Category Archives: General
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.
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.
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.
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.
By 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.
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!
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”.
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.
By Tushna Commissariat in New York City, US
As most of our regular blog readers will know, last week Physics World‘s Matin Durrani and I were in Baltimore attending the APS March meeting. While we spent most of the week at the conference centre, last Friday we visited the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Gaithersburg campus, as well as the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), which is based at the University of Maryland. It was a jam-packed, exciting day that we spent zipping around to and from more than 10 different labs and departments, meeting people who use physics to do everything from improve the safety of body armour to redefining the kilogram.
As we saw so many interesting projects, covering them all would make for a rather long read. Instead, join me for a quick visual tour of NIST below (I will cover our JQI visit in a separate blog) to get a small taste of the physics and people involved.
By Margaret Harris
I have a mental block about Carlton House Terrace. This elegant little street in central London is home to several of the UK’s national academies, including the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), and I’m sure I’ve visited it at least half a dozen times. Yet somehow, whenever I emerge from Charing Cross underground station in the middle of Trafalgar Square, I never know which way to go next.
Fortunately, this is the 21st century, so when the usual disorientation struck me yesterday on my way to an “Innovation in Space” event at the RAEng, I simply pulled out my smartphone. Within seconds, an app told me exactly where I was (plus or minus a few metres) and how to walk from there to 3 Carlton House Terrace. Minutes later, I was safely ensconced in the seminar room, nodding in agreement as the event’s chair, Sir Martin Sweeting, explained how space-related innovations – including, ahem, the network of satellites that make up the Global Positioning System (GPS) – have become an integral part of our daily lives.
By Michael Banks
It is a battle between man and machine, but one that has been ultimately won by the brute force of computation.
Yesterday as well as today, Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo program has made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence by defeating Lee Sedol – the current world champion from South Korea – at the game of Go.