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What can cosmic rays tell us about dark matter?

The positron excess as seen by AMS

Alive and well: the positron excess as seen by the AMS. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Cosmic rays, dark matter and other astrophysical mysteries are being debated with much vigour at a three-day conference that began this morning at CERN in Geneva. Called “AMS Days at CERN”, the meeting will include presentations of the latest results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS).

Located on the International Space Station, the AMS measures the energy of high-energy charged particles from the cosmos – otherwise known as cosmic rays. These particles are of great interest because they offer us a window into some of the most violent processes in the universe. Some cosmic rays have probably been accelerated during supernova explosions while others could be produced as matter is sucked into the supermassive black holes that lie at the centres of many galaxies.

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Night visions, the sky 10 billion years ago and unexplained sounds from around the world

View from an Earth-like planet 10 million years ago

Good old days: the view from an Earth-like planet 10 billion years ago. (Courtesy: NASA/ESA/Z Levay (STScI))

By Hamish Johnston

This week’s Red Folder is inspired by a vision I had last night while I was putting out the garbage bins. I happened to look up at the sky just as the International Space Station (ISS) was travelling over Bristol. It was a very bright and impressive sight as it zipped overhead before disappearing at the eastern horizon. If you happen to be on an arc through northern Europe between Penzance and Poznań, you should also have a great view of the ISS this evening; you can find out when and where to look at the ISS Astroviewer website.

The ISS is one thing that you would definitely not see if you could look at the sky as it was 10 billion years ago – but have you ever wondered what that view would be? Zolt Levay at the Hubble Heritage Information Center has, and the above image is his vision of what the sky would look like from a hypothetical planet within a Milky Way-like galaxy 10 billion years ago. The work was inspired by a new collection of nearly 2000 images of galaxies as they appeared at that time in the history of the universe. Taken by a number of different telescopes including Hubble, “the new census provides the most complete picture yet of how galaxies like the Milky Way grew over the past 10 billion years into today’s majestic spiral galaxies”, according to NASA.

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Where is the coldest experiment on Earth?

Image of a refocused cloud of rubidium atoms

Chilly peak: a refocused cloud of rubidium atoms. (Courtesy: Tim Kovachy et al./Physical Review Letters)

By Hamish Johnston

California might be suffering a punishing drought, but a tiny corner of the Golden State is now the coldest place on Earth. This tiny super-cold patch was created at Stanford University by Mark Kasevich and colleagues, who have used “matter-wave lensing” to cool a cloud of about 100,000 rubidium atoms to less than 50 pK. That is just 50 × 10–12 degrees kelvin above absolute zero.

The temperature of a cloud of atoms is defined by the average velocity of the atoms as they drift about. Kasevich’s team used a series of lenses to reduce this average motion to less than 70 µm/s, which corresponds to 50 pK. This shatters the previous record of 1 nK for matter-wave lensing and represents “record-low kinetic temperatures” according to Physical Review Letters, where the research is described.

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Protons return to the Large Hadron Collider

Aerial view of the LHC

Up and running: The first proton beams have been injected into the LHC in preparation for its second run. (Courtesy: Maximilien Brice/CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

The first proton beams of the second run of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were circulated earlier today. Travelling in opposite directions around the collider at CERN in Geneva, each beam was injected at 450 GeV. If all goes well over the next few days, the energy of each beam will be increased to the operating energy of 6.5 TeV.

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Isaac Newton’s Good Friday, art meets physics and our favourite April Fool gags

APOD image of artwork "Mooooonwalk"

Suiting up for the Moon – an artwork aptly titled “Mooooonwalk”. (Courtesy: APOD/ Robert Nemiroff/Michigan Technological University)

By Hamish Johnston and Tushna Commissariat

As it’s Good Friday today, it can only mean that this week’s Red Folder will include a selection of the best physics-related April Fool jokes from earlier this week. Fermilab’s daily e-bulletin Fermilab Today had an entire joke edition up in the morning – their lead story was probably our favourite as the lab announced its new breakfast cereal dubbed “Neutrin-Os”, but their new day spa sounds pretty good too. CERN went for the funny if slightly obvious Star Wars joke, confirming the existence of the Force, but a slightly more subtle joke came earlier in the week from CERN Bulletin, which ran a story about CERN’s computer-security department handing out prizes for best password – we are still not quite sure if they were joking or not! Astronomy Picture of the Day had a truly fantastic image (see above) of a Lunar Grazing Module described as a “multipurpose celestial bovine containment system”.

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Littered with errors

By Michael Banks

Photograph of Swheat Scoop cat litter (CC-BY-SA Ryan Forsythe)Cat litter and radioactive waste – not a combination you would normally expect to come across (although some cat owners may disagree).

But a report by the US Department of Energy has squarely blamed kitty litter for the explosion of a single drum of nuclear waste – dubbed “68660” – that burst open at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico in February 2014.

A year-long investigation by a nine-member panel – led by David Wilson of the Savannah River National Laboratory – has concluded that the incident was caused by the use of the wrong brand of feline litter.

As cat litter is highly absorbent, for years it has been used to help keep nuclear waste contained. Indeed, each barrel of waste at the WIPP is filled with about 26 kg of the stuff.

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Five amazing physics demonstrations

By Matin Durrani

Even if you’re a hardcore theoretical physicist, I’m sure you’ll agree that experiments are the lifeblood of physics. After all, theory and experiment go hand in hand – and there’s nothing to beat getting your hands dirty to get a proper understanding of the subject.

But how can pupils and students get excited about experiments? Making practical work a key part of exam syllabuses is surely important – yet the danger then is experimental work becomes a chore not a charm.

If you need inspiration, check out the April issue of Physics World magazine, which is now out in print and digital formats. It contains a great feature by Neil Downie – head of sensors at Air Products, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK and a Royal Academy of Engineering visiting professor at the University of Surrey.

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Florida’s declining Space Coast, naming mountains on Pluto and silly rock bands

 

Artist's impression of Pluto

Name game: does that crater look like a Steve, or maybe a Carol? (Courtesy: IAU/L Calçada)

By Hamish Johnston

When I was a young lad back in the late 1960s, my family would join the annual March migration of Canadians to Florida. Along with alligator farms and the endless beaches, the Kennedy Space Center was a popular tourist destination and I can still remember visiting it and getting a solar spinner globe as a souvenir. Sadly, since the end of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011, Florida’s “Space Coast” has fallen on hard times. While there are still rocket launches – there are two planned for April – thousands of NASA employees have been let go and the surrounding communities look worse for wear. The New York-based photographer Rob Stephenson has put together a collection of images taken in and around the centre that he calls “Myths of the Near Future”. To me the photographs evoke the allure of the space age as well as the inevitable decline of any human endeavour.

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Particle-physics electronica

By Michael Banks

Fancy a bit of particle-physics electronica?

Subatomic Particles albumThen make sure you download the latest album from Isle of Wight electronic duo Cosmic Mind Warp.

In a “unique crossover” between the worlds of cosmology, quantum physics and electronic music, Alister Staniland and David Holmberg have just released a new concept album dubbed Subatomic Particles.

The 15-track album, which features songs such as “Large Hadron Collider”, “Quantum Tunnelling” and “Down Quark”, is described by the duo as a “hallucinogenic head-trip through the microscopic world of subatomic particles and the strangeness of quantum physics”.

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Electrical fault delays LHC start-up

Back down the tunnel: technicians will soon be repairing an electrical fault somewhere along the LHC (Courtesy: CERN/Maximilien Brice)

Back down the tunnel: technicians will soon be repairing an electrical fault somewhere along the LHC. (Courtesy: CERN/Maximilien Brice)

By Hamish Johnston

Today I was planning to write a cheerful blog celebrating the first circulating proton beams in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but sadly the particle gods are not smiling down on CERN this week. Accelerator physicists in Geneva have identified an electrical fault in one of the collider’s magnet circuits and plans to restart the giant machine this week have been put on hold – possibly for several weeks.

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