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Why electricity grids fail, what to do if your PhD is stolen, and what is a ‘Suris tetron’?


By Hamish Johnston

It’s the nightmare scenario for any PhD student: losing all those research results that you carefully squirreled away for when you finally sit down to write your thesis. That’s just what happened to biologist Billy Hinchen, who lost four years’ worth of 3D time-lapse videos of developing crustacean embryos when his laptop and back-up drives were stolen. Find out what happened next in “What would happen if you lost all of your research data?” by Julia Giddings at the scientific software firm Digital Science. Hinchen also tells his tale of woe in the video above.

What is the ideal size of an electricity grid? That’s the subject of “The energy grid is too big, will fail” by Meghan Neal. Writing on Motherboard Neal explores the implications of a paper in the journal Chaos by the physicist David Newman and colleagues at the University of Alaska. Electricity grids can be huge and can fail spectacularly. In 2003, for example, 55 million people in the US and Canada were without electricity for up to two days when a software glitch led to the shutdown of more than 200 generating stations.

Newman has spent the past 20 years trying to work out how the size of a grid affects its stability. A large grid should in principle be more stable, because it can draw on lots of different sources of electricity and could cope with some of these going offline. However, if the grid is running at full capacity a small problem could quickly bring down the entire grid, as happened in 2003. Newman’s conclusion seems to be that some grids in North America are about 100 times too big. Perhaps it’s time to turn down the air conditioning if you are reading this in Atlanta or Houston!

This was also the week that physicists unveiled the “Suris tetron”, which is the latest in a growing list of quasiparticles. I’m a sucker for a new quasiparticle, so I was chuffed to read this paper in Physical Review Letters: “Suris tetrons: possible spectroscopic evidence for four-particle optical excitations of a 2D electron gas”. As far as I can tell, a Suris tetron is some sort of exciton – a type of quasiparticle that is a bound state of electrons and holes in a semiconductor. The Suris tetron was first predicted a decade ago by the Russian physicist Robert Suris and now a team of six physicists in Russia, Germany, Poland and the UK has spotted it in a quantum well.

Suris’ 2003 paper has since been uploaded to arXiv and you can read it here. I’m guessing that he is also chuffed to have a quasiparticle named after him. It’s the ultimate honour in condensed-matter physics as far as I am concerned!

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