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.
The Moon man: Ziyuan Ouyang in his office at the National Astronomical Observatories with a lunar globe covered with images taken by Chinese craft. (Courtesy: Mingfang Lu)
By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China
I caught up this morning on the second day of my visit to Beijing with Ziyuan Ouyang, chief scientist of China’s Moon programme at the National Astronomical Observatories, which lies not far from the city’s iconic “bird’s-nest” Olympic stadium.
I’d first met Ouyang on my last visit in 2011 when the country had so far launched two lunar missions – Chang’e 1 (which orbited the Moon for 18 months before crash-landing onto the lunar surface) and Chang’e 2 (another lunar orbiter that later moved off into interplanetary space).
China’s lunar efforts have continued and Ouyang explained to me what has happened since my last visit – and what the country plans to do next.
Matin Durrani outside the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing before interviewing Xinchou Lou.
By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China
I had just landed in Beijing this morning when I saw an e-mail from my colleague Mingfang Lu waiting for me on my phone. Mingfang, who’s editor-in-chief at the Beijing office of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, has been helping me to organize my itinerary for the next week as I gather material for our upcoming special report on physics in China. You may remember we published a Physics World special report on China in 2011 but so much has happened since then that we felt it’s easily time for another.
Mingfang’s e-mail was to say we would be off at 2.30 p.m. to interview Xinchou Lou, a particle physicist at the Institute of High Energy Physics, about the country’s ambitious plans for a “Higgs factory”. If built, this 240 GeV Circular Electron–Positron Collider (CEPC) would be a huge facility (50 km or possibly even 100 km in circumference) that will let physicists study the properties of the Higgs boson in detail. I say “if”, but knowing China’s frenetic progress in physics, it will almost certainly be a case of “when”.
It’s packed full of fun facts; for example, did you know that detecting GW150914 is roughly the same as measuring a change in distance the thickness of a human hair between Earth and Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth? But be warned, the article is also full of technical terms such as “whistles”, “blips”, “koi fish” and even “Fringey the sea monster”. These are illustrated in the above graphic by LIGO physicist and artist Nutsinee Kijbunchoo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fractals have always fascinated me and I am sure it’s the same for many of you. What I find most intriguing about them is how the relatively simple base pattern, or “seed”, quickly scales up to form the intricate designs we see in a snowflake or a coastline. In the video above, mathematician and animator Grant Sanderson has created a montage of “space filling curves” – theoretically speaking, such curves can endlessly expand without every crossing its own path to fill an infinite space. Following on from these curves, Sanderson shows you just how a simple seed pattern grows into a fractal and also describes how small changes to a seed property – such as an angle in a V – can alter the final image. The above video follows from a previous one Sanderson created on “Hilbert’s curve, and the usefulness of infinite results in a finite world” so check them both out.