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  1. Sidebands

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    Alexei Abrikosov: 1928–2017

    The Nobel laureate Alexei Abrikosov died on 29 March at the age of 88. Born in Moscow on 25 June 1928, Abrikosov completed his undergraduate degree in physics at Moscow State University in 1948 before studying for a PhD in physics at the Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow, graduating in 1951. After working at a number of institutions in Moscow, Abrikosov moved to Argonne National Laboratory in the US in 1991 where he remained for the rest of his career. Together with Vitaly Ginzburg of the P N Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, Abrikosov developed a theory for “type-II” superconducting materials in which superconductivity and magnetism can co-exist. In 2003 Abrikosov shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Ginzburg and Anthony Leggett of the University of Illinois at Urbana “for their pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluidity”.

    Ion-trap pioneer Hans Dehmelt dies

    Hans Dehmelt, the German-born US physicist who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physics for the development of ion traps, died on 7 March at the age of 94. Born in Görlitz on 9 September 1922, Dehmelt gained a Master’s degree in physics in 1948 and a PhD in 1950 from the University of Göttingen. In 1952 he went to Duke University in the US, before moving to the University of Washington in 1955, where he remained for the rest of his career until retiring in 2002. Dehmelt developed the Penning trap, which uses magnetic and electric fields to trap ions and electrons, allowing them to be studied to high precision. For this breakthrough, Dehmelt shared half the 1989 Nobel prize together with Wolfgang Paul, with US physicist Norman Ramsey being awarded the other half for probing the structure of atoms to high precision.

    NASA goes for GUSTO

    NASA has given the green light to the balloon-borne GUSTO terahertz observatory that will map and measure emissions from the interstellar medium. The $40m mission is scheduled for launch in 2021 from Antarctica and will last between 100 and 170 days, depending on the weather at the time. The balloon will carry a spectroscopic telescope that will detect emission lines from carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, with the aim of shedding light on the life-cycle of the gas found in the regions between stars in the Milky Way and a nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

    Canada needs billion-dollar boost

    Canadian science requires a billion-dollar increase to avoid falling behind other nations in basic science. That is the main conclusion of a report released last month by a nine-strong panel led by David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto. It says that Canada needs to invest an additional C$1.3bn over the next four years to boost the science base – taking the county’s science budget to C$4.8bn – recommending that about C$500m of that increase should be diverted to basic research. The panel calls on the government to set up a national advisory council on research and innovation that would advise the Canadian government on research priorities and also “provide broad oversight of the federal research and innovation ecosystem”. The report comes after the Canadian government disappointed scientists in March with a flat budget for science in 2017.

    Success for SpaceX reusable rocket

    A previously used Falcon 9 first stage has been successfully relaunched as part of a recent SpaceX mission. In the past, rockets have traditionally been single use only, but in this case the segment had already been used 11 months ago on a supply run to the International Space Station. The current mission, launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, put a commercial communications satellite into orbit. The rocket segment also successfully returned to Earth unharmed, landing on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean. As the first stage is about 80% of a Falcon 9 launch cost, the successful relaunch and recovery could result in reduced costs.

    NASA funds space-research quartet

    NASA will fund four US research teams as part of the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, which was set up to bring US researchers together with international teams. Joining the existing nine members are the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, the Toolbox for Research and Exploration at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, the Radiation Effects on Volatiles and Exploration of Asteroids and Lunar Surfaces at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Exploration Science Pathfinder Research for Enhancing Solar System Observations at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. The four teams will receive a combined total of $3–5m per year for the next five years.

    Girls underestimate maths ability

    A study by psychologists in the US has found that high-school girls rate their competence in mathematics lower than boys, even for those with similar abilities (Front. Psychol. 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00386). Carried out by Lara Perez-Felkner at Florida State University and colleagues, the study asked high-school students in the 10th and 12th grades to say how much they agreed with statements such as “I am certain I can understand the most difficult material presented in math texts”. For boys and girls who showed a high ability in mathematics, the researchers found that boys rated their ability 27% higher than girls. The authors say that this difference could explain why more boys go on to study mathematics and science at degree level and beyond.

    Missouri to make molybdenum-99

    The University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR) has unveiled plans to produce molybdenum-99, which is used to make the medical-imaging isotope technetium-99m. MURR has filed an application with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make the isotope, which will involve placing low enriched uranium targets inside the reactor and then extracting molybdenum-99 from the irradiated targets. The molybdenum-99, which has a half-life of 66 days, will then be used by radiopharmaceutical manufacturers, who integrate the molybdenum into technetium-99m generators that are shipped to hospitals. The plan is a response to possible shortages of molybdenum-99 that could occur once the NRU reactor in Chalk River, Canada, shuts down in March 2018. MURR says the proposal could supply nearly half of the US demand for the isotope.

    Belle II detector rolls into place

    The Belle II particle detector has been moved 13 m from where it was assembled to a collision point on SuperKEKB – an electron–positron collider in Japan that is designed to create large numbers of B-mesons. SuperKEKB is a major upgrade to the KEKB collider, which ran from 1998 to 2010 and included the Belle detector. The collider will achieve a collision rate that is about 40 times higher than KEKB. Standing 8 m tall and weighing 1400 tonnes, Belle II is expected to start taking data in 2018. The facility will study charge–parity violation as well as search for physics beyond the Standard Model.

  2. {author bio}

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    Roger K Todd is a retired fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and a keen supporter of the Institute of Physics. He is a STEM ambassador and a volunteer schools liaison officer for the IET in the Mersey and Cheshire network. Inventions still keep surfacing so he leads an active life


    Readers are invited to submit their own Lateral Thoughts. Articles should be 900–950 words, and can be e-mailed to

  3. Of plants and pumps

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    It all started with a small tree in our conservatory. The sapling grew rapidly and eventually demanded almost constant watering, so I decided to design and build an automated watering system. Although a car-windscreen washer-pump is an old favourite of mine, it would have been too powerful and noisy. A system that uses a jar of water and electrolysis could have worked, but I felt it was a bit on the dangerous side. Then I recalled Charles’s law – or the law of volumes – which describes how gases tend to expand when heated. By putting together a glass jar with a built-in heater, valves to allow water to enter and exit in the right direction, and some simple electronics, I had a working system. The tree certainly liked the improvised system; it flourished to the point where it threatened to go through the roof. Sadly, we had to get rid of the tree as it was now so big we could not get it through the conservatory door.

    But I thought my automated watering system worked rather well, and so, after some refining, I put it into my office. At the time, I was running Tekgenuity – an innovations company in Manchester – and was too busy to develop the pump any further, until I had a visit from three medical students. They found it interesting and suggested that they borrow the demo unit as there might be potential medical applications.

    When the students returned a few weeks later, they were convinced that my pump could be developed into a medical pumping system that could rival those currently in use. I was impressed with their analysis, and after discussion with my fellow directors, I applied for funding. A few months later I received a government grant and quickly put together a project team and mapped out the scheme in detail.

    We had to explore all aspects of the system, which included materials, electronics – even the shape of the heater coils – pumping rates, efficiency, safety and commercial aspects. Some of these experiments produced unexpected results.

    We tried a variety of materials to build the main pumping chamber – which would be a 60 × 80 mm cylinder – including aluminium, brass, steel, glass and acetyls. We expected that the metals would produce the best performance as they should heat up fairly slowly but cool down quickly. Each test system was first heated by a small heating coil at the top of the chamber for about 40 seconds and then allowed to cool for the same period. Earlier experiments found this to be the optimum timing. After many trials, acetyl was found to be the most effective and the colour of the material even had an effect – white was more efficient than black. This was an unexpected but welcome result as acetyl is a freely available and cheap material.

    After months of experiments and collating results we found that a pump based on Charles’s law indeed has potential as a medical pump. Its advantages include at least one very important factor. A disadvantage of currently available medical pumping systems is that if a pump experiences an obstruction (a blockage such as a kinked hose), it continues to try and deliver the fluid, which inevitably causes a fluid build-up. These pumps exert continuous pressure, so as and when the blockage is released, all of the collected fluid would be delivered to a patient, resulting in an overdose. Our pump wouldn’t do this as it holds only a fixed amount of fluid in the cell at any point. An abnormal pressure increase would mean that the pump stops operating and we can incorporate an alarm for when this occurs. It would then just deliver the normal dose after the obstruction was removed.

    We also found that two pumps in parallel could be used to produce a continuous flow and pumping rates could be easily varied, ranging from as low as 1 ml to 1000 ml per hour, using different sized cells. The pump’s efficiency was very low at 1–10% at a small cell size, with an increase in efficiency up to 30% for a larger cell and to nearly 70% with the double cell. By the end of the project, we put together a detailed report that covered every aspect of the system.

    We did have some interest in using the pump as a neonatal blood-exchange system thanks to its ability to accurately pump very small amounts of fluid, but unfortunately it was not taken up. There was also the fact that one could use the system to turn even a large room into a pump with quite a good efficiency, but I can’t think of any practical application other than an emergency system if your house became flooded!

    So what happened? Sadly, companies that initially expressed an interest declined to take the system any further. Meanwhile, I once again began experimenting with watering plants, which opened a whole new vista… but that’s another can of worms.

  4. Once a physicist: Libby Heaney

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    Libby Heaney is an artist, researcher and lecturer. She works at the intersection of art, science and technology

    (Daria Jelonek)

    How did you make the shift from physics to art?

    Although I was intrigued by the weirdness of modern physics – in particular quantum mechanics – I always also loved art. At school I would skip other lessons to hide in the art rooms, but decided to take the sensible route at university and study physics. During the five years I spent as a postdoctoral researcher, I used to dash home after work to make art. But it was really difficult to reconcile the two fields as a physicist, as there wasn’t enough time to do both properly. I was also keen to start exploring science and technology from a wider range of viewpoints, which art allows for. For example, there seems to be very little ethical or critical debate in the physics community, as scientists often overlook the social and political consequences of new technologies. Retraining as an artist at Central Saint Martins college in London meant I could bring together my two passions. My Master’s degree at the college was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve done.

    You are interested in projects that bring art and science together – what does that involve?

    I take two approaches to my art practice. First, I am interested in how concepts from quantum physics can be used as inspiration for new aesthetics. This is not about literally representing the science but thinking differently about form, materials and interaction. Often scientists think that combining art and science is about creating a nice visualization of their data, but that’s just illustration. It’s important to move beyond illustration – to speculate and pose questions. I’m also interested in re-examining systems through a quantum-computational lens, both theoretically and through making. This means that I take some aspect of quantum physics, such as superposition or entanglement, and explore metaphorical resonances and disparities with other systems. I might question how our interaction with technology in general could be analogous to quantum measurement – for example, how being monitored through data leakage alters how we act. Last year, two colleagues and I made a piece where Floodwatch advertising followed the audience around a space – this was somewhat analogous to the quantum zeno effect. It was really cool to see people behaving oddly, or freezing when they couldn’t escape the projection.

    What are you working on now?

    I’m collaborating with the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol, UK, exploring the potential for producing artwork with early-stage quantum technology. This will look at the consequences of an artwork residing inside a quantum computer – so it cannot be copied or even viewed – and questioning what that says about the systems we live in. To document that research, I’m making a moving-image piece using classical data from the photonics lab, thinking about connections to meaning and memories. When I put contact microphones onto the superconducting chamber that detects single photons, it sounded like a techno track. Who would have thought? Amazing!

    Is anyone else involved?

    I’m also a research tutor at the Royal College of Art in London and some of my students are also collaborating on this project. We have one group using quantum simulations and data to play with architecture and space, while another team explores the gestures scientists use to talk about their work in an elegant video piece. We’ve been awarded a public-engagement grant from the Institute of Physics [which publishes Physics World] and have been in dialogue with the computer art curators at the V&A Museum in London where we are giving a talk about the collaboration. I’ve also just become a resident at Somerset House Studios, also in London, where I’m making an immersive virtual-reality artwork using quantum algorithms as a creative medium to explore narrative and space. This will be presented in Aarhus in Denmark with ScienceAtHome and Non-Space Gallery as part of the 2017 EU Capitals of Culture.

    How has your physics background helped?

    Quantum physics is so complex that it’s difficult to appreciate its subtleties unless you have been trained in it. Often, laypeople think it’s just more classical randomness – multiple copies instead of superposition, for example. I would say that researching at postdoc level has been essential for me to move beyond popular accounts of quantum physics in art and design, to probe new metaphorical connections in a rigorous way.

    Any advice for today’s students?

    I think that it’s difficult enough to become an academic, so if you have other interests besides science that you want to pursue don’t be scared to work across disciplines. Carve your own path. It’s tough but fun and not many other people will be doing it.

  5. Careers and people

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    (B Eymann Académie des sciences)

    Spotlight: Yves Meyer

    Yves Meyer, who pioneered the wavelet transform that plays a central role in technologies as diverse as digital cinema and the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors, has won the 2017 Abel Prize. Awarded annually by the Norwegian government for excellence in mathematics, the prize is worth 6m Norwegian kronor (about $750,000).

    Meyer is a French citizen and holds an emeritus professorship at École Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay. The wavelet transform decomposes a signal into a set of pulse-like mathematical objects called wavelets. Compared with similar techniques such as the Fourier transform, the wavelet transform is better able to resolve sharp features in the data such as spikes and edges.

    Since the late 1980s, wavelets have played a revolutionary role in signal-processing applications such as JPEG image compression. Wavelets have been used to study physical systems such as turbulence, whereby complicated fluid flow is decomposed into wavelets that interact with each other. Wavelets have also been used to improve images from the Hubble Space Telescope and analyse signals from the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors – allowing the latter to detect gravitational waves from coalescing binary holes.

    Movers and shakers

    The 2017 European Physical Society Accelerator Group prizes have been announced. CERN’s Lyn Evans took home the Rolf Wideroe Prize for outstanding work in the accelerator field “for his many major professional accomplishments in the field of accelerator design, construction and operation”. His work includes the design and construction of the LHC, which led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012. Meanwhile, Anna Grassellino bagged the Frank Sacherer Prize for an early career scientist who has made a recent significant, original contribution to the accelerator field. Grassellino, who is based at Fermilab in the US, was honoured “for her major impact on the field of superconducting radiofrequency technology”. The Gersh Budker Prize for a recent, significant contribution to the accelerator field was awarded to Pantaleo Raimondi of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France. Raimondi won for his design of the hybrid multi-bend achromat lattice, which will replace the current ESRF storage-ring magnets in 2019.

    Tim Dietrich, at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany, and Simon Spannagel based at the CMS experiment at CERN in Switzerland, have been awarded the German Physical Society’s thesis prize in the “gravitation and relativity”, “physics of hadrons and nuclei” and “particle physics” divisions.

    Christian Gross, from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, and Christoph Kirchlechner at the  Max Planck Institute for Iron Research, Düsseldorf, are two of 10 researchers to be awarded the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize for early career researchers in Germany. The prizewinners will each be presented with ?20,000. Gross was involved in the pioneering development of microscopes for the observation of single atoms in optical grids. Kirchlechner leads a team that studies nano and micromechanics of materials.

  6. {author bio}

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    Alaina G Levine is a science careers writer and author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015). Based in Tucson, Arizona, US, she is an award-winning entrepreneur and previously taught entrepreneurship to science and engineering graduate students at the University of Arizona