Category Archives: General

Playing poker with robots on Mars

Photo of a rover prototype sitting on sand under red light inside a dome with a simulated starry sky

A prototype of the ExoMars rover trundles around inside the “space dome” at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

By Margaret Harris

How do you keep an astronaut alive, sane and (ideally) happy during a mission to Mars? The world’s space agencies would very much like to know the answer, but gathering data is tricky. The International Space Station (ISS) makes a good testbed for experiments on the physical effects of space travel, but psychologically speaking, ISS astronauts enjoy a huge advantage over their possible Mars-bound counterparts: if something goes badly wrong on the station, home is just a short Soyuz ride away. Martian astronauts, in contrast, will be on their own.

For this reason, space agencies have become interested in learning how people cope in extreme environments here on Earth, particularly in locations where rescue is not immediately possible. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) sent Beth Healey, a British medical doctor, to spend the winter of 2015 at Concordia Research Station, a remote base in the interior of Antarctica. During the continent’s nine-month-long winter, temperatures at Concordia can plunge as low as –80 °C, making it inaccessible even to aeroplanes, which cannot operate at temperatures below –50 °C. So once the last flight left in February 2015, Healey and the 12 other members of the overwintering team were stuck there until November.

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Behind the fence of a closed atomic city in Russia

 

By James Dacey

The European première of a documentary recorded secretly within a Russian “atomic city” is among the highlights at Sheffield Doc/Fest, the international documentary festival that gets under way tomorrow in Sheffield, UK. City 40, directed by the Iranian-born US filmmaker Samira Goetschel, takes viewers inside the walls of a segregated city established by the Soviet Union during the Cold War as a guarded location for developing nuclear weapons.

The social model in Ozersk (formerly known as City 40) is reminiscent of what occurred in Richland, the US city near the Hanford site in Washington State where plutonium was produced for the “Fat Man” bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. In both these US and Soviet cities, the citizens were lavished with higher-than-average salaries and standards of living, such as quality housing, healthcare and education systems. Today, Ozersk is still a closed city with an alleged population of 80,000 and exists officially as a facility for processing nuclear waste and material from decommissioned nuclear weapons.

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Physics World 2016 Focus on Optics and Photonics is out now

PWOPT16-cover-200By Matin Durrani

Research into optics, photonics and lasers is not only fascinating from a fundamental point of view. It’s also vital for technology, industry and applications in everyday life.

In the latest focus issue of Physics World, which is out now in print, online and through the Physics World app, you can find out about some of the latest research into optics and photonics – and how it’s being put to good use.

In our cover feature, take a look at some of the latest advances in invisibility cloaking – 10 years after first being demonstrated at microwave frequencies.

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IUPAC unveils names of four new elements

Portion of the periodic table showing the locations of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. The elements are shown with provisional names, not their new proposed names. (Courtesy: IUPAC)

By Hamish Johnston

The periodic table could soon be graced by four new symbols (Nh, Mc, Ts and Og) as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has just unveiled its proposed names for the four most recently discovered elements. Their discovery had been confirmed earlier this year jointly by IUPAC and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).

Element 113 was discovered at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Japan and will be called nihonium (Nh). Nihon is a transliteration of “land of the rising sun”, which is a Japanese name for Japan.

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LISA Pathfinder opens the door to gravitational-wave detection in space

Flying high: LISA Pathfinder has overcome a major hurdle (Courtesy: ESA)

Flying high: LISA Pathfinder has overcome a major hurdle. (Courtesy: ESA)

By Hamish Johnston

2016 is shaping up to be a bumper year for physicists trying to detect gravitational waves. In February the LIGO collaboration announced the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves using two kilometre-sized detectors in the US.

Now, it looks like an even bigger detector will get permission to launch. Researchers working on the LISA Pathfinder space mission have just announced that they were able to isolate a 2 kg test mass at a special “Lagrangian point” between the Earth and the Sun. This is important because the planned LISA gravitational-wave observatory will use test masses located at three points in space (each separated by about one million kilometres) as the basis for a huge detector.

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On the frontline of the ‘reproducibility crisis’

Significant. (Click to view full cartoon. Courtesy: xkcd/Randall Munroe)

Significant. (Click to view full cartoon. Courtesy: xkcd/Randall Munroe)

By Margaret Harris

The “reproducibility crisis” in science has become big news lately, with more and more seemingly trustworthy findings proving difficult or impossible to reproduce. Indeed, a recent Nature survey found that two-thirds of respondents think current levels of reproducibility constitute a “major problem” for science. So far, physics hasn’t been affected much; the crisis has been most severe in fields such as psychology and clinical research, which, not coincidentally, involve messy human beings rather than nice clean atomic systems. However, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to physicists. Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking to three physics graduates who have become personally involved in addressing the reproducibility crisis within their chosen profession: medicine.

Henry Drysdale, Ioan Milosevic and Eirion Slade are third-year medical students at the University of Oxford. All three earned their undergraduate degrees in physics, and they now make up one-third of COMPare – an initiative by Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) that tracks “outcome switching” in clinical trials. As Drysdale explained to me over coffee in an Oxford café, researchers who want to perform clinical trials have to state beforehand which “outcomes” they intend to measure. For example, if they are trialling a new drug to treat high blood pressure, then “blood pressure after one year” might be their main outcome. But researchers generally keep track of other variables as well, and often their final report focuses on a positive result in one of these other parameters (a dip in the number of heart attacks, say), while downplaying or ignoring the drug’s effect on the main outcome.

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Kavli prize for gravitational-wave pioneers

Winners of the 2016 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics

Gravitational-wave pioneers: (l to r) Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss.

By Michael Banks

It’s been a great month for the people behind the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (aLIGO), which recently discovered gravitational waves.

In early May, Ron Drever, Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss – who co-founded LIGO – together bagged a cool $1m share of a special $3m Breakthrough Prize together with more than 1000 LIGO scientists, who shared the remaining $2m.

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The June 2016 issue of Physics World is now out

PWJun16cover-200By Matin Durrani

Physicists can turn their hands to some unusual subjects. But in the June 2016 issue of Physics World magazine – now live in the Physics World app for mobile and desktop – we reveal the unexpected link between physics and ancient Icelandic sagas. If you don’t believe us, check our cover feature out.

Meanwhile, with the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union (EU) looming, we examine what impact the EU has on UK physics – and how remaining in or leaving the EU could affect the country’s science.

Don’t miss either our review of the new film The Man Who Knew Infinity, while our forum section this month has advice from Barry Sanders of the University of Calgary for how best to collaborate with scientists in China. There’s also a great interview with the new president of the US National Academy of Sciences Marcia McNutt.

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Skateboard videos reveal the physics of doing an ‘ollie’

Free-body problem: how do skateboarders do an "Ollie"?

Free-body problem: how do skateboarders do an “ollie”? (Courtesy: Paulo Simeão Carvalho/Physics Education)

By Hamish Johnston

Here’s a problem for keen students of classical mechanics: how can a skateboarder cause their board to leap into the air by pressing down on it with their feet?

What I’ve described is a trick called the “ollie”, which first emerged on the skateboarding scene in the late 1970s and is now an essential part of the skating repertoire. There’s a fascinating paper in the journal Physics Education, which shows how digital videos of people doing an ollie can be analysed to get to grips with the physics underlying the trick.

The above image shows six video frames of someone executing an ollie – with time moving from right to left over a period of about 2 s. If you delve into the paper, you will find out how its authors – Marco Adriano Dias, Paulo Simeão Carvalho and Deise Miranda Vianna – used video images to track the motion of the tail of the board as well as its front and back wheels. This was then compared to a free-body diagram analysis of the forces of the board.

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Looking toward the quantum-technology landscape of the future

Looking to the future: Sir peter Knight opening the Quantum technology for the 21st Century conference at the RSC (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Futuristic views: Peter Knight opening the conference at the Royal Society in London. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat

Not a week goes by here at Physics World that we don’t cover some advance in quantum mechanics – be it another step towards quantum computing or error correction, or a new type of quantum sensor, or another basic principle being verified and tested at new scales. While each advance may not always be a breakthrough, it is fair to say that the field has grown by leaps and bound in the last 20 years or so. Indeed, it has seen at least two “revolutions” since it first began and is now poised on the brink of a third, as scientific groups and companies around  the world race to build the first quantum computer.

With this in mind, some of the stalwarts of the field – including Peter Knight, Ian Walmsley, Gerard Milburn, Stephen Till and Jonathan Pritchard – organized a two-day discussion meeting at the Royal Society in London, titled “Quantum technology for the 21st century“, which I decided to attend. The meeting’s main aim was to bring together academic and industry leaders “in quantum physics and engineering to identify the next generation of quantum technologies for translational development”. As Knight said during his opening speech, the time has come to “balance the massive leaps that the science has made with actual practical technology”.

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