Category Archives: General

The designated survivor

By Michael Banks

Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz: the designated survivor.

It is not unusual for physicists to find themselves leading a country. Angela Merkel, who studied physics at the University of Leipzig from 1973 to 1978, has been Germany’s chancellor since 2005, while in 2010 Japan elected former physicist Naoto Kan as its prime minister – a position he held for just over a year.

Yet while the nuclear physicist and current US energy secretary Ernest Moniz may be 14th in the US presidential line of succession, if something really terrible had happened yesterday, he may have found himself leading the world’s biggest economy.

That is because he was appointed “designated survivor” while US president Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address.

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Uncovering the truth in social media

Illustration of viral social-media

Truth and lies in the web of social media. (Courtesy: Shutterstock)

By James Dacey

“On 27 August…Mars will look as large as the full Moon.”

This was a sentence from a widely circulated e-mail in 2005, in the lead up to one of the closest encounters between Earth and Mars in recorded history.

That our neighbouring planet could appear as prominent as the Moon is, of course, complete claptrap. Since the “Mars hoax” first appeared in 2003, it has re-emerged several times over the past decade.

The Mars hoax is an example of a “meme”, a piece of content or an idea that is spread virally across Internet networks. These days, memes such as this can spread with increasing speed and reach, thanks to the ever-growing expansion of social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Now, however, researchers at MODUL University Vienna are setting out on the ambitious task of assessing the truthfulness of information that goes viral on social-media sites. The folks behind the project, called PHEME, say that one of their major aims is to acquire an improved understanding of the types of dubious information that are most likely to spread across networks.

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Quantum Cheshire cat spotted in Grenoble

An illustration of a Cheshire cat

A most curious thing is the quantum Cheshire cat. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/koffeezilla)

By Hamish Johnston

Three months ago we ran a news article about a “quantum Cheshire cat” experiment that was proposed by Yakir Aharonov of Tel Aviv University and colleagues. Now, an international team of physicists has created a quantum Cheshire cat using polarized neutrons at the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France.

The work was done by Yuji Hasegawa and colleagues at the Vienna University of Technology, ILL, the University of Cergy-Pontoise and Chapman University.

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Join CERN’s scavenger hunt

Photograph of  a LEGO figurine in the CERN computing centre

Can you spot all 20 or so LEGO figurines in the CERN computing centre?

By Michael Banks

You may remember that late last year CERN teamed up with Google Street View to allow users to go on a virtual tour of the lab, including 12 km of the 27 km Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel plus the caverns that house the ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE experiments.

This involved Google‘s Zurich team spending two weeks at CERN in 2011 photographing the LHC using a “Street View Trike” – a specially created camera-mounted bike.

Well, what we didn’t known then was that Stefan Lüders, CERN’s computer security officer, had decided to stash about 20 LEGO figurines around the CERN computing centre before the cameras rolled.

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Now you see them, now you don’t…

Photo of "Spannungsfeld" by Julian Voss-Andreae

Spannungsfeld by Julian Voss-Andreae is set to be installed at the University of Minnesota next month.

By Matin Durrani

I don’t know if they’re going to be dubbed “Alice” and “Bob”, but those names seem fairly appropriate for the two new figures – one male, one female – that make up the latest artwork from the German-born quantum-physicist-turned sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae.

Set to be installed at a new physics and nanotechnology building at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St Paul, the work is officially titled Spannungsfeld – a German term that literally means “tension field” and which implies, according to Voss-Andreae, a “dynamic tension, often between polar opposites, that permeates everything in its vicinity”.

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Lights, camera, action at Daresbury Laboratory

Daresbury Laboratory: SuperSTEM is the small, white building just right of centre and surrounded by trees (Courtesy: STFC)

Daresbury Laboratory: SuperSTEM is the small, white building right of centre and surrounded by trees. (Courtesy: STFC)

By Hamish Johnston

Recently I was in Liverpool with the Physics World camera crew to film a series of videos, including a feature about the NA62 experiment based at CERN. On the way back to Bristol we spent the afternoon at the Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire, where we made videos about two major facilities at that lab.

Today, we are premiering the video that we made about Daresbury’s SuperSTEM, which is the UK’s national facility for aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM).

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Stretching and spinning droplets using sound

Mirror made from tiny polystyrene spheres (Courtesy: Grzegorczyk et al Phys Rev Lett 112) 023902

Mirror made from tiny polystyrene spheres. (Courtesy: Grzegorczyk et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 112 023902)

By Hamish Johnston

There are two fantastic papers in Physical Review Letters this week that made me smile. Both of them are about controlling macroscopic objects using waves. While there are practical applications for both techniques, I can’t help thinking that the authors did the work for the sheer joy of it.

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100 leading British scientists

By Margaret Harris

Earlier this week, the UK’s Science Council – an umbrella group for learned societies and professional bodies – published a list of the country’s 100 leading practising scientists. The rationale behind the list is interesting: according to the Council’s press release, it’s meant to “highlight a collective blind spot” in our attitudes towards scientists, which tend to “reference dead people or to regard only academics and researchers as scientists”.

I gave a quiet cheer when I read this. As I’ve noted before, fully 96% of the UK’s science PhD graduates make their careers in something other than academic research, yet their contributions often go unrecognized. There are many reasons for this, including commercial confidentiality and poor visibility (almost every academic scientist has their own webpage; most industry scientists don’t) along with the aforementioned “blind spot”.  But whatever the reasons, a list honouring non-academic scientists seems long overdue.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Science Council’s list fits that description.

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Making sense of physics information

Graphic showing a connected world

(Courtesy: iStockphoto)

By James Dacey

Physicists today are faced with a multitude of options when it comes to accessing and sharing information with each other. Research collaborations are becoming increasingly international, bringing both opportunities and challenges with communication. There are ever-growing numbers of ways of accessing journal papers. And it seems that every other day sees the arrival of some shiny new social-media site for sharing and discussing the latest developments.

IOP Publishing (which publishes physicsworld.com) has teamed up with the Research Information Network (RIN) to try to improve our understanding of how information practices are changing in the physical sciences. You can help shape that understanding by taking our short survey. If you need a little sweetener, you will also be given the chance to enter a prize draw where you can win a $500 bursary to attend the academic conference of your choice. All in, the survey should take you about 10–15 minutes.

I caught up with Ellen Collins, a social researcher at RIN, to find out a bit more about what the project is designed to achieve.

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Spies are keen on quantum computing, claims Washington Post

By Hamish Johnston

An article in the Washington Post claims that the US National Security Agency (NSA) is funding research into how quantum computers could be used to crack cryptography systems. While the article claims to be based on leaked secret documents, the revelation doesn’t seem to surprise several of the physicists quoted in the piece.

Scott Aaronson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says that it’s unlikely that the NSA project is much further ahead of public quantum-computing research. His MIT colleague Seth Lloyd adds that it could be five years or more before the NSA or anyone else creates a quantum computer capable of breaking cryptographic systems.

Interestingly, Lloyd alludes to a space-race-like rivalry between the US, EU and Switzerland that is driving the development of code-busting quantum computers.

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