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From physics degree to Hollywood

By James Dacey

Photo of Rob Pieké

Rob Pieké. (Courtesy: Manisha Lalloo)

This summer many of you will watch smoke billowing out of buildings as yet another villain wreaks havoc on the New York skyline in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I’m willing to bet that as you eat your popcorn you won’t be thinking about the Navier–Stokes equations of fluid dynamics. (Well, perhaps you will now that I’ve mentioned it!)

In fact, part of the reason that virtual smoke in films looks so realistic is because visual effects (VFX) specialists have applied the Navier–Stokes equations to their graphics. This was one of the interesting tidbits I learned from a talk yesterday in London by Rob Pieké, head of software at Moving Picture Company (MPC).

Pieké was speaking as part of a half-day event on “physics and film” organized by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. The gist of his presentation was that basic physics principles are used in a variety of ways to create special effects that capture viewers’ attention. “The audience wants to see something fantastical but grounded in reality,” said Pieké. Another example he gave was how naturally bouncing hair in computer-generated characters is modelled on mass—spring systems. Each individual hair could be modelled on as many as 30 masses connecting by springs.

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Is the 750 GeV bump in LHC data going away?

End of the line: will science journalists be flocking to CERN in August? (Courtesy: CC-BY/Darkzink)

End of the line: will science journalists be flocking to CERN in August? (CC-BY/Darkzink)

 

By Hamish Johnston

Things are heating up in the blogosphere after two A-list physics bloggers have speculated that a tantalizing hint of new physics seen by the CMS and ATLAS experiments at CERN is vanishing now that the latest collision data are being analysed.

The hint is a bump at 750 GeV in the spectrum of photon pairs created when protons collide in the LHC. It is not predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics and has not yet reached a statistical significance of 5σ – the threshold for a discovery. If it turns out to be real, the bump could become one of the most important discoveries in particle physics made so far this century.

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Russia’s Joint Institute of Nuclear Research builds for the future

Superconducting magnets at JINR

Zero resistance: the JINR is building superconducting magnets for both its new NICA facility and the FAIR heavy-ion collider being constructed at GSI Darmstadt.

By Susan Curtis

When our visit was running two hours behind schedule by lunchtime, I knew it was going to be a mind-expanding day. And there was certainly plenty to discover at the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, some 120 km north-west of Moscow.

An international research centre bringing together 18 member states, the JINR has been in the news for its discovery of new superheavy elements (SHEs). According to Andrei Popeko, deputy director of the JINR’s Flerov Laboratory for Nuclear Reactions, all of the last six elements were first synthesized at the laboratory’s U400 cyclotron, in most cases using samples prepared at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US. The JINR is now building the world’s first SHE factory that will boost production efficiency by a factor of 50, which will allow the lab’s scientists to investigate the chemical properties of these short-lived elements.

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Second wave: all about LIGO, black holes, gravitational ripples and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

What an exciting week it has been, as the LIGO and Virgo collaborations announced that they have definitely detected a second gravitational wave event using the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (aLIGO) in the US.  These waves made their way into aLIGO early on Boxing Day last year (in fact it was still very late on Christmas Day in the US states where the twin detectors are located), a mere three months after the first gravitational-wave event was detected on 14 September 2015.

This event once again involved the collision and merger of two stellar-mass black holes, and since the “Boxing Day binary” is still on my mind, this week’s Red Folder is a collection of all the lovely images, videos, infographics and learning tools that have emerged since Wednesday.

LIGO physicist and comic artist Nutsinee Kijbunchoo has drawn a cartoon showing that while the researchers were excited about the swift second wave, they were a bit spoilt by the first, which was loud and clear – and could be seen by naked eye in the data. The black holes involved in the latest wave were smaller and a bit further away, meaning the signal was fainter, but actually lasted for longer in the detectors.

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Chatting about Chinese computing

: Matin Durrani (left) in conversation with staff at the Beijing Comuptational Science Research Center on 15 June 2016

Calculated efforts: Matin Durrani (far left) in conversation with staff at the Beijing Computational Science Research Center, including Hai-Qing Lin (third left). (Courtesy: Mingfang Lu)

By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China

The last couple of days in the Chinese capital have been unusually damp and cool for the middle of June. Today, however, dawned sparklingly sunny as I headed off with my colleague Mingfang Lu from the Beijing office of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, to the Beijing Computational Science Research Center (CSRC) on the outskirts of the city.

Located on a shiny new software park, this sleek, five-storey building opened in March last year and looks just how you might expect the headquarters of IKEA to be – all minimalist corridors, big glass windows and the odd work of art dotted around. There’s even a fitness room in the basement. It’s currently got 43 full-time faculty, a third of whom are physicists, making this 45,000 m2 building – roughly the size of seven football pitches – seem remarkably sparse.

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Russian bear opens its arms to international science

GUM shopping centre in central Moscow

Free-market economic thinking is now being applied to Russia’s scientific sector. The GUM shopping centre in central Moscow. (Courtesy: Susan Curtis)

By Susan Curtis in Moscow

As an update to my last post, Russia’s deputy minister for science and education, Ludmila Ogorodova, accepted that the 1990s had been a period of crisis management for Russian science, and that in the 2000s plans for rebuilding the academic sector were hampered by lack of funding. But she also pointed to figures suggesting that Russian science has turned a corner over the past couple of years.

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LIGO paints a clearer picture of its merging black holes

Illustration of two black holes spiralling into each other to create a larger black hole (Courtesy: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

Illustration of two black holes spiralling into each other to create a larger black hole. (Courtesy: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

By Hamish Johnston

Physicists working on the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors have released more information about the merging black holes that they announced the discovery of earlier this year. Dubbed GW150914, we now know that the gravitational wave was created by the merger of one black hole that was 36 times as massive as the Sun with a smaller black hole that weighed in at 29 solar masses. The result of the merger was a black hole at 62 solar masses and a spin angular momentum of 0.67, where 1.0 is the maximum value of spin a black hole can have.

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Tsinghua University moves on up

Qi-Kun Xue from Tsinghua University , vice-president for research

Figures at the ready: Qi-Kun Xue from Tsinghua University, which has 40,000 students. (Courtesy: Mingfang Lu)

By Matin Durrani in Beijing, China

I like big cities so I feel quite at home in Beijing with its skyscrapers, highways and endless traffic. Still, it was a pleasure yesterday on the third day of my visit to the Chinese capital to arrive at the green lawns of Tsinghua University. Situated in a former imperial garden, the university was founded in 1911 and is one of the top institutions in the country. According to the 2015–16 Times Higher Education rankings, it’s also the fifth best in Asia.

Quite why Tsinghua is so well rated quickly became clear as I listened to the numbers reeled off by Tsinghua’s vice-president for research Qi-Kun Xue: the university has 6000 research faculty and staff, a total research budget of $700m, and more than 40,000 students (two-thirds at postgraduate level). Like much of modern China, it’s benefiting from the government’s long-term commitment to growth through investment in facilities and infrastructure.

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Russian physics comes in from the cold

Physics powerhouse: the main building of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Courtesy: Andrey Gusev)

Physics powerhouse: the main building of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. (Courtesy: Andrey Gusev)

By Susan Curtis in Moscow

It takes less than four hours to fly to Moscow from London, but it feels much more distant and mysterious. Even my colleagues at Physics World, who pride themselves on covering all of physics in all parts of the world, admit to a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Russian science, even though Russia has a strong tradition in physics as well as in mathematics and space science.

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Playing poker with robots on Mars

Photo of a rover prototype sitting on sand under red light inside a dome with a simulated starry sky

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.

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