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The science and policy of green energy

Juliet Davenport

Juliet Davenport at Hampole wind farm near Doncaster. (Courtesy: kalory.co.uk)

By Margaret Harris

In the days following the Great Storm of October 1987, as people across southern England and northern France picked roof tiles and downed tree limbs out of their gardens, Juliet Davenport began thinking seriously about weather.

At the time of the storm, Davenport – now the chief executive of Good Energy, a UK-based supplier and generator of renewable energy – was a third-year physics student at the University of Oxford. She was fascinated to learn that meteorologists (including the BBC’s Michael Fish, who famously told viewers “not to worry” about an approaching hurricane) got their predictions wrong due, in part, to a simple error in the location of ship-based weather observations in the Bay of Biscay, which led them to predict that the storm would follow a more southerly track. “I realized then just how fundamentally sensitive our systems are to data fluctuations,” she told an audience at the University of the West of England (UWE) last night.

Thirty years later, Davenport is still fascinated by the science of weather and climate, but she has also become passionate about the economics of how business becomes an “engine for change” in the world. The role of business in decarbonizing the UK economy was a major theme of her talk. Often, she explained, people regard sustainability and climate change as “someone else’s problem”. That isn’t useful, she said, because “if you expect one part of a society to do all the work, it’s really hard”.

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Dialogues on physics, great women who changed science, a virtual reality journey to six exoplanets

 

By Hamish Johnston

I spend an hour or so every day looking at physics-related websites including several dozen blogs by professional physicists. One of my favourites is Asymptotia by Clifford Johnson, a theoretical physicist at the University of Southern California. Johnson is a talented visual artist and next month he has a new graphic book out called The Dialogues. The above video gives you a taste of what to expect. Continue reading

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The physics of sperm: the movie

By James Dacey

Luke Skywalker et al. re-entered the public imagination recently with the release of the trailer for Star Wars: the Last Jedi. But where that movie takes you on a galactic adventure, a new short web film by the Wyss Institute in the US takes you on a swashbuckling tour of the microscopic – tracking animated sperm on a mission to fertilize an egg.

The Beginning is based on collaborative work between a pair of researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Founding director Don Ingber teamed up with the biophysicist/professional animator Charles Reilly to seek an atomic-level understanding of sperm movement. Combining molecular dynamics simulations with film animation software, they have visualized how a sperm tail moves based on scientific data.

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What gravitational waves did (and didn’t) tell us about GW17081

100 s countdown: Jocelyn Read (centre) and undergraduate students Isabella Molina (left) and Erick Leon (Courtesy: CQG+)

Rotating into view: Jocelyn Read (centre) and undergraduate students Isabella Molina (left) and Erick Leon. (Courtesy: CQG+)

 

By Hamish Johnston

The GW170817 neutron-star merger was by no means an instantaneous event. Physicists working on the LIGO-Virgo gravitational-wave detectors were able to watch the two stars spiral towards each other for about 100 s before they merged. Valuable information about the neutron stars has been gleaned from the observation, but the detectors were unable to see the merger itself and its aftermath.

In “The gravitational-wave story of a neutron-star merger”, Jocelyn Read of California State University Fullerton takes up the story at 17 min before the merger. Then, the neutron stars would have been be separated by about 700 km and have an orbital frequency of about 10 Hz.

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Neutron star merger as it happened

All around the world: observatories that looked-out for GW170817 (Courtesy: LIGO-Virgo)

All around the world: observatories that saw GW170817 (Courtesy: LIGO-Virgo)

By Hamish Johnston

At 12:41:20 UTC on 17 August, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope sent a notice to the astronomy community saying that it had detected a gamma-ray burst. Normally such an event wouldn’t raise much fuss – but this time things would be very different.

Back on Earth, scientists working on the LIGO-Virgo gravitational wave detectors were busy analysing a signal that had arrived about 2 s before the gamma-ray burst and looked very much like the merger of two neutron stars. Such a cataclysmic event is expected to give off copious amounts of electromagnetic radiation including an initial burst of gamma rays.

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A rockin’ good milkshake, a telescope that wants to be the next Taj Mahal

The Rock-Music Milk Shake Mixer uses sounds waves to create a milkshake, which is to be launched at the 2018 Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, UK

Sounds tasty: the Rock Music Milkshake Mixer uses sound waves to create a milkshake.

By Matin Durrani and Hamish Johnston

Film fans will well remember the opening scene from Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly (played by Michael J Fox) is thrown across a room by a massive sound wave from an enormous guitar amp. It’s more science fiction than science fact, but to illustrate the impact that sound can have on everyday life, staff at EngineeringUK have come up with something really rather clever. To drum up interest in next year’s science-careers show The Big Bang Fair, which is to be held in March in Birmingham, UK, they’ve built what they dub a “Rock Music Milkshake Mixer”.

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A glimpse of Einstein in Zurich

Looking out over Zurich from the rooftop restaurant at ETH (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

A Swiss view: Looking out over Zurich from the rooftop restaurant at ETH Zurich (Courtesy: Sarah Tesh)

By Sarah Tesh

Zurich is one of my favourite cities. Located in the north of Switzerland, it sits at the tip of a glistening, clear lake, with snow-topped mountains in the distance. The buildings are beautiful, the people are friendly and public transport is incredibly efficient. It is also home to multiple world-class science and technology institutes.

So when Physics World was invited to visit two of these facilities, I jumped at the chance to go. Our hosts for the trip were the international organization IBM Research, and ETH Zurich, a STEM-focused university, and the event was a showcase for some of their medical, computer science and quantum-computing research.

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A tenner in space, why just 0.3% of LIGO bagged the Nobel, sounding-off in Havana

Tenner, nine, eight...: Mary Sommerville has lifted off (Courtesy: RBS)

Tenner, nine, eight…: Mary Sommerville has lifted off (Courtesy: RBS)

By Hamish Johnston and Matin Durrani

Primary school children in Scotland have celebrated the launch of a new £10 note by launching it into space. Well, sort of. The Royal Bank of Scotland note was actually sent aloft on a high-altitude balloon with a camera to capture the event for posterity.

If you know your astronomers, you will recognize Mary Sommerville on the tenner. She was active in the early 19th century and famously predicted the existence of Neptune by its influence on the orbit of Uranus. She and Caroline Herschel were the first women to be members of the Royal Astronomical Society and she also wrote the bestselling science book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences.

There is much more about Sommerville in our podcast “Mary, Queen of Scottish banknotes“.

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How does LIGO detect gravitational waves?

 

By Hamish Johnston

This year’s physics Nobel prize has gone to three physicists who pioneered the LIGO observatory, which in 2015 made the first-ever detection of gravitational waves.

The LIGO detectors are famously capable of detecting changes in length smaller than one thousandth the diameter of a proton.

So how is this done?

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Nobel prize heralds new era of multimessenger astronomy

Brave new worlds: what LIGO-Virgo could see (click on image to expand). (Courtesy: I Bartos and M Kowalski)

Brave new worlds: what LIGO–Virgo could see. Click on image to expand. (Courtesy: I Bartos and M Kowalski)

By Hamish Johnston

I think it’s safe to say that most Nobel-watchers were predicting a LIGO-related physics prize this year, and for very good reasons.

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