Category Archives: General

Putting a bouncy castle in space and other extraterrestrial adventures

A space station made from four B330 inflatable pods, which are the white cylinders (Courtesy: Bigelow Aerospace)

Artist’s impression of a space station comprising four B330 inflatable pods, which are the white cylinders. (Courtesy: Bigelow Aerospace)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s never been a better time to be a space enthusiast, as more and more countries are unveiling space programmes and it seems like a new mission is launched or announced just about every week.

But if you are like me and find the constellation of mission names – the various acronyms, mythical beasts and dead scientists – overwhelming, then the space physicist Chris Arridge has put together “Five human spaceflight missions to look forward to in the next decade” for The Conversation.


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Cosmic rays, diamond anvils and spintronics in Utah

Gardens at the University of Utah

A blooming marvellous afternoon at the University of Utah.

By Hamish Johnston in Salt Lake City

Yesterday afternoon I hopped on a tram bound for the University of Utah. As you can see in the above photo, spring has sprung in Salt Lake City and the campus was resplendent in blossoms with views over snow-capped mountains.

I was at the university to film several 100 Second Science videos with Utah physicists including Shanti Deemyad, who studies the properties of matter under extremely high pressures. She is particularly interested in understanding the quantum properties of solids at temperatures near absolute zero – properties that can be enhanced when materials such as lithium are squeezed at pressures that are more than 10 million times greater than Earth’s atmosphere. This is done using a diamond anvil and Deemyad’s lab has 20 or so of them.


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The field that could improve your research ‘impact’

Preparation of ice-cream in a factory

Where physics meets food: preparation of ice-cream in a factory. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Leonid Shcheglov)

By Matin Durrani

As Physics World editor, I spend most of my time covering science that I have never been involved in. I might write articles about astrophysicists, interview atomic physicists or edit features by particle physicists, but it doesn’t mean I’ve ever done any research in those fields.

It was therefore a pleasant change last Friday to attend a summit organized by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, on physics in food manufacturing. Back in the 1990s, I did a PhD with Athene Donald at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge on the physical properties of mixtures of gel-forming biopolymers – materials that apart from being interesting from a fundamental point of view are also relevant to the food industry.

Many foods, after all, are complex, multicomponent mixtures – and if you can understand how they behave, then you can create foods that are healthier, cheaper and perhaps even tastier too.


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Physics World 2016 Focus on Nuclear Energy is out now

By Michael Banks

Proponents of nuclear power in the UK have endured an agonizing wait for Hinckley Point C – a European pressurized water reactor (EPR) to be built in south-west England that would fulfil 3.5% of the UK’s electricity needs. Earlier this year, it looked as if the French utility giant EDF would finally give the project the thumbs up and start construction. However, following months of political wrangling – and resignations by senior EDF executives – a final decision by the EDF board is yet to see the light of day.

Cover of the 2016 Physics World Focus on Nuclear Energy

Hinckley Point C is not the only EPR under construction that has been beset with delays and cost hikes: two in China, one in France and one in Finland have also had issues. In this first-ever Physics World Focus on Nuclear Energy, we delve into the EPR design and Hinckley Point C, as well as look ahead to other, more ambitious reactor designs in the pipeline – known as generation-IV designs – that could vastly reduce the amount of nuclear waste produced. Although work on such designs has slowed following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, supporters argue that generation IV will still play a vital role in the long term.

The focus issue is not only devoted to fission, but fusion too. For decades physicists have dreamed of using fusion to generate electricity and, with construction well under way on the ITER fusion tokamak in Cadarache, France, that vision is now getting closer to a reality. But is ITER the only way forward? We explore how several private firms are developing small-scale fusion technologies, while in Germany a novel “stellarator” device has just started up that promises to deliver a “steady state” plasma.


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Michael Berry at 75

Sir Michael Berry unveiling a framed photograph of himself

A moment to reflect – Michael Berry unveils a framed photograph of himself in the University of Bristol at an event to mark his 75th birthday. (Courtesy: Brian R Pollard)

By Matin Durrani

Anyone who gets invited to an event that’s being held on April Fools’ Day is bound to think there’s something fishy going on. But last Friday’s meeting to celebrate the 75th birthday of Bristol University physicist Michael Berry was a genuine commemoration of his career, although it did have its lighter moments.

Grandly entitled “Physics, Art, Mathematics, Science”, the meeting was intended to reflect Berry’s extensive and wide-ranging interests, which stretch from the physics of waves and quantum phenomena to optics, tidal bores and magnetic levitation. (There’s also a phenomenon called the Berry phase, although I understand Berry himself is reluctant to use that term.)

It’s difficult to summarize Berry’s many contributions to physics – he has written approaching 500 papers – so I’m going to take the easy way out and instead point you at his excellent website, where you can easily get lost down lots of entertaining and stimulating rabbit holes.

If there’s one item on his site I can recommend, it’s his description of how his work on the mathematics of magnetic levitation led him to share the 2000 IgNobel Prize for Physics with the future (genuine) Nobel laureate Andre Geim, who in 1997 levitated a frog using a powerful permanent electromagnet while at Bristol.


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How to make money by quantum computing

Quantum temple: will the congregation at Bristol's Wills Memorial Building convert to quantum annealing?

Quantum temple: will the congregation at Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building convert to quantum annealing?

By Hamish Johnston at the BQIT:16 conference in Bristol

Today I have made the short trip from the office to the University of Bristol, which is hosting the BQIT:16 conference on quantum information. I had been looking forward to the “Industry Perspective” session, which was headlined by Steve Adachi of the US defence supplier Lockheed Martin. Several years ago the firm was the first commercial buyer of what some consider to be the world’s first commercial quantum computer – a device made by Canada’s D-Wave Systems – and I wanted to know what Lockheed Martin was doing with it.

To say that D-Wave and its products are controversial is an understatement. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some delegates to this conference are brought to fisticuffs over D-Wave’s quantum annealing protocols later this evening in Bristol’s cider pubs.


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The April 2016 issue of Physics World is now live

PWApr16cover-200By Matin Durrani

The April 2016 issue of Physics World magazine is ready and waiting for you to access via our app for mobile and desktop.

Our cover story this month is about Rydberg atoms – those super-sized atoms that are one of the hot topics in condensed-matter physics – and in particular how they could be used to create quantum computers.

You can also find out how virtual-reality tools could help you to learn about the science of optics and learn more about a new research centre at the National Autonomous University of Mexico that’s bringing a fresh approach to the science of complexity.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can now enjoy immediate access to the new issue with the digital edition of the magazine in your web browser or on any iOS or Android mobile device (just download the Physics World app from the App Store or Google Play). If you’re not yet in the IOP, you can join as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year to get full access to Physics World digital.


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3D-printed dog’s nose sniffs out why canines are excellent chemical analysers


By Tushna Commissariat

After a long trip in the US – attending the APS March meeting and visiting both the Maryland campus of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, as well as the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York – I finally made my way back home yesterday. As I flew out of New York, I was reminded of my visit to NIST’s Surface and Trace Chemical Analysis Group, where researchers develop a variety of ways to detect contraband substances at airports and other public locations. While the team looks into a variety of ways to detect trace residues of banned substances such as drugs or explosives that may be found on people or objects – from mass spectroscopy to thermal desorption to vapour-sampling – my favourite was their canine research that led them to create a 3D-printed dog’s nose!


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Carried away by a well lit shadow

Simulation of a lead ion collision in ALICE

Simulation of a lead-ion collision in the ALICE detector. (Courtesy: CERN)

By James Dacey

As concept albums go, the latest release by Jake Hertzog can certainly be stacked at the intellectual end of your record collection. This week, the US jazz-rock guitarist released his sixth studio album, entitled Well Lit Shadow – a suite of solo electric-guitar tracks inspired by images from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and other experiments at the CERN particle-physics lab. You can find details of how to purchase or stream the album on Hertzog’s website.

Now, I’m not the world’s biggest jazz aficionado but I gave the album a listen and it’s far more accessible than the concept might suggest. Hertzog’s musicianship shines through and bright walking riffs on tracks such as “Star Drops” and “Traces of You” evoke images of devoted researchers working through vast amounts of data in pursuit of knowledge. According to Hertzog’s website, some of the pieces are very literal attempts to depict the chaos and beauty of subatomic-particle collisions, while other tracks are more abstract meditations on the deeper meaning of these experiments. The album’s title track is described as “a musical poem dedicated to the philosophical implications of this science”.


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The unexpected benefit of a malfunctioning magnet at RHIC

Inside the RHIC tunnel

Beam me down: in the RHIC tunnel. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat in New York City, US

I’m not one to rejoice in someone else’s misfortune, but I must admit that I couldn’t help but be a bit pleased when I heard that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) had a malfunction last Friday. You see, I happened to be visiting the collider and its detectors yesterday, and if a malfunctioning superconducting magnet had not shorted a diode last Friday, I would not have had the chance to go down into the collider tunnel, which was a great experience.

RHIC – which, along with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, is the only other detector capable of colliding heavy ions and is, in fact, the only spin-polarized collider in the world – has been running since the year 2000, and accelerator director Wolfram Fischer tells me that I am rather “lucky” as “failed magnets are very rare”. Indeed, he said that after initial teething problems when RHIC was switched on, this was the first such magnet failure that has occurred in the past 15 years. But fear not, the RHIC maintenance crew is already hard at work – the diode will soon be replaced and the collider should be up and running again in the next few days.


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