Top 5 Voted Physics Stories of 2013
2013 has seen its fair share of physics breakthroughs. The significance of these breakthroughs is sometimes hard to convey to the general public. Some science websites have experienced success as a sort of middleman whose job it is to convey ideas between nerdy non-physicists and top level, practicing physicists. To be honest, there are some remarkable science feats almost every year that should impress just about anyone.
One of my favorite sites for both physics stories and other science stories is the rising star reddit.com/r/science. It is beginning to claim an audience on the scale of traditional power players such as the New York Times. Reddit proclaims its own success is due to a democracy-styled front page where readers more or less decide what is most interesting to them through “upvotes” and “downvotes”. The first daily headline is always going to be interesting to a wide audience because people have voted it there. Today’s (12/30/13) headline, for instance, is that a study showed positive influence of prosocial media and videogames on children of seven different cultures.
Anyway, I decided to celebrate the New Year by chronicling the top 5 stories from each subject (if I get that far). Before I begin, I’ll acknowledge two quick flaws. The first one is a problem unique to physics; which is the tendency of most newsworthy stories to overstate a possible breakthrough in the dark matter/dark energy puzzle, or breakthroughs in uniting general relativity with quantum mechanics. I’ll try to not exaggerate the progress made in those areas. A second flaw is that the site has become more popular, so stories in December of 2013 are going to have more “upvotes” than similarly newsworthy stories in January or February.
#5: “Nuclear fusion laser-beam experiment yields surprising results”
Fusion power was predicted by physicists to solve the world’s energy problems. If you solve the world’s energy problems, you solve a lot of other problems (perhaps not immediately obvious ones) as well. The whole world would benefit from practically free electricity; especially those who don’t have any at all (still about 1.4 billion people). That’s why the world powers have thrown about 16 billion Euros at the ITER project, and the U.S. has thrown a few billion dollars at the NIF. We’re making progress, but it’s simply not as easy as we thought.
So any time there is a major physics breakthrough with fusion, it’s time to start paying attention. For a long time we’ve been trying to fuse deuterium and tritium, two readily available isotopes of hydrogen. It seemed this reaction would take place even at relatively cool temperatures, but those temperatures have been elusive (we still have more input energy than output energy).
One of the breakthroughs that came out this year was to focus on a different reaction, one between boron-11 and laser-driven protons. It sounds kind of like science fiction, doesn’t it? We’ve played around with boron fusion experiments before, but this particular one produced orders of magnitude more energy than previous ones. Since it’s still in the early stages of research, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
However, just as with most physics headlines, it doesn’t mean a revolutionary breakthrough is around the corner. Even the researchers themselves claimed large scale fusion is still a ways off. The running joke is that fusion has been 20 years away for 60 years.
#4: Quantum world record smashed: A normally fragile quantum state has been shown to survive at room temperature for a world record 39 minutes.
The rest of the headline talks about how it could be a breakthrough for quantum computing. Once again I’m impressed by those who come up with news headlines, and this one is even pretty accurate.
Okay, so quantum computers would be about as revolutionary to the world and fusion power would be (they’re really hard to compare of course). Quantum computers could do things that regular computers simply can’t. It has to do with the fact that they use “qubits” instead of “bits”. This means instead of 0’s and 1’s, they use both 0’s and 1’s at the same time. I hate to repeat myself, but it sounds kind of like science fiction, doesn’t it? The possibilities of quantum computers, according to people much smarter than me, are vast. Their operations would appear to us as magic.
Anyway, there are all sorts of things that can be used as qubits. They’re simply elementary particles with elementary properties. Spin states of electrons or polarization of light, for instance.
It’s hard to store information on qubits on time scales that humans need though. Computer data wouldn’t be very useful if it only lasted for milliseconds. It’s the same case for qubits.
In this experiment, they were able to extend the lifetimes of qubits at room temperature from two seconds to 39 minutes. Two seconds to 39 minutes. They did this with 10 billion phosphorus atoms in the same state. This is an encouraging step to solving one of the remaining obstacles between us and quantum computers.
Of course, there are still some remaining challenges. Physicists need to figure out how to get qubits in different states to have the same longevity. We still have to be able to control them better as well. Regardless, look forward to practical quantum computing being a reachable goal soon. News just came out that the NSA is trying to be the first ones there so they could break just about any encryption.
#3: “Quite by accident researchers have achieved a 400-fold increase in the electrical conductivity of a crystal simply by exposing it to light.”
Quite a few physics discoveries have been made by accident. X-rays, for instance, were discovered more or less by accident by exposing glass to high energy electrons. Radioactivity was discovered by accident by a guy who was really interested in rocks. Similarly, cosmic background radiation was undoubtedly a surprise to astronomers.
While some cutting edge physics happens in expensive controlled experiments, it’s comforting to know that some discoveries still happen by more or less accident. It probably takes just as much courage for smart people to admit they had a finding by accident as well. Anyway, In this case, a strontium titanate crystal experienced a 400-fold increase in electrical conductivity after exposing it to light at room temperature.
400 times is impressive, but is it a big deal? I personally wouldn’t know, but the lead author claims the same effect allows information to be stored throughout the volume of the crystal. This is different than traditional data storage that happens on the 2-d surface of a computer chip. We’ll see where this goes.
#2: “Simulations back up theory that Universe is a hologram. A team of physicists has provided some of the clearest evidence yet."
So you’ve probably heard of string theory. It’s a controversial way to unite quantum mechanics and gravity (one of the probably two biggest goals in physics). While mathematically beautiful, it lacks testable predictions.
So while the video to the below sounds great, it discomforts other physicists. Notice how much that TED talk sounds like a modern day church pastor. Brian Greene is (or at least was) a “believer” in a solution where there are billions of possible universes, and they all exist in bubbles, and they can collide and stuff. However confident he sounds in these predictions, he has taken a few things for granted that have not been proven and made something mathematically beautiful out of them. If he didn’t have to take things for granted, he would be like Einstein (or contribute about 1/4th of what Einstein did).
And yes, the laws of the universe seem to be “simple” and mathematically elegant (see Einstein). However, as one physicist points out, if you can’t physically test something, it is essentially religion. Eventually hopefully we will know if the things he takes for granted are true or not (there are reasonably priced projects to test fundamental qualities of the universe which the government could be paying for); until then, we can keep playing with the knowledge that we have. I guess I also need to stress that Brian Greene is and always will be much smarter than me. So take my criticisms of him with a grain of salt.
Okay, so #2 on the list is pretty technical if you read the actual paper. They simulated a universe with 10 dimensions (remember we live in 3 dimensions + time), and 8 of those dimensions are wrapped in like a sphere (the other two I surmise are just off doing dimension things). Remember also that these people are the smartest nerds of the smartest nerds of the smartest nerds playing with really expensive computers all day. They replicated the black hole thermodynamics of that universe with the black hole thermodynamics of a single dimensional universe. Black holes are important because they test the limits of our current theories, despite them being hard to see. What does it all mean? It means maybe one day our universe can be explained by lower dimensional rules (which means we would be living in a hologram). I realize how obvious it is that such a discovery would explain gravity (sarcasm). Pretty cool… sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?
#1: “A new type of transistor that can be switched with magnetism rather than electricity could massively cut power consumption of computers."
Okay, so I won’t spend much time on this because the title more or less says it all, and the original nature news article explains it better than I can.
Basically, transistors are fundamental building blocks of computers. You can add more, take away some, or make them smaller, but no matter what shape or size they still are just as important to a computer as a wall is to a house. More technically, they’re the logic gates (“yes” and “no”) that control everything.
Traditional transistors use voltage to say either yes or no. #1’s research is so important because they use magnetism instead. Traditional transistors have to be on constantly, which is power-consuming. Magnetic ones would only need to be turned on when needed. Also, less space could be required.
Why aren’t they in our cell phones already? Because the material they used, indium antimonide, is exotic and isn’t compatible with existing systems. However, there is of course plenty of room for innovation and improvement. The moral of the story is electronics might get even smaller thanks to some clever physicists.
Most interesting read?
Hopefully after all this reading you either learned:
1. Physics is interesting and comes out with newsworthy stories
2. It should be called Physucks because you hate it, and you're going to stop wasting your time caring about it.
Either way, hope you enjoyed reading.