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The pin-up of particle physics, an octopus-inspired robot and Witten versus Horgan redux


By Hamish Johnston

One of my favourite radio programmes is The Life Scientific, in which the physicist Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their lives and work. Al-Khalili introduces this week’s guest as “the pin-up of particle physics”, whose remarkable career has taken him from playing keyboards in pop bands, to winning a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to do particle physics, to hosting one of the BBC’s most popular science programmes.

Most readers in the UK will instantly recognize Brian Cox as fitting that bill, and Cox and Al-Khalili chat for half an hour about the price of fame, the importance of the Large Hadron Collider, and the drunken arguments about quantum mechanics that Cox and his fellow University of Manchester physicist Jeff Forshaw managed to capture in a popular-science book.

Cox defends his celebrity status (at least in the UK) by arguing that “science is too important to not be part of popular culture”. And what would he do if he had to choose between doing science or being a celebrity? You will have to listen to the interview to find out.

Cox is credited with inspiring a generation of young Britons to study physics, but the next item in the Red Folder is about a very different kind of inspiration: a swiftly swimming robot inspired by an octopus. An octopus can accelerate rapidly by inflating its balloon-like “mantle” with water and then squirting it out in a powerful jet. At first glance, this might seem like a poor strategy because the inflated mantle is no longer streamlined. However, biophysicists have worked out that the flexible and rapidly deflating mantle offers little resistance to motion.

Now, a trio of physicists has used these insights to build the first underwater robot that can accelerate at nearly the same rate as an octopus. You can read all about it in “Octopus-inspired robot matches real octopus for speed” on the Physics arXiv Blog. You can watch a prototype in action in the video above, which was posted by trio-member Gabriel Weymouth of the University of Southampton.

In 1991 the science writer John Horgan interviewed string theorist Edward Witten and wrote two profiles of the theoretical physicist that were highly critical of both string theory and Witten. Fast-forward to 2014, and Horgan was gobsmacked to be asked by Japan’s Inamori Foundation to interview Witten, who has just won the foundation’s Kyoto Prize.

Horgan admits that his original profiles were “snarky” and his latest interview is a much gentler discussion of how string theory has moved on since the pair last spoke. You can read the interview plus additional commentary from Horgan and Witten on Horgan’s Cross-Check blog. The entry is called “Physics titan Edward Witten still thinks string theory ‘on the right track’”, so no mystery about Witten’s opinion.

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One comment to The pin-up of particle physics, an octopus-inspired robot and Witten versus Horgan redux

  1. John Duffield

    When the history of physics is written, IMHO people will point to Thomson and Tait and they will groan. Then they’ll groan again because Witten abandoned TQFT. We can make an electron (and a positron) out of light in pair production, it’s an optical vortex, a trivial knot, wherein a 511keV electromagnetic wave in a Dirac’s belt bispinor configuration looks like a standing field. What’s the next knot? Take a look at one of the blue trefoils at the top of this TQFT page. Start at the bottom left, and trace around it anticlockwise calling out the crossing-over directions: up down up.


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