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  1. {flannel 2017}

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    Louise Mayor is features editor of Physics World


    In the latest Physics World podcast, we investigate the idea of using diamond to tackle radioactive waste. To listen, click on the audio icon in the toolbar



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    Editor Matin Durrani

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    Reviews and Careers Editor Tushna Commissariat

    Multimedia Projects Editor James Dacey

    Production Editor Kate Gardner

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    Features Editor Louise Mayor

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    Managing Editor Susan Curtis

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    Art Director Andrew Giaquinto


    Copyright © 2017 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors. All rights reserved.


    The contents of this magazine, including the views expressed above, are the responsibility of the Editor. They do not represent the views or policies of the Institute of Physics, except where explicitly stated.


    Winner of “best app/digital edition” in the association/non-profit (B-to-B) category at the 2015 Eddie and Ozzie Awards


    Finalist in the “science and nature” category at the 2015 Digital Magazine Awards

  2. Picture-perfect physics

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    (Jess Wade)

    The human brain is an extraordinary computer that can process everything from speech and images to the written word in just seconds, as explained in the feature “Smarter machines” by Jessamyn Fairfield. But people learn and process new information in different ways – and for physicist Jess Wade, the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words is quite literally true. She recently started illustrating scientific lectures to place what’s inside her head on a page. The result is a series of wonderful doodles, including this one that she created especially for Physics World based on Fairfield’s feature and research

  3. {author bio}

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    Jess Wade is a postdoc at the Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. She set up the Women in Physics group at Imperial College and won the Institute of Physics’ Early Career Physics Communicator Award in 2015. She has also completed an art foundation course at Chelsea College of Art and Design

  4. Interstate discomfort

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    Software creates an indeterminate legal zone blurring the line between patentable inventions and unpatentable ideas, as Robert P Crease explains

    Laws, unlike nature, cannot recognize indeterminacy and will go to all lengths to squash an ambiguous phenomenon into a recognized state. The recent declaration by the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board that magnetic resonance imaging machines are “abstract ideas” is one example. Looming cases in which courts will have to decide if an embryo is a person or property is another. Intellectual Ventures v. Symantec – a case involving software decided by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit last September – is yet one more.

    An anti-virus corporation based in California, Symantec had been sued by Intellectual Ventures – a company that buys and licenses intellectual property – for infringing patents relating to certain software features. (Intellectual Ventures was founded in 2000 by physicist and former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold.) The court rejected the suit, partly following the 2014 US Supreme Court case Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International.

    That case implied that many software patents were unfounded because they involve “abstract ideas”. What shocked and baffled lawyers and geeks alike, however, about the Intellectual Ventures decision was one judge’s declaration that “software is a form of language” and that patenting software would therefore amount to a “suppression of free speech”.

    Inventions versus ideas

    A patent is a right to a limited monopoly that a nation grants an inventor in exchange for the public disclosure of an invention. The social policy of such a deal is to encourage openness and risk-taking by making it unnecessary for innovators to hide inventions to protect their ability to exploit them. But patenting has limits. As I discussed in a previous column, as the Alice decision loomed, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that patents on “products of nature”, natural laws and abstract ideas are impermissible because such patents would “inhibit future innovation premised on them”.

    Digital technologies can blur the legal distinction between inventions and abstract ideas. The 2014 Alice decision failed to clear up this indeterminacy. While not precluding patenting software, it did convey scepticism about the patentability of many already-issued software patents. The Intellectual Ventures decision expressed still stronger scepticism.

    To quote from concurring judge Haldane Mayer’s opinion: “Software lies in the antechamber of patentable invention. Because generically-implemented software is an ‘idea’ insufficiently linked to any defining physical structure other than a standard computer, it is a precursor to technology rather than technology itself.” The Internet, he continued, is “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed” and therefore “deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion”. As a form of language, software enjoys such protection.

    Software states

    Software does not fit any existing legal categories. Elsewhere in Judge Mayer’s opinion he compared it to literature or music, in which case it would be subject to copyright. Copyright is a legal category often used to cover legally disruptive new technologies. The first copyright law (the 1710 British Statute of Anne) covered books, but was eventually extended by analogy to maps, music and photographs. In 1976, after companies started to sell hardware and software separately, the US Copyright Act explicitly put software in the conceptual box of copyrightable things. But copyright, which protects copying of original material, is of limited value to protect software, which is often created by combining original elements with publicly available code. It is easy to avoid restrictions by coding an attractive new feature borrowed from another software’s innards a little differently.

    This explains the desirability of trying to put new software developments in the patent state, which is designed to protect original ideas. But software doesn’t fit well here, either. It’s not a concrete object, like a mousetrap, but more like a set of instructions.

    The difficulties of using either copyright or patent legislation to protect software invites turning to trademark legislation. This is an attractive analogy because while trademarks are identifiers of a product, they can apply to its overall shape – the look of a Toyota Prius, say – leaving aside specific details of innards. But determining the identity of a piece of software poses other difficulties, and trademarks protect the look of something rather than its functioning.

    Faced with the immense intellectual property perplexities of software, Judge Mayer appealed to yet another analogy: language. Software indeed has many linguistic features, with a distinctive, crafted structure mixing original and conventional parts. The analogy let him invoke well-established freedom of expression legislation applying to things in the linguistic state. The social policy of free-speech legislation is to encourage sharing views about the world with other humans. But software – instructions that tell machines what to do – lacks properties that make expression valuable to communal life. The language analogy is as far-fetched as the others, but has the advantage of allowing courts to opt out of the issue’s subtleties.

    The critical point

    Software thus creates a good legal example of what I’d call “interstate discomfort”, or the deliberate forcing of something into a category where it obviously doesn’t belong but that makes it able to be handled as if it were a conventional state. While physicists regard indeterminate phases – liquid crystals, say – as interesting challenges to be explored, judges find them intolerable and demand binaries; an invention, for instance, must be in one state or another, patentable or not.

    The problem will only worsen. When the courts eventually get a case on a patent claim for an invention made by a computer, I can’t wait to see what state they try to squash that into. Physics, you might say, has a degree of freedom that the law lacks.

  5. Biting at the bit

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    Explore the latest in coding and computing in this special issue of Physics World

    Physics these days wouldn’t succeed without software. Whether those lines of code are used to control new apparatus, make sense of fresh experimental data or simulate physical phenomena based on the latest theories, software is essential for understanding the world. This special issue shines a light on how some physicists are exploiting software in new ways, while others are reinventing the hardware of a computer itself – binary isn’t the only way to go.

    Sometimes there are so much data that software collaboration is the best way forward. In “When supercomputers go over to the dark side”, physicists Martin White and Pat Scott describe how the GAMBIT Collaboration is creating a new, open-source software tool that can test how theories of dark matter stack up against the wealth of data from various experiments such as direct searches for dark matter and the Large Hadron Collider. And with software development being so essential for physics research, data scientist Arfon Smith argues that we need to adopt better ways of recognizing those who contribute to this largely unrewarded activity (see “Why we should give credit to code creators”). Columnist Robert Crease explores the other extreme: whether software can be patented (see Critical Point).

    Meanwhile, in an emerging field straddling both coding and computing, researcher Maria Schuld explains how quantum computers could enhance an already powerful software approach known as machine learning (see “A quantum boost for machine learning”). Further into the realm of raw computing, physicist Jessamyn Fairfield describes the quest to develop a new kind of hardware that is physically, and functionally, similar to the computers inside our very own heads (see “Smarter machines”). As for how our brains process information, don’t miss a glimpse into the mind of physicist Jess Wade who has created a doodle based on the work Fairfield describes (see Lateral Thoughts).

  6. Sidebands

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    Dark-matter detector build begins

    The US Department of Energy (DOE) has given the green light for construction to start on the LUX-ZEPLIN dark-matter detector. Located around 1.6 km underground at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, the experiment will search for weakly interacting massive particles – a leading dark-matter candidate – by using a tank filled with 10 tonnes of ultra-pure liquid xenon. LUX-ZEPLIN is expected to be around 50 times more sensitive than its predecessor, the Large Underground Xenon experiment. The DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is leading the construction of the facility, which includes around 220 participating scientists from 38 institutions around the world. LUX-ZEPLIN is expected to start operation in April 2020.

    Israel tops global R&D spend

    Israel put 4.3% of its gross domestic product (GDP) into R&D in 2015, making it the biggest spender – in terms of the percentage of its economic output – of the 35 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Israel just surpassed South Korea, which ploughed 4.2% of the country’s GDP into science, while Japan was third (3.5%). The US, meanwhile, spent 2.8% of its GDP on R&D, with China spending 2.1%. In Europe, Sweden was the highest at 3.3% followed by Austria at 3.1%. The UK spent 1.7% of its GDP on R&D, below the EU average of 2.1% and the OECD average of 2.4%. The OECD says that there was a slight decline in government R&D budgets in 2015 but businesses increased their contribution by 2.5%, making the private sector responsible for nearly 70% of all R&D spending that year.

    SESAME issues call for proposals

    The SESAME synchrotron in Amman, Jordan has issued its first call for proposals. Operated jointly by Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey, SESAME is the only third-generation synchrotron in the Middle East. It will accelerate electron beams to create high-quality X-rays that will be used for research in a wide range of fields, including physics, materials science, chemistry, biology and archaeology. Two beamlines – IR and XAFS/XRF – will initially be available to users. The deadline for proposals is 15 March, with experiments planned for the second half of 2017.

    United Arab Emirates’ Mars vision

    The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has announced an ambitious plan to create a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 years. The “Mars 2117 Project” was unveiled last month by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and the UAE’s vice-president. The first phase of the project will focus on achieving “scientific breakthroughs” to help colonise Mars, with the project focusing on developing faster ways to get to and from the red planet as well as how to sustain life. Mars 2117 will begin with a UAE-based scientific team before being extended to include international scientists. “The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans,” says Sheikh Mohammed. “Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality.” The country has already invested around £4bn in its space agency, which was created in 2014 and plans to send a probe to Mars in 2021.

    Laser facility opens for proposals

    The European X-ray Free Electron Laser (E-XFEL) in Hamburg, Germany, has issued its first call for proposals for beam time on the 3.4 km-long facility. The E-XFEL, which is currently being commissioned, will produce coherent X-ray beams 30,000 times per second, allowing researchers to create “movies” of physical processes. The user programme at the facility is expected to start later this year for a two-month period with two instruments – the Femtosecond X-Ray Experiments and the Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules and Serial Femtosecond Crystallography instrument. The deadline for applications is 20 March, with the next proposal round scheduled for mid-2017 for experiments in early 2018, when it is expected that a further four instruments will come online.

    India breaks satellite record

    India has set a new record for the number of satellites sent into space with a single rocket. Last month the Indian Space Research Organisation launched a PSLV rocket carrying 104 satellites, 101 of which were provided by other countries. The largest was a 714 kg satellite that will be used for Earth observation while the majority were nanosatellites that weigh less than 10 kg, most of which came from the US-based Earth-imaging company Planet Labs. The previous record was held by Russia, which launched 37 satellites with a single rocket in 2014.

    Clock moves closer to midnight

    The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved its famous Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight. Described as a “globally recognized arbiter of the planet’s health and safety”, the clock is now set at 11:57:30. This is the closest humanity has been to global destruction since 1959. The closer the clock is to midnight, the more likely it is that nuclear war or climate change will lead to catastrophe – at least, according to a panel of experts assembled by the Bulletin. According to a statement from the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, the 30-second change reflects US President Donald Trump’s “disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change”.

    Bruker buys nanoanalysis firm

    Hysitron, which supplies equipment for making mechanical measurements at the nanometre scale, has been bought by the Bruker Corporation. Hysitron was founded in 1992 in Minneapolis, US. It has annual revenues of about $20m and supplies nanoindentation systems, which are used to measure the hardness of nanomaterials. The firm also makes equipment for tribology and electron microscopy. Bruker was founded in Germany in the 1960s and supplies a wide range of scientific instrumentation. The company is now based near Boston, US, and has more than 6000 employees worldwide. According to Mark Munch, president of Bruker’s NANO Group, Hysitron’s products will complement Bruker’s atomic-force-microscopy systems as well as its mechanical and tribology test instruments.

    St Andrews delivers on equality

    The University of St Andrews physics department has been named as a Juno Champion by the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World. Project Juno is an IOP initiative to address the under-representation of women in university physics and encourage gender equality. The project rewards departments across the UK and Ireland for promoting an inclusive atmosphere, ensuring that both women and men have equal opportunities at all levels of academia and providing supportive and flexible working practices. St Andrews has become the 17th university in the UK to achieve Champion status, the highest of the three Juno awards after Supporter and Practitioner.

  7. Dedicated to computation

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    Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel, founding director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute, talks to Michael Banks about plans to make New York a major centre for computational science

    A new venture David Spergel. (Keren Fedora)

    What is the Flatiron Institute?

    The Flatiron Institute is a newly opened private research institute that has an annual budget of $80m from the Simons Foundation – a non-profit organization that supports basic research. The institute aims to advance scientific research through computational methods, including data analysis, modelling and simulation. It is located in an 11-storey building in New York City and occupies three floors so far, but the institute will eventually expand to all eleven.

    Where did the idea for the institute come from?

    The genesis of the idea was developed by US mathematician and philanthropist James Simons and the Belgian physicist and mathematician Ingrid Daubechies from Duke University, who thought that an institute dedicated to computation – and especially to the creation of computational tools to process today’s large datasets – would help different areas of science.

    The idea was that an institute dedicated to computation would help different areas of science

    How did you get involved?

    I was asked to put together a half-day programme last year about computation in astrophysics. We had speakers on topics from galaxy formation to black holes and we also discussed how to structure an institute that was dedicated to computing in astrophysics. After the workshop, Simons took me into his office and asked me if I wanted to lead a department focusing on astrophysics. It was a big surprise and I didn’t expect it. I accepted and since then we have been developing the vision for the institute.

    Are you still at Princeton too?

    I joke that I spend half my time at Flatiron and the other two-thirds at Princeton University, where I am still a professor leading a group of eight people.

    What is the make-up of the institute?

    When fully complete, it is expected there will be about 250 people working in four scientific departments, each of which will have around 60 researchers. There is the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) that I lead as well as the Center for Computational Biology (CCB), which is led by Leslie Greengard from New York University. The third department – the Center for Computational Quantum mechanics – will be run by the French physicist Antoine Georges who will arrive in September. The fourth department has yet to be finalized. We also have a Scientific Computing Core co-led by Ian Fisk and Nick Carriero that will support the four scientific departments by developing algorithms and the necessary infrastructure.

    What is the status of the Center for Computational Astrophysics?

    Currently, the CCA has about 20 people made up of postdocs and senior scientists and we are in the process of recruiting more researchers. The idea for the institute is that each department will also have professional programmers who help the scientists with their investigations. We haven’t employed any yet, but we soon will. My focus is first getting the scientists in place so we can define what problems to tackle. Yet those scientists will already have significant computational abilities.

    What science will the CCA do?

    There are two avenues in astrophysics that we are working on: simulations and big data. The next set of advances in astronomy will require an understanding of complex multi-scale physics and large astronomical datasets and it is the CCA’s mission to develop the computational tools needed for these calculations, simulations and analyses.

    Can you give any examples?

    In simulations, we aim to do research in planet, star and galaxy formation, the cosmic microwave background and gravitational-wave astronomy. We aim to focus on challenges that are too big for a single person to take on. On the data side, we will work on the huge amounts of data generated by the European Space Agency’s GAIA mission, which has assembled the most detailed 3D map ever made of our Milky Way galaxy by cataloguing more than a billion stars. We will also work on data that is produced at the Simons Observatory, which is located in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

    Are you collaborating with other departments at Flatiron?

    Yes, there are great opportunities to work with other departments, especially in aspects such as scientific visualization. Just walking around the institute you notice similar equations on the wall and we are looking to set up regular meetings to discuss where we can work together.

    When will the centre be complete?

    The building work will be complete in around 18 months’ time. The CCB is likely to have a full department within the next three years, while it will take the CCA and the other two departments around five to six years to be complete in terms of personnel. The hope is that when it is fully complete, Flatiron will make the New York area a major centre for computational science.