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Designing smarter cities


By James Dacey in Berkeley, US

This weekend politicians at the COP21 summit in Paris signed a landmark legal agreement to keep global temperature rises at bay by curbing carbon emissions. The tricky next question of course is: how are we actually going to do this? In this short video, civil engineer Arpad Horvath of the University of California Berkeley explains that one of the aspects will be a fundamental rethink of our urban infrastructures. Horvath believes we need to move towards “smart cities” with smaller carbon footprints at all levels – from greener individual buildings, to more sustainable transport networks.

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Commercial quantum computer works, sort of

Is it or isn't it? The D-Wave 2X quantum processor (Courtesy: D-Wave Systems)

Is it or isn’t it? The D-Wave 2X quantum processor. (Courtesy: D-Wave Systems)

By Hamish Johnston

This morning I was speaking to quantum-entanglement expert Jian-Wei Pan, who shares the Physics World Breakthrough of the Year 2015 award for his work on quantum teleportation. Pan briefly mentioned research reported earlier this week by John Martinis, Hartmut Neven and colleagues at Google Research whereby a D-Wave 2X quantum computer was used to perform a computational task 100 million times faster than a classical algorithm.

This is a remarkable result, but does it mean that D-Wave’s controversial processors actually work as quantum computers? Some quantum-computing experts are urging caution in how the research is interpreted.

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Physics World 2015 Focus on Astronomy and Space is out now

By Louise Mayor

PWASTRODec15cover-500Woolly hats are being donned and there’s a nip in the air as the longest night of the year in the Northern hemisphere approaches. All this darkness makes it the perfect season to gaze up at the stars, planets and puffy nebulae above. But binoculars and amateur telescopes can only enhance the view by so much. To really push the boundaries of how far and how fine we can see, we must turn to international telescope projects both on the ground and in space.

To update you on what we think are the most exciting current and future projects we bring you the Physics World Focus on Astronomy and Space, which you can read free of charge in its entirety.

One particularly ambitious imaging effort is described in the article “Portrait of a black hole“, in which Physics World reporter Tushna Commissariat reports on how a group of astronomers plans to take the first-ever image of a black hole. Despite their name, black holes are apparently not black and the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration has already begun pointing a network of ground-based telescopes at its target: Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

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The life and times of Einstein – ‘A vagabond and a wanderer’

Falling in: Sir Roger's sketch of a black hole collapse, at his talk (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Falling in: Sir Roger Penrose’s sketch of a black-hole collapse. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat

So much has been said about Einstein and his general theory of relativity (GR) that one would assume there isn’t two entire days worth of talks and lectures that could shed new light on both the man and his work. But that is precisely what happened last weekend at Queen Mary University London’s “Einstein’s Legacy: Celebrating 100 years of General Relativity” conference, where a mix of scientists, writers and journalists talked about everything from the “physiology of GR” to light cones and black holes, to M-theory and even GR’s “sociological spin-offs”.

The opening talk, “Not so sudden genius”, was given by journalist and author of “Einstein: A hundred years of relativity“, Andrew Robinson. The talk was very fascinating and early on Robinson outlined that Einstein stood on the shoulders of many scientists and not just “giants” such as Newton and Mach. But he also acknowledged that the scientist was always a bit of a loner and he preferred it this way. Robinson rightly pointed out that until 1907, Einstein was “working in brilliant obscurity” and later, even once fame found him, rootlessness really suited Einstein’s personality – he described himself as “a vagabond and a wanderer”.

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Twin alien civilizations, the ancient genetics of cancer, and marvellous Maxwell and his wonderful equations

Life exchange: could two nearby planets exchange living organisms? An artist's impression of one planet in the Kepler 36 system as seen by its neighbour. (Courtesy: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar)

It’s raining life: could two nearby planets exchange living organisms? An artist’s impression of one planet in the Kepler 36 system as seen by its neighbour.
(Courtesy: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar)

By Hamish Johnston and James Dacey

There is an intriguing article about alien life this week in The Conversation. “Twin civilizations? How life on an exoplanet could spread to its neighbour” is by David Rothery of the Open University and is a popular account of a paper that will soon be published in the Astrophysical Journal. The paper is inspired by the star Kepler 36, which has two planets that are in very close proximity to each other. While the Kepler 36 worlds are not suitable for life, the paper’s authors – Jason Steffen and Gongjie Li – explore possible exchanges of life between two Earth-like planets in similarly close orbits. Rothery explains that debris flung off one of the planets would stand a good chance of finding its way to the surface of the other planet after a relatively brief journey through space.

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Top physics books of 2015

By Margaret Harris

PW book logo 2015Well written, scientifically interesting to physicists, and novel: these are the criteria used to select Physics World’s annual list of the year’s top physics books. We’ve done this every year since 2009, and over the past few weeks, we’ve been at it again, sifting through the 52 books reviewed in the magazine in 2015 and separating the best from the rest (most of which, I should add, are also very good – we try not to review bad books).

This is never an easy task, and as usual, the selections in our shortlist have been influenced by the views of external experts: the physicists, science writers and science historians who read and reviewed books for Physics World magazine throughout 2015. Their reviews (and, in a few cases, their private opinions) helped us decide which books deserved a closer look, and we thank them all for their contributions.

Deciding on a winner, however, is a privilege we reserve for ourselves, and with so many great books to choose from, it has been both a privilege and a challenge this year. We’ll be announcing our “Book of the Year” in a special edition of the Physics World podcast later this month, but in the meantime, here are the candidates:

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Who will win the Physics World 2015 Breakthrough of the Year?

Glittering gong: who will be taking home this year's Breakthrough of the Year award?

Glittering gong: who will be taking home this year’s Breakthrough of the Year award?

By Hamish Johnston

This week marks the beginning of awards season here at Physics World and we have been polishing the 2015 Breakthrough of the Year trophy in anticipation of presenting it to the winner on Friday 11 December.

The winning research must have been published in 2015 and also has to meet four criteria:
• fundamental importance of research;
• significant advance in knowledge;
• strong connection between theory and experiment; and
• general interest to all physicists.

Last year’s ESA’s Rosetta mission was our winner for the remarkable feat of landing a spacecraft on a comet while acquiring a wealth of scientific data. In 2013 the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory won for making the first observations of high-energy cosmic neutrinos. But please don’t think that all the winning research is done by large collaborations. Aephraim Steinberg and colleagues from the University of Toronto were winners in 2011 for their bench-top experimental work on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, while the inaugural prize in 2009 went to Jonathan Home and colleagues at NIST for creating the first small-scale device that could be described as a quantum computer.

We also commend nine runners-up each year who we believe deserve recognition for their contributions to physics.

So who do you think should win this year?

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The December 2015 issue of Physics World is out now


By Matin Durrani

As the festive season approaches, many of you will be looking forward to popping open a bottle of champagne. But before you treat yourself to a bottle, do check out the December 2015 issue of Physics World magazine, in which fizzy-wine physicist Gérard Liger-Belair from the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne reveals his top six champagne secrets.

In the article, Liger-Belair explains why a fog appears when you pop open a bottle, the angle at which you should pour the wine into a glass, and how many bubbles there are in a typical glass of fizz. He also wades into that age-old question among sparkling-wine aficionados: flute or coupe?

The new issue also contains a fabulous flow chart, in which you can find out what sort of scientist you are. Don’t miss either our look back at the International Year of Light, a fantastic selection of Christmas books and a feature all about how origami is moving from art to application.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can get immediate access to this article in the award-winning digital edition of the magazine on your desktop via or on any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet via the Physics World app, available from the App Store and 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 digital access to Physics World. You can also read Liger-Belair’s article online here.

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Celebrating the centenary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and asking what theorists have done lately


By Hamish Johnston

This week, people all over the world have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (GR). Einstein delivered his theory this week in November 1915. Not surprisingly, the Web has been buzzing with tributes to Einstein and explanations of his theory.

In the above video, the physicist Brian Greene and two young assistants demonstrate Einstein’s explanation of gravity using a huge piece of stretched Spandex. Why they have this Spandex ring in what appears to be their living room remains a mystery, but it and a large number of marbles do the trick when it comes to explaining GR.

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Dipping into the physics of a chocolate fountain

Picture of Adam Townsend with a chocolate fountain

Dark flow: Adam Townsend ponders the dynamics of a chocolate fountain. (Courtesy: London Mathematical Society)

By Tushna Commissariat

When most people look at a chocolate fountain in a restaurant or maybe at a party, they are mostly thinking about all the yummy treats they can dunk into the liquid-chocolate curtain. But when a physicist or a mathematician looks at one, they can’t help but notice some of the interesting fluid dynamics at play – most visible is how the curtain of chocolate does not fall straight down, rather it pulls inwards, and that melted chocolate is a non-Newtonian fluid.

University College London (UCL) student Adam Townsend decided to work on this topic for his MSci project and has now published a paper on his findings in the European Journal of Physics. To study the inflow effect, he looked into some classic research on “water bells”, where the same flow shape is seen. “You can build a water bell really easily in your kitchen,” says UCL physicist Helen Wilson, who was Townsend’s MSci project supervisor and the paper’s co-author. “Just fix a pen vertically under a tap with a 10p coin flat on top and you’ll see a beautiful bell-shaped fountain of water.”

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