacteria could be tapped as a source of energy for tiny devices — allowing such devices to operate within the body for example.

A big challenge in this kind of bionics is getting the nanostructure to stick to the bacteria. What Mohanty and Berry did was use graphene oxide — a sheet of carbon and oxygen just one atom thick — which has has an affinity for certain molecules found on the surface of bacteria. By mixing the bacteria and graphene oxide in a solution they found that some of the bacteria were completely wrapped up.

If you look at the poster above (sorry for the poor photo) you can see a fully wrapped bacterium at the bottom of the third column.

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Warhol, Heinz and a few physicists

Around the convention centre

By Hamish Johnston

Pittsburgh is the birthplace of Andy Warhol and Heinz Ketchup — and the two come together nicely in these pieces hanging on the convention centre wall.

The paintings are by the Pittsburgh-born artist Burton Morris and evoke Warhol and other 20th century American artists.

I don’t think Warhol did ketchup bottles — although I think he gave us his take on the cardboard boxes that held the bottles.

By the way, the folks under the pictures are real physicists, not life-sized artworks!

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