Category Archives: The Red Folder
Comic book fusion, Nathan Myhrvold on innovation, and picking winners of the Global Physics Photowalk
By Hamish Johnston
The comic book artist Frank Espinosa and Princeton University’s Sajan Saini have joined forces to create a comic book called A Star For Us. The book begins with a brief history of our understanding of nuclear fusion in the Sun and goes on to chronicle the challenges of creating a mini-Sun here on Earth.
Espinosa and Saini – who is a physicist turned professor of writing – spent time with physicists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Espinosa says that he was impressed by the researchers enthusiasm for the future of fusion energy. “I was trying to channel that energy of hope,” he explains.
“The mood of the comic tries to really capture a sense of a vast cosmic scale being made palpable, being made into something that we can realize within our own hands,” says Saini. I agree and you can judge for yourself by downloading a PDF of the comic book free of charge.
The physicist and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, has a nice essay in Scientific American about the roles of the private and public sectors in driving technological innovation. He explains that when Microsoft Research was created in 1991, the company was keen on not making the same mistakes as AT&T, IBM and Xerox – which were all in the process of winding down their world-famous research labs. The problem was that these firms funded research in areas that they were not immediately able to exploit commercially. Myhrvold points out that many of the technologies first developed in those labs – including the transistor and giant magnetoresistance data storage – made much more money for fast-moving competitors such as Microsoft than they did for the companies that did the basic research.
By Hamish Johnston
Do your children have head lice again? Now you don’t have to comb their hair until your arm goes numb or cover their head with goop. Instead, you can zap them away using a plasma. I’m not suggesting that you put your child’s head into ionized gas that’s hotter than the Sun – it turns out that a “cold atmospheric pressure plasma” will do the trick.
That’s the claim of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films in Göttingen, Germany. The team has created the above prototype, which creates a plasma using a high-voltage generator that sends short pulses to the teeth of the comb. The pulses ionize air molecules surrounding the teeth, but they are so short that the resulting plasma does not heat up. The charged ions and electrons in the plasma make short work of killing lice and their eggs, but are harmless to humans – at least according to Wolfgang Viöl and colleagues, who will be unveiling their device later this month at the MEDICA trade fair in Düsseldorf.
By Tushna Commissariat
Peering into a small 17th century metallic box, without damaging its contents, is no mean feat. But thanks to the use of synchrotron radiation, scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble were able to “see” inside one, using a technique known as synchrotron X-ray phase contrast micro-tomography. They were also able to create a 3D reconstruction of clay medals concealed within the very fragile and badly oxidized box, which was discovered on the archaeological site of the Saint-Laurent church, and is now at the archaeological museum of Grenoble (MAG). Take a look at the video above to see what the box held. You can also learn more about the researcher’s tomography technique in an article of ours.
Tomorrow is Halloween, so we hope you have your physics-themed pumpkins carved and out on your doorsteps. For some spooky reading this week, take a look at Davide Castelvecchi‘s “Zombie physics: 6 baffling results that just won’t die” story over on the Nature News website. In it, he lists six “undead” results – things that physicists just can’t seem to prove or disprove – including long-running disagreements over certain dark-matter results, hemispheric inconsistencies and spinning protons. Let us know what you think are some of the most undead physics results that should be laid to rest, in the comments below. And while you are at it, make sure to look at today’s creepy edition of Fermilab Today to read about the rise of the zombie accelerator and the “The cult of the Tev.”
By Matin Durrani
If you’ve ever been to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, you’ll know that blackboards are everywhere. You can find them in handy little alcoves, in the cafe and even in the institute’s lifts – the idea being that brain-box theorists who have a great idea in their heads can crack off the underlying maths before their thought fizzles into the aether. (Not that there is an aether, of course, but you know what I mean.) Anyway, the institute’s new California-based artist-in-residence Alexa Meade, has taken the idea to a new level, creating a huge 3D living chalkboard to create the “perception-bending art for which she is internationally renowned”. As you can see from the video above, it brings a whole new dimension to the idea of getting “immersed” into science. You can see more images of Meade’s living installation at Perimeter on Flickr.
This week, China’s president, Xi Jinping, is on a state visit to the UK, and today he toured the new National Graphene Institute (NGI) at the University of Manchester. We reported on the planned tour yesterday, with our story including a special behind-the-scenes video that Physics World recorded on our own recent visit to the NGI in the company of its architect and desinger Tony Ling. But an interesting nugget about the Chinese visit has since emerged: it appears that Kostya Novoselov, the Nobel-prize-winning Manchester physicist who helped to isolate graphene for the first time, has presented President Xi “with a gift of traditional Chinese-style artwork, which Kostya himself had painted using graphene paint”. We’ve yet to see what this objet d’art looks like, but I’m sure it’s lovely.
By Hamish Johnston
The Internet loves cats and our readers love quantum mechanics so a new mobile app called Quantum Cats just has to be the lead item in this week’s Red Folder. Created by physicists at the Institute for Quantum Computing and researchers at the University of Waterloo Games Institute, the app immerses the user in the adventures of four cats: Classy, who obeys classical physics; Digger, who is a master of quantum tunnelling; Schrö, (above) who is a superposition of quantum states; and Fuzzy, who embodies the uncertainty principle. It’s available on Google Play and the App Store, so have a go and tell us what you think.
By Tushna Commissariat
We get many exciting, interesting and sometimes strange e-mails in our Physics World inbox on a weekly basis. But we were pleasantly surprised to receive one from Jay Gilligan – a professor of juggling at the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm, Sweden. Together with one of his former students, Erik Åberg, he has perfected the art of juggling with giant Newton’s cradles. While juggling undoubtedly involves a lot of physics – everything from air resistance, speed, velocity and of course gravity comes into play – this takes it to an even more physical, if you will excuse the pun, level. Do watch the video above to see all of the amazing tricks that the duo can do, and try them for yourself if you are dexterous enough.
By Tushna Commissariat and Hamish Johnston
Update: Looks like we were quite spectacularly wrong this time around with our predictions as this year’s Nobel has been awarded to Arthur McDonald and Takaaki Kajita “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass”. While Physics World’s news editor Michael Banks did predict this in 2013, we did not think this would be the year. Clearly, as our “Which physics disciplines attract the most Nobel prizes” infographic suggests, the field of particle physics still seems to be the most Nobel-worthy one.
It’s a mug’s game, we know, but come the start of October we just can’t resist trying to predict who will win the Nobel Prize for Physics, which this year will be announced on Tuesday 6 October.
With the exception of 2013 – when most pundits were right in thinking that the prize would be related to the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson – predicting the next Nobel winners (or winners) is a tough call. If you want to take an analytical approach, check out the infographic we published last year: “Which physics disciplines attract the most Nobel prizes”. It suggests that the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics is due a prize, and one of us (Hamish Johnston) thinks an excellent bet is Deborah Jin for her work on fermionic condensates. If Jin were to win, she would be only the third woman ever to win a physics Nobel – the other two being Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.
Our true place in the universe, an eclipse for insomniacs and how far the Chilean landmass moved last week
By Tushna Commissariat
An image of the solar system – showing our luminous Sun ringed by nine (or is it eight?) evenly spaced planets and the asteroid belt – is a familiar feature in many school textbooks. In fact, such images are so commonplace that we often forget just how wrong they are when it comes to showing the true scale of the solar system. In particular, the billions and billions of kilometres of empty space that lie between each planet are rarely depicted.
Now, filmmakers and friends Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh have “drawn” a realistic model of the solar system on a dry Nevada lakebed, complete with planetary orbits. The duo describes it as “a true illustration of our place in the universe”. Watch the video above to see how the pair planned and executed their massive portrait.
By Michael Banks and Tushna Commissariat
It’s that time of the year again when the Royal Observatory Greenwich announces the winners of its Astronomy Photographer of the Year award and releases some of the most wonderful and awe-inspiring celestial images. Pictured above is this year’s overall winning image – titled “Eclipse Totality over Sassendalen” and taken by French photographer Luc Jamet, this stunning skyscape was taken from Svalbard during the total solar eclipse that took place earlier this year. “It is one of those heart-stoppingly beautiful shots for which you feel grateful to the photographer for sharing such an exceptional moment,” says Melanie Vandenbrouck, who was one of the judges. If you are in London, then you can drop in to the observatory to see the full exhibition , which opens today, and you can see all the winning images online.
While you’re admiring pictures, do take a look at the latest images of Pluto – backlit by the Sun and showing off its many rugged mountains and icy planes – taken by the New Horizons probe. The pictures are eerily similar to something you would see at the poles of our very own planet, while still maintaining its alien air.
By James Dacey and Tushna Commissariat
While it may seem as if we Physics World journalists spend our evenings leafing through Newton’s Principia Mathematica or deriving the Dirac equation from first principles, on Wednesday night this week, a few of us visited Dismaland – the pop-up “bemusement park” curated by the elusive British street artist Banksy. Located in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare – a few miles south-west of the Physics World Bristol HQ – Dismaland offers a darker and more politically motivated alternative to Mickey Mouse and his friends. While our visit was not work-related, there were a few unexpected physics references that we couldn’t help but spot. First we stumbled across “The Astronauts’ Caravan”, a humorous take on the flight simulators used by NASA (see video above).
Created in 2011 by artists and engineers Tim Hunkin and Andy Plant, the outwardly unimpressive-looking theme-park ride is a compact version of the Victorian “haunted swing” illusion. We won’t spoil the magic by explaining the mechanics of the ride here, but you can read this blog by Hunkin where he explains exactly how he and Plant built their spinning caravan and if you can’t visit Dismaland, then watch the video to see what it looks like from the inside.