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Robotic cowboys and clams, the SQUID at 50 and more

Pierre-Thomas Brun shows off his lassoing skills

Pierre-Thomas Brun shows off his lassoing skills.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

It has been another exceedingly busy day the APS March Meeting – there were sessions on the SQUID’s many applications, robotic clams, global health physics and the spread of epidemics, and even some toys based on physics principles. Here’s another quick round-up of the fascinating talks.

On SQUID row
It’s the 50th birthday of the superconducting quantum interference device or SQUID – a very sensitive magnetometer that accurately measures extremely subtle magnetic fields – this year, and there were sessions this morning to discuss its impact to date as well as possible future applications. Kent Irwin from Stanford University discussed how superconducting photon detectors that are used in a host of astronomical and cosmological observations are being amplified using SQUIDs. Such SQUID-boosted sensors are being used to make more accurate measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – to look at its power as well as certain polarizations modes it exhibits. As certain experiments look for signs of gravitational waves in in the CMB polarization, this could be particularly helpful.

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Partying bacterial biofilms throw out streamers

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

The word “streamers” doesn’t normally bring bacteria to mind, but it’s all the rage with biophysicists studying the mechanics of bacterial biofilms that grow where there is fluid flowing. A biofilm is any group of microorganisms where cells stick to each other on a surface – either a living or non-living surface will do. A rather simple example of this is the slimy film that develops over our teeth each night.

Biophysicist Knut Drescher from Princeton University gave a fascinating talk at the APS March Meeting on Monday about his research into why biofilms that grow specifically in the presence of a flowing fluid – such as in channels in soil, filtration systems, as well as medical devices such as stents or urinary catheters – are rapidly clogged, causing a variety of problems and infections. Biofilms in such a case form 3D thread-like “streamers” that are responsible for the rapid clogging. It was initially thought that these streamers formed along the walls of the original film and then expanded inwards, but Drescher and colleagues found that it was actually the other way around – the fishing-line-like streamers grew from the middle and rapidly extended outwards, clogging a channel within minutes.

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Magnetic supreme court judges, easier visa access, visualizing arXiv and more

Lee talks about his supreme court model, as Alemi and Zeng listen in.

From left to right, Lee talks about his supreme court model, as Alemi and Zeng listen in.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

With the amazing variety of interesting talks at the APS meeting yesterday, I couldn’t possibly write up each and every one – I’d have to take today off, and there’s yet more physics to be learned today! In light of that, below is a short round-up of some of yesterday’s speakers and their work.

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‘Mile-high’ physics

The Colorado Convention Centre where the APS is being held.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

The city of Denver, Colorado has been invaded…or so I am sure the locals will feel over the next few days, as more than 9000 physicists from all over the world have arrived to take part in the APS March Meeting. I have been here in the “Mile-high city” of Denver – so nicknamed thanks to its official elevation that is exactly one mile or 5280 feet above sea level – since Sunday morning, and physics is the talk of the town as everyone descends upon the Colorado Convention Center (pictured above).

As always, there is a wide variety of interesting talks, sessions and press conferences over the next few days and I would have to clone myself multiple times to get around to all of them. Talking about cloning, though – I have just been to my first session, where Stanford researcher Patrick Hayden was taking about quantum information and asking whether or not it could be cloned in space–time. I will be speaking with Hayden later in the day, so watch this space if you would like to know more.

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Homework help from NASA, rescue missions, top technologies and more

By Tushna Commissariat

Who doesn’t like a bit of help with their homework – not 4-year-old Lucas Whiteley from West Yorkshire in the UK.  When faced with some tough and rather complex scientific questions, the enterprising child filmed a video of himself asking the US space agency NASA for some help. And much to his delight, he got a video response courtesy of NASA engineer Ted Garbeff of the Ames Research Center in California. In the 10-minute video, Garbeff answers Whiteley’s questions including “How many stars are there?” and “Did any animals go to the Moon?” Of course, the story garnered nation-wide interest and was covered by the Huffington Post, the Telegraph and others. Take a look at Garbeff’s response video above.

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Physics World brings Feynman lecture to life

Physics World doodle by Perrin Ireland

Richard Feynman lecture doodle by Perrin Ireland taken from the March 2014 issue of Physics World magazine.

By Matin Durrani and Louise Mayor

Commissioned by Physics World for the March 2014 education special issue, which examines new ways to teach and learn physics, this colourful image is based on a lecture by Richard Feynman called “The Great Conservation Principles”. It is one of seven Messenger Lectures that the great physicist gave at Cornell University in the US exactly 50 years ago, a video of which can be watched here or in the digital version of Physics World.

The drawing’s creator is professional “science doodler” Perrin Ireland – science communications specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US – who describes herself as “a learner who needs to visualize concepts in order to understand them”. For people like Ireland, thinking visually or in a story-like way helps them to recall facts and explanations, which can come in very useful when trying to learn something new.

So to find out what science doodling could bring to physics, we invited Ireland to watch Feynman’s 1964 lecture and create a drawing for us – the picture above being the result. Half a century after his lecture, Feynman remains an iconic figure in physics and although we’ll never know what he would have made of Ireland’s doodle, our bet is he would have been amused.

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Exoplanets are everywhere

Known exoplanets

The latest haul of exoplanets is skewed towards Earth-like masses. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

Just a few years ago the idea that more than 700 exoplanets could be discovered in a single study would seem fantastical. But that’s exactly what astronomers working on NASA’s Kepler mission have just done.

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Rebirth of the SSC?

The derelict site of the Superconducting Super Collider

Physicists entering the derelict site of the Superconducting Super Collider in 2011.

By Michael Banks

Following the closure of Fermilab’s 1 TeV Tevatron particle collider near Chicago in 2011 – and with no similar facility being planned to replace it in the US – many physicists in the country felt not surprisingly concerned that America was losing its place at the “energy frontier”. That baton had already passed to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva when its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) fired up in 2008, and with collisions set to restart there next year at 13 TeV, the US’s day looked certain to have passed.

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CERN creates new office for medical research

Steve Myers (far left) and colleagues at the LEIR facility

Steve Myers (far left) and colleagues at the LEIR facility.

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this month my colleague Tami Freeman was at CERN where she had a tour of what will soon be the Geneva-based lab’s first major facility for biomedical research. Called BioLEIR, the facility is now being created by modifying the existing Low Energy Ion Ring (LEIR).

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Golden-anniversary physics, flaming challenges, smart lists and more

Photo of a rainbow seen in Bristol

How do you explain the science behind a rainbow to a child?

By Tushna Commissariat

It never rains but it pours, they say, and 1964  experienced quite a downpour of amazing “physics firsts” as the first papers about quarks, the Higgs mechanism and the EPR paradox or Belle’s inequality were all published. Also, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson made their first measurement of the cosmic microwave background on 20 May 1964, detecting the whisper of the Big Bang. To celebrate 50 years since these world-changing discoveries were made, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics has produced a webcast (you can watch the video on their YouTube page in a week’s time) featuring leading cosmologists Alan Guth, Robert Woodrow Wilson, Robert Kirshner and Avi Loeb. You can read more about it in this fascinating article by David Kaiser on the Huffington Post website, as he take a deeper look at the eventful year of 1964.

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