Tag Archives: physics

Quantum; the dance performance about physics in Vancouver, Canada (2 of 2)

Gilles Jobin kindly made time to talk about his arts residency at CERN (European Particle Physics Laboratory) prior to the performances of Quantum (a dance piece resulting from the residency) from Oct. 16 -18, 2014 at Vancouver’s Dance Centre.

Jobin was the first individual to be selected as an artist-in-residence for three months in the CERN/Geneva programme (there is another artist-in-residence programme at the laboratory which is the CERN/Ars Electronica programme). Both these artist-in-residence programmes were announced in the same year, 2011. (You can find out more about the CERN artist-in-residence programmes on the Collide@CERN webpage,

As a main strategy of CERN’s Cultural Policy for Engaging with the Arts, Collide@CERN is a 3-year artist’s residency programme initiated by Arts@CERN in 2011.

By bringing world-class artists and scientists together in a free exchange of ideas, the Collide@CERN residency programme explores elements even more elusive than the Higgs boson: human ingenuity, creativity and imagination.

See below for more information about the Collide@CERN artist residency programmes:

Collide@CERN Geneva Residency

Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Residency

The Collide@CERN prize – an open call to artists working in different art forms to win a fully funded residency – will be awarded annually in two strands (Collide@CERN Geneva and Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN) until 2013. It comprises prize money and a residency grant for up to 3 months at CERN.

The winning artists will interact and engage with CERN scientists in order to take their artistic work to new creative dimensions.

The awards are made following two annual international open calls and the jury comprises the cultural partners as well as representatives from Arts@CERN, including scientists.

Planned engagement with artists at CERN is a relatively new concept according to an August 4, 2011 CERN press release,

Today CERN1 launches its cultural policy for engaging with the arts. Called ‘Great Arts for Great Science’, this new cultural policy has a central strategy – a selection process for arts engagement at the level of one of the world’s leading research organizations.

“This puts CERN’s engagement with the arts on a similar level as the excellence of its science,” said Ariane Koek, CERN’s cultural specialist.

CERN’s newly appointed Cultural Board for the Arts will be the advisers and guardians of quality. It is made up of renowned cultural leaders in the arts from CERN’s host-state countries: Beatrix Ruf, Director of the Kunsthalle Zurich; Serge Dorny, Director General of the Lyon Opera House; Franck Madlener, Director of the music institute IRCAM in Paris. Geneva and CERN are represented by Christoph Bollman of ArtbyGenève and Michael Doser, an antimatter scientist. Membership of the board is an honorary position that will change every three years.

The Cultural Board will select one or two art projects a year to receive a CERN letter of approval, enabling these projects to seek external funding for their particle-physics inspired work. This will also build up an international portfolio of CERN-inspired work over the years to come, in conjunction with the Collide@CERN (link sends e-mail) Artists Residency Programme, details of which will be announced in the coming month.

To date, Jobin is the only choreographer to become, so to speak, a member of the CERN community. It was a position that was treated like a job. Jobin went to his office at CERN every day for three months to research particle physics. He had two science advisors, Nicholas Chanon and Michael Doser to help him gain an understanding of the physics being studied in the facility. Here’s Jobin describing his first experiences at CERN (from Jobin’s Collide Nov. 13, 2012 posting),

When I first arrived at Cern, I was captivated by the place and overwhelmed by the hugeness of the subject: Partical [sic] physics… And I had some serious catch up to do… Impressed by the two introduction days in which I had the opportunity to meet many different scientists, Ariane Koeck told me “not to panic” and “to spend my first month following my instinct and not my head…”. …

I found out about the 4 fundamental forces and the fact that gravity was the weakest of all the forces. For a contemporary dancer formed basically around the question of gravity and “groundness” that came as a total shock! I was not a “pile of stuff”, but particles bound together by the strong force and “floating” on the surface of the earth… Me, the earth, you readers, the LHC flying at incredible speed through space, without any of us, (including the physicists!) noticing anything…  Stardust flying into space… I was baffled…

Jobin was required deliver two public lectures, one at the beginning of his residency and the other at the end, as well as, a series of ‘interventions’. He instituted four ‘interventions’, one each in CERN’s library, data centre, anti-matter hall, and cafeteria. Here’s an image and a description of what Jobin was attempting with his library intervention (from his Nov. 13, 2012 posting),

CERN library dance intervention Credit: Gilles Jobin

CERN library dance intervention Credit: Gilles Jobin

 My idea was to “melt” our bodies into the timeline of the library. Like time chameleons, we were to adapt our movements and presence to the quiet and studious atmosphere of the library and be practically unnoticed. My postulate was to imagine that the perception of time is relative; there was a special texture to “time” inside the library. How long is an afternoon in a library? Never ending or passing by too quickly? It is a shared space, with the unique density you can feel in studious atmosphere and its user’s different virtual timelines. We melted into the element of the library and as we guessed, our “unusual” presence and actions did not create conflicts with our surroundings and the students at work. It was a bit like entering slowly into water and becoming part of the element without disturbing its balance. The time hypothesis worked… I wanted to do more site specific interventions in Cern because I was learning things differently. Some understanding was going through my body. Being in action into the labs…

It was only after the residency was completed that he started work on Quantum (producing a dance piece was not a requirement of the residency). After the residency, he did bring his science advisors, Chanon and Doser to his studio and brought his studio to CERN. Jobin managed to get rehearsal time in one of the halls that is 100 metres directly above the large hadron collider (LHC) during the time period when scientists were working to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson). There were a number of announcements ‘confirming’ the Higgs. They started in July 2012 and continued, as scientists refined their tests, to March 2013 (Wikipedia entry)  when a definitive statement was issued. The definitive statement was recently followed with more confirmation as a June, 25, 2014 article by Amir Aczel for Discover declares Confirmed: That Was Definitely the Higgs Boson Found at LHC [large hadron collider].

As scientists continue to check and doublecheck, Jobin presented Quantum in October 2013 for the first time in public, fittingly, at CERN (from Jobin’s Oct. 3, 2013 blog posting),



Jobin was greatly influenced by encounters at CERN with Julius von Bismarck who won the 2012 Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Residency and with his science advisors, Dosen and Chanon. Surprisingly, Jobin was also deeply influenced by Richard Feynman (American physicist; 1918 – 1988). “I loved his approach and his humour,” says Jobin while referring to a book Feynman wrote, then adding,  “I used Feynman diagrams, learning to draw them for my research and for my choreographic work on Quantum.”

For those unfamiliar with Feynman diagrams, from the Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

In theoretical physics, Feynman diagrams are pictorial representations of the mathematical expressions describing the behavior of subatomic particles. The scheme is named for its inventor, American physicist Richard Feynman, and was first introduced in 1948. The interaction of sub-atomic particles can be complex and difficult to understand intuitively, and the Feynman diagrams allow for a simple visualization of what would otherwise be a rather arcane and abstract formula.

There’s also an engaging Feb. 14, 2010 post by Flip Tanedo on Quantum Diaries with this title, Let’s draw Feynman diagrams! and there’s this paper, by David Kaiser on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website, Physics and Feynman’s Diagrams; In the hands of a postwar generation, a tool intended to lead quantum electrodynamics out of a decades-long morass helped transform physics. In the spirit of Richard Feynman, both the Tanedo post and Kaiser paper are quite readable. Also, here’s an example (simplified) of what a diagram (from the Quantum Diaries website) can look like,

[downloaded from http://www.quantumdiaries.org/2010/02/14/lets-draw-feynman-diagams/]

[downloaded from http://www.quantumdiaries.org/2010/02/14/lets-draw-feynman-diagams/]

Getting back to Quantum (dance), Jobin describes this choreography as a type of collaboration where the dancers have responsibility for the overall look and feel of the piece. (For more details, Jobin describes his ‘momement generators’ in the radio interview embedded in part 1 of this piece on Quantum.)

In common with most contemporary dance pieces, there is no narrative structure or narrative element to the piece although Jobin does note that there is one bit that could be described as a ‘Higgs moment’ where a dancer is held still by his or her feet, signifying the Higgs boson giving mass to the universe.

As to why Vancouver, Canada is being treated to a performance of Quantum, Jobin has this to say, “When I knew the company was traveling to New York City and then San Francisco, I contacted my friend and colleague, Mirna Zagar, who I met at a Croatian Dance Week Festival that she founded and produces every year.”  She’s also the executive director for Vancouver’s Dance Centre. “After that it was easy.”

Performances are Oct. 16 – 18, 2014 at 8 pm with a Post-show artist talkback on October 17, 2014.

Compagnie Gilles Jobin

$30/$22 students, seniors, CADA members/$20 Dance Centre members
Buy tickets online or call Tickets Tonight: 604.684.2787 (service charges apply to telephone bookings)

You can find part 1 of this piece about Quantum in my Oct. 15, 2014 posting. which includes a video, a listing of the rest of the 2014 tour stops, a link to an interview featuring Jobin and his science advisor, Michael Doser, on a US radio show, and more.

Finally, company dancers are posting video interviews (the What’s Up project mentioned in part 1) with dancers they meet in the cities where the tour is stopping will be looking for someone or multiple someones in Vancouver. These are random acts of interviewing within the context of the city’s dance community.

Vancouver’s Georgia Straight has featured an Oct. 15, 2014 article by Janet Smith about Jobin and his particle physics inspiration for Quantum.

The Higgs boson on its own has inspired other creativity as noted in my Aug. 1, 2012 posting (Playing and singing the Higgs Boson).

As noted in my Oct. 8, 2013 post, Peter Higgs (UK) after whom the particle was named  and François Englert (Belgium) were both awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the theory of the Higgs boson and its role in the universe.

Quantum; an upcoming dance performance in Vancouver, Canada (1 of 2)

Oct. 16 – 18, 2014 are the Vancouver (Canada) dates when you can catch Compagnie Gilles Jobin performing its piece, Quantum, based on choreographer Gilles Jobin’s residency CERN (Europe’s particle physics laboratory). The Vancouver stop is part of a world tour which seems to have started in New York City (US) and San Francisco (US).

News flash: There is a special lecture by Gilles Jobin at TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics at 11 am on Oct. 15, 2014 in the auditorium. Instructions for getting to TRIUMF can be found here.

Back to the tour, here’s what the dance company has planned for the rest of October and November (Chile is Chili, Brazil is Brésil, Switzerland is Suisse and Peru is Pérou in French), from the gillesjobin.com Tour webpage,

- 21 octobre
Festival Danzalborde – Centro Cultural Matucana 100 – Santiago de Chile – Chili

– 23 octobre
Festival Danzalborde – Parque Cultural de Valparaiso, Valparaiso – Chili

– 26 octobre
Bienal Internacional de dança do Ceará – Fortaleza – Brésil

– 29 et 30 octobre
En collaboration avec swissnex Brésil au Forum Internacional de dança FID, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil – Belo Horizonte – Brésil

– 2 novembre
En collaboration avec swissnex Brésil au Festival Panorama, Teatro Carlos Gomes – Rio de Janeiro – Brésil

– Du 6 au 9 novembre
Arsenic – Lausanne – Suisse

– Du 13 au 15 novembre
Arsenic – Lausanne – Suisse

– 21 et 22 novembre
Festival de Artes Escenicas de Lima FAEL – Teatro Municipal, Lima – Pérou

As ambitious as this touring programme seems, it can’t be any more ambitious than trying to represent modern physics in dance. Here’s more about Quantum from the (Vancouver) Dance Centre’s events page,

Art and science collide in QUANTUM, the result of Gilles Jobin’s artistic residency at the largest particle physics laboratory in the world – CERN in Geneva, where he worked with scientists to investigate principles of matter, gravity, time and space in relation to the body. Six dancers power through densely textured, sculptural choreography, to evoke the subtle balance of forces that shape our world. Illuminated by Julius von Bismarck’s light-activated kinetic installation built from industrial lamps, and accompanied by an electronic score by Carla Scaletti which incorporates data from the Large Hadron Collider, QUANTUM epitomizes the adventurous, searching spirit of artistic and scientific inquiry.

Response to the performances in New York City were interesting, that is to say, not rapturous but intriguing nonetheless. From an Oct. 3, 2014 review by Gia Kourlas for the New York Times,

Performed Thursday night [Oct. 2, 2014] at the Fishman Space at BAM Fisher — and included in the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival — this spare 45-minute work is a duet of movement and light. Instead of dramaturges, there are scientific advisers. Jean-Paul Lespagnard’s jumpsuits reimagine particles as a densely patterned uniform of green, purple and white. (They’re cute in a space-camp kind of way.) Carla Scaletti’s crackling, shimmering score incorporates data from the Large Hadron Collider, CERN’s powerful particle accelerator.

But in “Quantum,” translating scientific ideas, however loosely, into dance vocabulary is where the trouble starts. A lunge is still a lunge.

Robert P Crease in an Oct. 7, 2014 posting (for Physics World on the Institute of Physics website) about one of the performances in New York City revealed something about his relationship to art/science and about Gilles Jobin’s work,

I’m fascinated by the interactions between science and culture, which is what led me to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), which was hosting the US première of a dance piece called Quantum that had previously debuted where it had been created, at CERN. …

I ran into Gilles Jobin, who had choreographed Quantum during an artist’s residency at CERN. I asked him the following question: “If a fellow choreographer who knew nothing about the piece were to watch it, is there anything in the movement or structure of the work that might cause that person to say ‘That choreographer must have spent several months at a physics lab!’?” Gilles paused, then said “No.” The influence of the laboratory environment, he said, was in inspiring him to come up with certain kinds of what he called “movement generators”, or inspirations for the dancers to create their own movements. “For instance, all those symmetries – like ghost symmetries – that I didn’t even know existed!” he said. I asked him why he had chosen the work’s title. “I considered other names,” he said. “Basically, Quantum was just a convenient tag that referred to the context – the CERN laboratory environment – in which I had created the work.”

Jobin and Michael Doser (Senior research physicist at CERN) talked to Ira Flatow host of US National Public Radio’s (NPR) Science Friday programme in an Oct. 3, 2014 broadcast which is available as a podcast on the Dance and Physics Collide in ‘Quantum’ webpage. It’s fascinating to hear both the choreographer and one of the CERN scientists discussing Jobin’s arts residency and how they had to learn to talk to each other.

NPR also produced a short video highlighting moments from one of the performances and showcasing Jobin’s commentary,

Produced by Alexa Lim, Associate Producer (NPR, Science Friday)

The Dance Centre (Vancouver) has an Oct. 7, 2014 post featuring Jobin on its blog,

How did you get involved with dance?

I wanted to be an actor and thought it was a good idea to take dance classes. Later, back at acting classes I realized how comfortable I was with movement and uncomfortable with words. I must admit that I was a teenager at the time and the large majority of girls in the dance classes was also a great motivation…

Have you always been interested in science?

I was an arty kid that did not have any interest in science. I was raised in an artistic family – my father was a geometrical painter – I thought science was not for me. Art, literature, “soft” science, theatre, that was my thing. It was only at the age of 48, in one of the greatest laboratories there is, that I started to see that I could become “science able”. I realized that particle physics was not only about math, but also had great philosophical questions: that I could get the general sense of what was going down there and follow with passion the discovery. Science is like contemporary art, you need to find the door, but when you get in you can take everything on and make up your own mind about it without being a specialist or a geek.

If you didn’t have a career in dance, what might you be doing?

Ski instructor!

Adding their own measure of excitement to this world tour of Quantum, the company’s dancers are producing videos of interviews with choreographers and dancers local to the city the company is visiting (from the What’s Up project page or the gillesjobin.com website),

WHAT’S UP est un projet des danseurs de la Cie Gilles Jobin : Catarina Barbosa, Ruth Childs, Susana Panadés Díaz, Bruno Cezario, Stanislas Charré et Denis Terrasse .

Dans chaque ville visitée pendant la tournée mondiale de QUANTUM, ils partent à la rencontre des danseurs/chorégraphes pour connaître le contexte de la danse contemporaine locale et partager leurs différentes réalités.

Retrouvez ici toutes les interviews

The latest interview is an Oct. 10, 2014 video (approximate 2 mins.) focusing on Katherine Hawthorne who in addition to being a dancer trained as a physicist.

Part 2 is based on an interview I had with Gilles Jobin on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014 an hour or so after his and his company’s flight landed in Vancouver.

It’s an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world where a particle can be separated from its properties

In a joint research project, French, Austrians, and American researchers have achieved a state described in Lewis Carroll’s well loved story, Alice in Wonderland. (Three of the four institutions involved have issued news releases, as this is the only one to feature a quote from Alice in Wonderland describing the state, it gets mentioned first.) From a July 29, 2014 Chapman University news release on EurekAlert,

… “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice in Wonderland, “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!” Alice’s surprise stems from her experience that an object and its property cannot exist independently. It seems to be impossible to find a grin without a cat. However, the strange laws of quantum mechanics (the theory which governs the microscopic world of atoms; and the most successful theory in history) tell us that it is indeed possible to separate a particle from its properties—a phenomenon which is strikingly analogous to the Cheshire Cat story. The quantum Cheshire Cat is the latest example of how strange quantum mechanics becomes when viewed through the lens of one of Aharonov’s fundamental discoveries called the “weak measurement.”

Modesty does not favour contemporary research and educational institutions and, as is common in situations where there’s significant scientific excitement with a number of collaborators, the cooperating institutions are angling to establish the importance of their institutions and/or researchers’ contributions.

Here’s more from the Chapman  University news release where it establishes its claim to the theory,

The idea of the Quantum Cheshire Cat was first discovered by Chapman’s Prof. Yakir Aharonov and first published by Aharonov’s collaborator, Prof. Jeff Tollaksen (also at Chapman University), in 2001. Aharonov’s team, including Sandu Popescu (University of Bristol and Chapman’s Institute for Quantum Studies) and Daniel Rorhlich (Ben Gurion University), continued to develop the Cheshire Cat theory in more recent publications.

A July 29, 2014 Vienna University of Technology news release on EurekAlert provides this description and its claim to inventing the technique used in the latest experimental work,

According to the law of quantum physics, particles can be in different physical states at the same time. If, for example, a beam of neutrons is divided into two beams using a silicon crystal, it can be shown that the individual neutrons do not have to decide which of the two possible paths they choose. Instead, they can travel along both paths at the same time in a quantum superposition.

“This experimental technique is called neutron interferometry”, says Professor Yuji Hasegawa from the Vienna University of Technology. “It was invented here at our institute in the 1970s, and it has turned out to be the perfect tool to investigate fundamental quantum mechanics.”

A July 29, 2014 Institut Laue-Langevin (international research institute located in Grenoble, France) news release on EurekAlert establishes its claim as the location for the experimental work,

Researchers from the Vienna University of Technology have performed the first separation of a particle from one of its properties. The study, carried out at the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) and published in Nature Communications, showed that in an interferometer a neutron’s magnetic moment could be measured independently of the neutron itself, thereby marking the first experimental observation of a new quantum paradox known as the ‘Cheshire Cat’. The new technique, which can be applied to any property of any quantum object, could be used to remove disturbance and improve the resolution of high precision measurements.

The fourth collaborating institution (l’Université de Cergy-Pontoise) does not seem to have issued a news release in either French or English as per my August 8, 2014 searches.

The research itself is quite fascinating and it’s worth reading all three news releases for additional nuggets information hidden amongst the repetitive bits. Here’s a description you’ll find in both the Vienna University of Technology and Chapman University news releases,

Neutrons are not electrically charged, but they carry a magnetic moment. They have a magnetic direction, the neutron spin, which can be influenced by external magnetic fields.

First, a neutron beam is split into two parts in a neutron interferometer. Then the spins of the two beams are shifted into different directions: The upper neutron beam has a spin parallel to the neutrons’ trajectory, the spin of the lower beam points into the opposite direction. After the two beams have been recombined, only those neutrons are chosen, which have a spin parallel to their direction of motion. All the others are just ignored. “This is called postselection”, says Hermann Geppert. “The beam contains neutrons of both spin directions, but we only analyse part of the neutrons.”

These neutrons, which are found to have a spin parallel to its direction of motion, must clearly have travelled along the upper path – only there, the neutrons have this spin state. This can be shown in the experiment. If the lower beam is sent through a filter which absorbs some of the neutrons, then the number of the neutrons with spin parallel to their trajectory stays the same. If the upper beam is sent through a filter, than the number of these neutrons is reduced.

Things get tricky, when the system is used to measure where the neutron spin is located: the spin can be slightly changed using a magnetic field. When the two beams are recombined appropriately, they can amplify or cancel each other. This is exactly what can be seen in the measurement, if the magnetic field is applied at the lower beam – but that is the path which the neutrons considered in the experiment are actually never supposed to take. A magnetic field applied to the upper beam, on the other hand, does not have any effect.

“By preparing the neurons in a special initial state and then postselecting another state, we can achieve a situation in which both the possible paths in the interferometer are important for the experiment, but in very different ways”, says Tobias Denkmayr. “Along one of the paths, the particles themselves couple to our measurement device, but only the other path is sensitive to magnetic spin coupling. The system behaves as if the particles were spatially separated from their properties.”

Here’s an illustration the researchers have provided,

Caption: The basic idea of the Quantum Cheshire Cat: In an interferometer, an object is separated from one if its properties -- like a cat, moving on a different path than its own grin. Credit: TU Vienna / Leon Filter

Caption: The basic idea of the Quantum Cheshire Cat: In an interferometer, an object is separated from one if its properties — like a cat, moving on a different path than its own grin.
Credit: TU Vienna / Leon Filter

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Observation of a quantum Cheshire Cat in a matter-wave interferometer experiment by Tobias Denkmayr, Hermann Geppert, Stephan Sponar, Hartmut Lemmel, Alexandre Matzkin, Jeff Tollaksen, & Yuji Hasegawa. Nature Communications 5 Article number: 4492 doi:10.1038/ncomms5492 Published 29 July 2014

This is an open access paper.

Perhaps in response to concerns about the importance of theoretical physics, Chapman University’s Jeff Tollaksen offers this about possible applications  (from the Chapman University news release),

Co-Director of the Institute for Quantum Studies, Prof. Jeff Tollaksen has said: “Theoretical physics has yielded the most significant benefits for our society at the lowest costs. Discoveries in fundamental physics often lead to new industries: from electricity to smartphones to satellites. Quantum physics resulted in technological advances that drive our economy, such as the entire computer revolution, electronics, and the nuclear power industry. In addition, it impacts many other disciplines such as genetics, medicine and mathematics. Experts therefore estimate that nearly half the wealth created in the 20th century arose from quantum physics. At the Institute, we’re committed to producing the next generation of breakthroughs which will lead to the technology of the 21st century. Similarly, I’m sure this breakthrough will lead to many new applications including revised intuitions which can then serve as a guide to finding novel quantum effects.” This “Quantum Cheshire Cat” could be used for practical applications. For example, it could be used to make high precision measurements less sensitive to external perturbations. The measurements which now have been published in Nature Communications are the first experimental proof of this phenomenon.

By contrast the Europeans offer this,

With their landmark observation suitably vindicated, questions turn to the potential impact of their fundamental discovery. One application might high precision measurements of quantum systems which are often affected by disturbance.  [from the Institut Laue-Langevin news release]

Or, there’s this,

This counter intuitive effect is very interesting for high precision measurements, which are very often based on the principle of quantum interference. “When the quantum system has a property you want to measure and another property which makes the system prone to perturbations, the two can be separated using a Quantum Cheshire Cat, and possibly the perturbation can be minimized”, says Stephan Sponar. [from the Vienna University of Technology news release]

The contrast is certainly interesting.

Paths of desire: quantum style

Shortcuts are also called paths of desire (and other terms too) by those who loathe them. It turns that humans and other animals are not the only ones who use shortcuts. From a July 30, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Groundskeepers and landscapers hate them, but there is no fighting them. Called desire paths, social trails or goat tracks, they are the unofficial shortcuts people create between two locations when the purpose-built path doesn’t take them where they want to go.

There’s a similar concept in classical physics called the “path of least action.” If you throw a softball to a friend, the ball traces a parabola through space. It doesn’t follow a serpentine path or loop the loop because those paths have higher “actions” than the true path.

A July 30, 2014 Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri, US) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Diana Lutz, which originated the news item, describes the issues associated with undertaking this research,

Quantum particles can exist in a superposition of states, yet as soon as quantum particles are “touched” by the outside world, they lose this quantum strangeness and collapse to a classically permitted state. Because of this evasiveness, it wasn’t possible until recently to observe them in their quantum state.

But in the past 20 years, physicists have devised devices that isolate quantum systems from the environment and allow them to be probed so gently that they don’t immediately collapse. With these devices, scientists can at long last follow quantum systems into quantum territory, or state space.

Kater Murch, PhD, an assistant professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, and collaborators Steven Weber and Irfan Siddiqui of the Quantum Nanoelectronics Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, have used a superconducting quantum device to continuously record the tremulous paths a quantum system took between a superposition of states to one of two classically permitted states.

Because even gentle probing makes each quantum trajectory noisy, Murch’s team repeated the experiment a million times and examined which paths were most common. The quantum equivalent of the classical “least action” path — or the quantum device’s path of desire — emerged from the resulting cobweb of many paths, just as pedestrian desire paths gradually emerge after new sod is laid.

The experiments, the first continuous measurements of the trajectories of a quantum system between two points, are described in the cover article of the July 31 [2014] issue of Nature.

“We are working with the simplest possible quantum system,” Murch said. “But the understanding of quantum interactions we are gaining might eventually be useful for the quantum control of biological and chemical systems.

“Chemistry at its most basic level is described by quantum mechanics,” he said. “In the past 20 years, chemists have developed a technique called quantum control, where shaped laser pulses are used to drive chemical reactions — that is, to drive them between two quantum states. The chemists control the quantum field from the laser, and that field controls the dynamics of a reaction,” he said.

“Eventually, we’ll be able to control the dynamics of chemical reactions with lasers instead of just mixing reactant 1 with reactant 2 and letting the reaction evolve on its own,” he said.

An artificial atom The device Murch uses to explore quantum space is a simple superconducting circuit. Because it has quantized energy levels, or states, like an atom, it is sometimes called an artificial atom. Murch’s team uses the bottom two energy levels, the ground state and an excited state, as their model quantum system.

Between these two states, there are an infinite number of quantum states that are superpositions, or combinations, of the ground and excited states. In the past, these states would have been invisible to physicists because attempts to measure them would have caused the system to immediately collapse.

But Murch’s device allows the system’s state to be probed many times before it becomes an effectively classical system. The quantum state of the circuit is detected by putting it inside a microwave box. A very small number of microwave photons are sent into the box where their quantum fields interact with the superconducting circuit.

The microwaves are so far off resonance with the circuit that they cannot drive it between its ground and its excited state. So instead of being absorbed, they leave the box bearing information about the quantum system in the form of a phase shift (the position of the troughs and peaks of the photons’ wavefunctions).

Although there is information about the quantum system in the exiting microwaves, it is only a small amount of information.

“Every time we nudge the system, something different happens,” Murch said. “That’s because the photons we use to measure the quantum system are quantum mechanical as well and exhibit quantum fluctuations. So it takes many of these measurements to distinguish the system’s signal from the quantum fluctuations of the photons probing it.” Or, as physicists put it, these are weak measurements.

Murch compares these experiments to soccer matches, which are ultimately experiments to determine which team is better. But because so few goals are scored in soccer, and these are often lucky shots, the less skilled team has a good chance of winning. Or as Murch might put it, one soccer match is such a weak measurement of a team’s skill that it can’t be used to draw a statistically reliable conclusion about which team is more skilled.

Each time a team scores a goal, it becomes somewhat more likely that that team is the better team, but the teams would have to play many games or play for a very long time to know for sure. These fluctuations are what make soccer matches so exciting.

Murch is in essence able to observe millions of these matches, and from all the matches where team B wins, he can determine the most likely way a game that ends with a victory for team B will develop.

Despite the difficulties, the team did establish a path of desire,

“Before we started this experiment,” Murch said, ” I asked everybody in the lab what they thought the most likely path between quantum states would be. I drew a couple of options on the board: a straight line, a convex curve, a concave curve, a squiggly line . . . I took a poll, and we all guessed different options. Here we were, a bunch of quantum experts, and we had absolutely no intuition about the most likely path.”

Andrew N. Jordan of the University of Rochester and his students Areeya Chantasri and Justin Dressel inspired the study by devising a theory to predict the likely path. Their theory predicted that a convex curve Murch had drawn on the white board would be the correct path.

“When we looked at the data, we saw that the theorists were right. Our very clever collaborators had devised a ‘principle of least action’ that works in the quantum case,” Murch said.

They had found the quantum system’s line of desire mathematically and by calculation before many microwave photons trampled out the path in Murch’s lab.

Here’s an illustrated quantum path of desire’s experimental data,

Caption: A path of desire emerging from many trajectories between two points in quantum state space. Credit: Murch Lab/WUSTL

Caption: A path of desire emerging from many trajectories between two points in quantum state space.
Credit: Murch Lab/WUSTL

The University of Rochester, a collaborating institution on this research, issued a July 30, 2014 news release (also on EurekAlert) featuring this poetic allusion from one of the theorists,

Jordan [Andrew N. Jordan, professor of physics at the University of Rochester] compares the experiment to watching butterflies make their way one by one from a cage to nearby trees. “Each butterfly’s path is like a single run of the experiment,” said Jordan. “They are all starting from the same cage, the initial state, and ending in one of the trees, each being a different end state.” By watching the quantum equivalent of a million butterflies make the journey from cage to tree, the researchers were in effect able to predict the most likely path a butterfly took by observing which tree it landed on (known as post-selection in quantum physics measurements), despite the presence of a wind, or any disturbance that affects how it flies (which is similar to the effect measuring has on the system).

The theorists provided this illustration of the theory,

Caption: Measurement data showing the comparison with the 'most likely' path (in red) between initial and final quantum states (black dots). The measurements are shown on a representation referred to as a Bloch sphere. Credit: Areeya Chantasri Courtesy: University of Rochester

Caption: Measurement data showing the comparison with the ‘most likely’ path (in red) between initial and final quantum states (black dots). The measurements are shown on a representation referred to as a Bloch sphere.
Credit: Areeya Chantasri Courtesy: University of Rochester

The research study can be found here,

Mapping the optimal route between two quantum states by S. J. Weber, A. Chantasri, J. Dressel, A. N. Jordan, K. W. Murch & I. Siddiqi. Nature 511, 570–573 (31 July 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13559 Published online 30 July 2014

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview via ReadCube Access.

Tim Blais and A Capella Science

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s July 16, 2014 ‘musical science’ posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog for information about another Canadian ‘science musician’. Tim Blais has been producing science music videos for almost two years now. His first video, posted on YouTube, in August 2012 featured an Adele tune ‘Rolling in the deep’ sung to lyrics featuring the Higgs Boson (‘Rolling in the Higgs’),

He shares the text of the lyrics (from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtItBX1l1VY&list=UUTev4RNBiu6lqtx8z1e87fQ),

There’s a collider under Geneva
Reaching new energies that we’ve never achieved before
Finally we can see with this machine
A brand new data peak at 125 GeV
See how gluons and vector bosons fuse
Muons and gamma rays emerge from something new
There’s a collider under Geneva
Making one particle that we’ve never seen before

The complex scalar
Elusive boson
Escaped detection by the LEP and Tevatron
The complex scalar
What is its purpose?
It’s got me thinking

We could have had a model (Particle breakthrough, at the LHC)
Without a scalar field (5-sigma result, could it be the Higgs)
But symmetry requires no mass (Particle breakthrough, at the LHC)
So we break it, with the Higgs (5-sigma result, could it be the Higgs)

Baby I have a theory to be told
The standard model used to discover our quantum world
SU(3), U(1), SU(2)’s our gauge
Make a transform and the equations shouldn’t change

The particles then must all be massless
Cause mass terms vary under gauge transformation
The one solution is spontaneous
Symmetry breaking

Roll your vacuum to minimum potential
Break your SU(2) down to massless modes
Into mass terms of gauge bosons they go
Fermions sink in like skiers into snow

Lyrics and arrangement by Tim Blais and A Capella Science
Original music by Adele

In a Sept. 17, 2012 article by Ethan Yang for The McGill Daily (University of McGill, Montréal, Québec) Blais describes his background and inspiration,

How does a master’s physics student create a Higgs boson-based parody of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” that goes viral and gets featured in popular science magazines and blogs? We sat down with Tim Blais to learn more about the personal experiences leading to his musical and scientific project, “A Capella Science”.

McGill Daily: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, your childhood, and other experiences that in hindsight you think might have led you to where you are now?
Tim Blais: I grew up in a family of five in the little town of Hudson, Quebec, twenty minutes west of the island of Montreal. My childhood was pretty full of music; I started experimenting with the piano, figuring out songs my older siblings were playing, when I was about four, and soon got actual piano lessons. My mom also ran, and continues to run, our local church choir, so from the time I was three I was singing in front of people as well. Also at about three or four a kid in my preschool introduced me to Bill Nye the Science Guy, which became the only TV I watched for about six years. After kindergarten I didn’t go to school until Grade 10, but was homeschooled by my parents. We had a very multifaceted way of learning [...] that I think allowed me to see the big picture of things without getting bogged down in the horrible little details that are often the stumbling block when you start learning something. That gave me a fascination with science that’s essentially carried me through a science DEC and one-and-a-half university degrees. But my parents have always been super cool about not pressuring us kids to be anything in particular, and now to show for it they’ve got an emerging rock star – my brother, Tom; a dedicated speech pathologist – my sister, Mary-Jane; and me, researcher in incomprehensible physics and recently popular internet fool. I think they did alright.

Since 2012, Blais has graduated with a masters in physics and is now devoted to a life as a musician (from a 2013 [?] posting on redefineschool.com),

Blais has just finished up his master’s degree program at McGill, and he says he’s putting academia aside for a while. “I’ve been in school all my life so I’m switching gears and being a musician this year!” he tweeted. And that career choice is just fine by McGill theoretical physicist Alex Maloney, Blais’ faculty adviser.

To bring us up-to-date with Blais, David has featured the latest A Capella Science music video titled: ‘Eminemium (Choose Yourself)’ in his July 16, 2014 ‘musical science’ posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog.

One last tidbit, Blais will be appearing at Calgary’s (Alberta) Beakerhead ‘festival’ (Sept. 10 – 14, 2014). Specifically, he will be at (from the TELUS Sept. 11, 2014 event page):

TELUS Spark Adults Only Night
September 11 [2014] @ 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm
[TELUS Spark Adults Only Night]

Mark your calendar for this special Beakerhead-themed adult night at TELUS Spark Science Centre. Meet the Festo Automation folks from Germany and see their mind-boggling biomechanical creatures up close. Are you also a fan of the internet sensation A Capella Science Bohemian Gravity? Meet the maker, Tim Blais, here in Calgary for Beakerhead.

This event is included with Admission and Membership. TOP TIP: Skip the queue with advance tickets. [go to TELUS event page to buy tickets]

You can find out more about A Capella Science on its Facebook page or via its Twitter feed. For more about Beakerhead events, go here.

Graphene, Perimeter Institute, and condensed matter physics

In short, researchers at Canada’s Perimeter Institute are working on theoretical models involving graphene. which could lead to quantum computing. A July 3, 2014 Perimeter Institute news release by Erin Bow (also on EurekAlert) provides some insight into the connections between graphene and condensed matter physics (Note: Bow has included some good basic explanations of graphene, quasiparticles, and more for beginners),

One of the hottest materials in condensed matter research today is graphene.

Graphene had an unlikely start: it began with researchers messing around with pencil marks on paper. Pencil “lead” is actually made of graphite, which is a soft crystal lattice made of nothing but carbon atoms. When pencils deposit that graphite on paper, the lattice is laid down in thin sheets. By pulling that lattice apart into thinner sheets – originally using Scotch tape – researchers discovered that they could make flakes of crystal just one atom thick.

The name for this atom-scale chicken wire is graphene. Those folks with the Scotch tape, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, won the 2010 Nobel Prize for discovering it. “As a material, it is completely new – not only the thinnest ever but also the strongest,” wrote the Nobel committee. “As a conductor of electricity, it performs as well as copper. As a conductor of heat, it outperforms all other known materials. It is almost completely transparent, yet so dense that not even helium, the smallest gas atom, can pass through it.”

Developing a theoretical model of graphene

Graphene is not just a practical wonder – it’s also a wonderland for theorists. Confined to the two-dimensional surface of the graphene, the electrons behave strangely. All kinds of new phenomena can be seen, and new ideas can be tested. Testing new ideas in graphene is exactly what Perimeter researchers Zlatko Papić and Dmitry (Dima) Abanin set out to do.

“Dima and I started working on graphene a very long time ago,” says Papić. “We first met in 2009 at a conference in Sweden. I was a grad student and Dima was in the first year of his postdoc, I think.”

The two young scientists got to talking about what new physics they might be able to observe in the strange new material when it is exposed to a strong magnetic field.

“We decided we wanted to model the material,” says Papić. They’ve been working on their theoretical model of graphene, on and off, ever since. The two are now both at Perimeter Institute, where Papić is a postdoctoral researcher and Abanin is a faculty member. They are both cross-appointed with the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo.

In January 2014, they published a paper in Physical Review Letters presenting new ideas about how to induce a strange but interesting state in graphene – one where it appears as if particles inside it have a fraction of an electron’s charge.

It’s called the fractional quantum Hall effect (FQHE), and it’s head turning. Like the speed of light or Planck’s constant, the charge of the electron is a fixed point in the disorienting quantum universe.

Every system in the universe carries whole multiples of a single electron’s charge. When the FQHE was first discovered in the 1980s, condensed matter physicists quickly worked out that the fractionally charged “particles” inside their semiconductors were actually quasiparticles – that is, emergent collective behaviours of the system that imitate particles.

Graphene is an ideal material in which to study the FQHE. “Because it’s just one atom thick, you have direct access to the surface,” says Papić. “In semiconductors, where FQHE was first observed, the gas of electrons that create this effect are buried deep inside the material. They’re hard to access and manipulate. But with graphene you can imagine manipulating these states much more easily.”

In the January paper, Abanin and Papić reported novel types of FQHE states that could arise in bilayer graphene – that is, in two sheets of graphene laid one on top of another – when it is placed in a strong perpendicular magnetic field. In an earlier work from 2012, they argued that applying an electric field across the surface of bilayer graphene could offer a unique experimental knob to induce transitions between FQHE states. Combining the two effects, they argued, would be an ideal way to look at special FQHE states and the transitions between them.

Once the scientists developed their theory they went to work on some experiments,

Two experimental groups – one in Geneva, involving Abanin, and one at Columbia, involving both Abanin and Papić – have since put the electric field + magnetic field method to good use. The paper by the Columbia group appears in the July 4 issue of Science. A third group, led by Amir Yacoby of Harvard, is doing closely related work.

“We often work hand-in-hand with experimentalists,” says Papić. “One of the reasons I like condensed matter is that often even the most sophisticated, cutting-edge theory stands a good chance of being quickly checked with experiment.”

Inside both the magnetic and electric field, the electrical resistance of the graphene demonstrates the strange behaviour characteristic of the FQHE. Instead of resistance that varies in a smooth curve with voltage, resistance jumps suddenly from one level to another, and then plateaus – a kind of staircase of resistance. Each stair step is a different state of matter, defined by the complex quantum tangle of charges, spins, and other properties inside the graphene.

“The number of states is quite rich,” says Papić. “We’re very interested in bilayer graphene because of the number of states we are detecting and because we have these mechanisms – like tuning the electric field – to study how these states are interrelated, and what happens when the material changes from one state to another.”

For the moment, researchers are particularly interested in the stair steps whose “height” is described by a fraction with an even denominator. That’s because the quasiparticles in that state are expected to have an unusual property.

There are two kinds of particles in our three-dimensional world: fermions (such as electrons), where two identical particles can’t occupy one state, and bosons (such as photons), where two identical particles actually want to occupy one state. In three dimensions, fermions are fermions and bosons are bosons, and never the twain shall meet.

But a sheet of graphene doesn’t have three dimensions – it has two. It’s effectively a tiny two-dimensional universe, and in that universe, new phenomena can occur. For one thing, fermions and bosons can meet halfway – becoming anyons, which can be anywhere in between fermions and bosons. The quasiparticles in these special stair-step states are expected to be anyons.

In particular, the researchers are hoping these quasiparticles will be non-Abelian anyons, as their theory indicates they should be. That would be exciting because non-Abelian anyons can be used in the making of qubits.

Graphene qubits?

Qubits are to quantum computers what bits are to ordinary computers: both a basic unit of information and the basic piece of equipment that stores that information. Because of their quantum complexity, qubits are more powerful than ordinary bits and their power grows exponentially as more of them are added. A quantum computer of only a hundred qubits can tackle certain problems beyond the reach of even the best non-quantum supercomputers. Or, it could, if someone could find a way to build stable qubits.

The drive to make qubits is part of the reason why graphene is a hot research area in general, and why even-denominator FQHE states – with their special anyons – are sought after in particular.

“A state with some number of these anyons can be used to represent a qubit,” says Papić. “Our theory says they should be there and the experiments seem to bear that out – certainly the even-denominator FQHE states seem to be there, at least according to the Geneva experiments.”

That’s still a step away from experimental proof that those even-denominator stair-step states actually contain non-Abelian anyons. More work remains, but Papić is optimistic: “It might be easier to prove in graphene than it would be in semiconductors. Everything is happening right at the surface.”

It’s still early, but it looks as if bilayer graphene may be the magic material that allows this kind of qubit to be built. That would be a major mark on the unlikely line between pencil lead and quantum computers.

Here are links for further research,

January PRL paper mentioned above: http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.112.046602

Experimental paper from the Geneva graphene group, including Abanin: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl5003922

Experimental paper from the Columbia graphene group, including both Abanin and Papić: http://arxiv.org/abs/1403.2112. This paper is featured in the journal Science.

Related experiment on bilayer graphene by Amir Yacoby’s group at Harvard: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2014/05/28/science.1250270

The Nobel Prize press release on graphene, mentioned above: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2010/press.html

I recently posted a piece about some research into the ‘scotch-tape technique’ for isolating graphene (June 30, 2014 posting). Amusingly, Geim argued against coining the technique as the ‘scotch-tape’ technique, something I found out only recently.

Physics, nanopores, viruses, and DNA

A June 17, 2014 news item on Azonano describes a project which could help scientists decode strands of DNA at top speeds,

Nanopores may one day lead a revolution in DNA sequencing. By sliding DNA molecules one at a time through tiny holes in a thin membrane, it may be possible to decode long stretches of DNA at lightning speeds. Scientists, however, haven’t quite figured out the physics of how polymer strands like DNA interact with nanopores. Now, with the help of a particular type of virus, researchers from Brown University have shed new light on this nanoscale physics.

“What got us interested in this was that everybody in the field studied DNA and developed models for how they interact with nanopores,” said Derek Stein, associate professor of physics and engineering at Brown [Brown University, US] who directed the research. “But even the most basic things you would hope models would predict starting from the basic properties of DNA — you couldn’t do it. The only way to break out of that rut was to study something different.”

A June 16, 2014 Brown University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the problems with nanopores,

The concept behind nanopore sequencing is fairly simple. A hole just a few billionths of a meter wide is poked in a membrane separating two pools of salty water. An electric current is applied to the system, which occasionally snares a charged DNA strand and whips it through the pore — a phenomenon called translocation. When a molecule translocates, it causes detectable variations in the electric current across the pore. By looking carefully at those variations in current, scientists may be able to distinguish individual nucleotides — the A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s coded in DNA molecules.

The first commercially available nanopore sequencers may only be a few years away, but despite advances in the field, surprisingly little is known about the basic physics involved when polymers interact with nanopores. That’s partly because of the complexities involved in studying DNA. In solution, DNA molecules form balls of random squiggles, which make understanding their physical behavior extremely difficult.

For example, the factors governing the speed of DNA translocation aren’t well understood. Sometimes molecules zip through a pore quickly; other times they slither more slowly, and nobody completely understands why.

One possible explanation is that the squiggly configuration of DNA causes each molecule to experience differences in drag as they’re pulled through the water toward the pore. “If a molecule is crumpled up next to the pore, it has a shorter distance to travel and experiences less drag,” said Angus McMullen, a physics graduate student at Brown and the study’s lead author. “But if it’s stretched out then it would feel drag along the whole length and that would cause it to go slower.”

The news release then goes on to detail a possible solution to the problem of why DNA translocation varies in speed. Answering this question about DNA translocation could lead to faster and more accurate nanopore sequencing,

The drag effect is impossible to isolate experimentally using DNA, but the virus McMullen and his colleagues studied offered a solution.

The researchers looked at fd, a harmless virus that infects e. coli bacteria. Two things make the virus an ideal candidate for study with nanpores. First, fd viruses are all identical clones of each other. Second, unlike squiggly DNA, fd virus is a stiff, rod-like molecule. Because the virus doesn’t curl up like DNA does, the effect of drag on each one should be essentially the same every time.

With drag eliminated as a source of variation in translocation speed, the researchers expected that the only source of variation would be the effect of thermal motion. The tiny virus molecules constantly bump up against the water molecules in which they are immersed. A few random thermal kicks from the rear would speed the virus up as it goes through the pore. A few kicks from the front would slow it down.

The experiments showed that while thermal motion explained much of the variation in translocation speed, it didn’t explain it all. Much to the researchers’ surprise, they found another source of variation that increased when the voltage across the pore was increased.

“We thought that the physics would be crystal clear,” said Jay Tang, associate professor of physics and engineering at Brown and one of the study’s co-authors. “You have this stiff [virus] with well-defined diameter and size and you would expect a very clear-cut signal. As it turns out, we found some puzzling physics we can only partially explain ourselves.”

The researchers can’t say for sure what’s causing the variation they observed, but they have a few ideas.

“It’s been predicted that depending on where [an object] is inside the pore, it might be pulled harder or weaker,” McMullen said. “If it’s in the center of the pore, it pulls a little bit weaker than if it’s right on the edge. That’s been predicted, but never experimentally verified. This could be evidence of that happening, but we’re still doing follow up work.

The new approach using a virus answered questions while leading to new insights and possibilities (from the news release),

A better understanding of translocation speed could improve the accuracy of nanopore sequencing, McMullen says. It would also be helpful in the crucial task of measuring the length of DNA strands. “If you can predict the translocation speed,” McMullen said, “then you can easily get the length of the DNA from how long its translocation was.”

The research also helped to reveal other aspects of the translocation process that could be useful in designing future devices. The study showed that the electrical current tends to align the viruses head first to the pore, but on occasions when they’re not lined up, they tend to bounce around on the edge of the pore until thermal motion aligns them to go through. However, when the voltage was turned too high, the thermal effects were suppressed and the virus became stuck to the membrane. That suggests a sweet spot in voltage where headfirst translocation is most likely.

None of this is observable directly — the system is simply too small to be seen in action. But the researchers could infer what was happening by looking at slight changes in the current across the pore.

“When the viruses miss, they rattle around and we see these little bumps in the current,” Stein said. “So with these little bumps, we’re starting to get an idea of what the molecule is doing before it slides through. Normally these sensors are blind to anything that’s going on until the molecule slides through.”

That would have been impossible to observe using DNA. The floppiness of the DNA molecule allows it to go through a pore in a folded configuration even if it’s not aligned head-on. But because the virus is stiff, it can’t fold to go through. That enabled the researchers to isolate and observe those contact dynamics.

“These viruses are unique,” Stein said. “They’re like perfect little yardsticks.”

In addition to shedding light on basic physics, the work might also have another application. While the fd virus itself is harmless, the bacteria it infects — e. coli — is not. Based on this work, it might be possible to build a nanopore device for detecting the presence of fd, and by proxy, e. coli. Other dangerous viruses — Ebola and Marburg among them — share the same rod-like structure as fd.

“This might be an easy way to detect these viruses,” Tang said. “So that’s another potential application for this.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Stiff filamentous virus translocations through solid-state nanopores by Angus McMullen, Hendrick W. de Haan, Jay X. Tang, & Derek Stein. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4171 doi:10.1038/ncomms5171 Published 16 June 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Liverpool Science Festival

The first Liverpool Science Festival (UK)  is being held June 25 – July 9, 2014 according to a June 6, 2014 Festival announcement, which has a very exciting lineup guests and events,

Liverpool Science Festival was founded with the mission to create a unique platform to engage the public in all things scientific – from natural science to science in its most interdisciplinary and cultural contexts.

For 2014, we are part of the science programme of events during the UK’s inaugural International Festival for Business (IFB 2014). We are also proud to be contributing events to the official 60th Anniversary celebrations of CERN – birthplace of the internet, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), site of the discovery of the Higgs Boson – and home to scientists from more than 100 countries.

Highlights of the festival include:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Solar System:
1 river, 9 planets, 14 days and 70 miles

An ambitious public engagement project setting off from the source of the Mersey on a journey to the sea, culminating in a series of pop-up astronomy events and happenings which will mark out the positions of the planets and a scale model of the Solar System. The journey begins on 25 June with astronomy at the source of the Mersey (Stockport, Cheshire) and ends on the evening of 9 July on Crosby Beach.


This is the second reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I’ve had on this blog in less than one week. Rice University (US) researcher, Nikta Fakhri, referenced the book in a description of her work on carbon nanotubes in a June 5, 2014 post titled, Hitchhikers at the nanoscale show how cells stir themselves. (For anyone unfamiliar with the book and/or its cultural import, here’s a Wikipedia entry devoted to it.)

Next the festival is featuring its physics with two live events, one featuring Jon Butterworth and the other featuring Butterworth and Lyn Evans (from the announcement),

“If you want to know what being a professional scientist is really like, read Smashing Physics!” – Professor Brian Cox

Professor Jon Butterworth (CERN {European Organization for Nuclear Research ], UCL [University College of London] & Guardian Science) at Waterstones Liverpool One on 27 June – one of the UK’s foremost physicists, on Smashing Physics, his smashing new science book about the hunt for Higgs Boson and real life as a real scientist at the cusp of scientific discovery.


Dr Lyn Evans (chief engineer at CERN who spent 15 years leading the team constructing the LHC, the most complex machine ever built) flies in from CERN, Geneva, to speak on Engineering the LHCon 28 June at Stanley Dock.


Butterworth has a blog, Life and Physics, hosted by the Guardian newspaper as part of its science blog network. I find his writing to be quite approachable. From time to time he starts talking in ‘physics’ but he usually prepares his audience for these brief outbursts by explaining the concept first in plain English and/or approaching the topic from a mundane angle, e.g., ‘it can be lonely being a physicist’.

Evans was in Vancouver, Canada last February 2013 to launch a global project (from a Feb. 18, 2013 news release posted on The Exchange),

… On February 21 [2013], TRIUMF will do its part in fulfilling this role as it plays host to a meeting of the leaders of the major high-energy physics laboratories around the world. The key outcome of this meeting will be the completion of an existing global collaboration and the launch of a new team that will coordinate and advance the global development work for the Linear Collider, the world’s next accelerator project aimed at pulling back the curtain on the secrets of nature’s most innermost workings.

The new Linear Collider Collaboration (LCC) will combine the two next-generation collider projects, the International Linear Collider (ILC) and the Compact Linear Collider (CLIC), under one organizational roof and will be headed by Lyn Evans, former Project Manager of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Some may recognize Lyn Evans as recent co-recipient of the Milner Foundation’s Fundamental Physics Prize. (Evans will give a public science lecture on Wednesday evening at Science World.)

The Linear Collider Board, headed by the University of Tokyo’s Sachio Komamiya, is a new oversight committee for the LCC that will take up office at the same time.

Evans’ public talk mentioned in my Jan. 29, 2013 posting of Vancouver science events features a description that resembles the one for the Liverpool Science Festival (from my posting),

There is a video of the Evan’s February 20, 2013 talk here for anyone who can’t get to Evans’ talk in Liverpool.

Here’s more from the Liverpool Science Festival announcement,

“Wax has an extraordinary mind, and she has brought it to bear with her trademark wit.” – Stephen Fry

Ruby Wax brings her unique wit to the festival with her Sane New World stage show, at Stanley Dock on the evening of 28 June. Since obtaining a Masters Degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University, Wax has become a respected campaigner for mental illness in the UK.


“As the scouts say – be prepared! Say your prayers that you never need this book” – Bear Grylls

Dr Lewis Dartnell presents The Knowledge, How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, his guide to everything you need to know to survive the apocalypse, avert another Dark Age and accelerate the rebuilding of civilization. Based on Dartnell’s best-selling book which has been the top-selling science book on Amazon in recent weeks.


For the last highlight from the festival announcement, we return to physics,

“Mind-blowing.” – New York Times on Particle Fever

Screening of Particle Fever – Liverpool Science Festival has special permission to screen this new movie on CERN and the hunt for the Higgs Boson, three months ahead of its UK general release. The screening will be followed by a Q&A featuring Professor Tara Shears, CERN particle physicist and the University of Liverpool’s first ever female professor of physics. The screening takes place on the evening of 5 July at Stanley Dock.


“Particle Fever” received its May 16, 2014 Canadian premiere in Vancouver, which included a discussion with a panel of physicists.  (There was a also a showing when the Vancouver International Film Festival was held in Oct. 2013 and that has a separate webpage description. I assume a showing during a film festival is not considered a premiere) Here’s a description of the documentary from the Vancouver International Film Festival theatre’s Particle Fever webpage,

May 16th, 7:00 PM screening will be followed by a panel discussion of physicists, copresented by TRIUMF and supported by Reel Causes.
May 19th, 6:30 PM screening is open to youth, the film is rated PG

Imagine being able to watch as Edison turned on the first light bulb, or as Franklin received his first jolt of electricity. Physicist turned filmmaker Mark Levinson gives us the modern equivalent of those world-changing moments with this as-it-happens front-row seat to our generation’s most significant and inspiring scientific breakthrough—the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, built to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and to potentially explain the origin of all matter. Following a team of brilliant scientists, Levinson—aided by master editor Walter Murch—crafts a celebration of discovery while revealing the very human stories behind this epic machine.

“Set in crummy offices and towering facilities worthy of a Bond movie, the documentary is edited with the momentum of a thriller by the great Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), as we follow six scientists. They come across as simultaneously passionate thinkers and endearing nerds: There’s the elegant Italian physicist and classical pianist Fabiola Gianotti, obliviously stepping into traffic while talking excitedly on her phone. Or postdoc student and experimental physicist Monica Dunford, declaring effusively: “It’s unbelievably fantastic how great data is.”

There is a Particle Fever May 14, 2014 review by Ken Eisner in the Vancouver local publication, The Georgia Straight.  Peculiarly and in the midst a poetic movie review, Eisner starts complaining about physics funding in the US,

In the rarefied world of quantum physics, “The ability to leap from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the key to success.” This is according to one scientist prominently featured in an absorbing doc that takes as its locus the Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland, where some pretty amazing breakthroughs—and a few duds—have happened in the past few years.

The subtext is the struggle to keep pure learning alive with no promise of tangible return, except the possibility of knowledge that will forever alter our understanding of life. …

… its main activities take place at the huge site of CERN, near Lake Geneva—built there largely because right-wingers have managed to kill off nonprofit science in the U.S. [emphasis mine] Its hivelike realities, with staff drawn from a hundred nations, make it resemble a space station on Earth. …

I think there may have been a few other important  factors influencing the Large Hadron Collider’s location.

Getting back to Liverpool, if the website is any indication, this science festival has been beautifully conceptualized and thoughtfully implemented. I wish the organizers all the best as they get ready to launch their festival.

Finally, in the description of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Solar System event, I noticed a reference to the Mersey, which brought to mind this song from 1965. Gerry & the Pacemakers sing Ferry Cross the Mersey,

Canadian government spending on science and technology is down for the fourth year in a row

It seems there a steady downward trajectory where Canadian science and technology spending is concerned. Stephen Hui in a May 28, 2014 article for the Georgia Straight, breaks the latest news from Statistics Canada (Note: A link has been removed),

The Canadian government is expected to spend less money on science and technology in 2014-15 compared to the previous fiscal year, continuing a trend that began in 2011-12. [emphasis mine]

According to Statistics Canada, federal departments and agencies are projected to record $10.3 billion (all figures in current dollars) in science and tech expenditures in 2014-15, a decrease of 5.4 percent from 2013-14.

Federal science and tech spending peaked at $12 billion in 2010-11 and has declined every year since then.

In fact, an earlier July 30, 2013 news item in Huffington Post noted a decrease in the 2013-14 budget,

The federal agency says spending for the 2013-14 fiscal year is expected to decrease 3.3 per cent from the previous period, to $10.5 billion.

It adds research and development is expected to account for two-thirds of anticipated science and technology spending.

The finding is contained in Statistics Canada’s annual survey of all federal government departments and agencies believed to be performing or funding science and technology activities.

The survey, released Tuesday [July 2013], covers the period from Sept. 10, 2012 to Jan. 11, 2013.

Statistics Canada says spending on science and technology has been steadily decreasing since 2009-10. [emphasis mine]

According to Hui’s source, the Statistics Canada’s The Daily, May 28,2014: Federal government spending on science and technology, 2014/2015, the trend started in 2011/12. I’m not sure which specific Statistics Canada publication was the source for the Huffington Post’s start date for the decline.

Interestingly, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013 dates the decline to 2001. From my Oct. 30, 2013 posting (excerpted from the scorecard),

Canada is among the few OECD countries where R&D expenditure declined between 2000 and 2011 (Figure 1). This decline was mainly due to reduced business spending on R&D. It occurred despite relatively generous public support for business R&D, primarily through tax incentives. In 2011, Canada was amongst the OECD countries with the most generous tax support for R&D and the country with the largest share of government funding for business R&D being accounted for by tax credits (Figure 2). …

If I understand this rightly, Canadian business spending on R&D has been steadily declining for more than a decade and, since 2010 or so, Canadian government spending is also steadily declining. Does anyone else see this as a problem?

The contrast with Brazil is startling. From a June 2, 2014 Institute of Physics news release (also on EurekAlert but dated as June 1, 2014),

As Brazil gets set to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup this month amid concerns about the amount of public money being used to stage the world’s largest sporting event, Physics World‘s editorial team reveals in a new special report how physicists are taking full advantage of the four-fold increase in science funding that the government has invested over the past 10 years.

Since this news comes from the physics community, the news release focuses on physics-related developments,

Negotiations are currently under way to make Brazil an associate member of the CERN particle-physics lab in Geneva, while the country is also taking a leading role in the Pierre Auger Observatory – an international project based in Argentina designed to study ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays. [emphasis mine]

Building is also under way to create a world-leading synchrotron source, Sirius and Brazil is poised to become the first non-European member of the European Southern Observatory.

Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, a physicist at the University of Campinas and scientific director at FAPESP – one of Brazil’s most important funding agencies – told Physics World that the expectation is for Brazilian scientists to take a leadership role in such large research projects “and not just watch as mere participants”.

Considering the first graduate programmes in physics did not emerge in Brazilian universities until 1960, the rise to becoming one of the leading participants in international collaborations has been a rapid one.

The reputation of Brazilian physics has grown in line with a massive increase in science funding, which rose from R$12bn (about £3bn) in 2000 to R$50bn (around £13bn) in 2011.

Brazil’s spending on R&D now accounts for 1.2% of the gross domestic product and 40% of the total funding comes from companies.

The Brazilian Physical Society has around 6000 members comprising almost all research physicists in the country, who wrote around 25 000 research articles in international science journals between 2007 and 2010.

A lack of funding in the past had forced Brazilian scientists to focus on cheaper, theoretical research, but this has now changed and there is an almost even split between theory and experiment at universities.

Yet Brazil still suffers from several long-standing problems, the most significant being the poor standard of science education in high schools. A combination of low pay and lack of recognition makes physics teaching an unpopular choice of occupation despite attempts to tackle the problem.

Even those students who do see physics as a career option end up struggling and under-prepared for the rigours of an undergraduate physics course. Vitor de Souza, an astrophysicist at the Physics Institute at São Carlos, which is part of the University of São Paulo, told Physics World that of the 120 students who start a four-year physics degree at his university, only 10-20 actually graduate.

Another problem in Brazil is a fundamental disconnect between academic research and industrial development, with universities not sure how to handle spin-off firms and companies suspicious of universities.

More broadly, physicists feel that Brazilian society does not recognize the value of science, and that this can only be overcome when the physics community becomes more ambitious and more audacious.

You can find the special issue of Physics World here (it is open access).

As I noted in this May 30, 2014 posting (and elsewhere) featuring the new Agency of Science Communication, Technology and Innovation of Argentina (ACCTINA),,

The PCST [13th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference] international conference takes place every two years. The 2014 PCST conference took place in Salvador, Brazil. Conferences like this would seem to confirm the comments I made in a May 20, 2014 posting,

Returning to 2014, the [World Cup {soccer}] kickoff in Brazil (if successful) symbolizes more than an international athletic competition or a technical/medical achievement, this kick-off symbolizes a technological future for Brazil and its place on the world stage (despite the protests and social unrest) .

While the science and technology community in Brazil has its concerns, I imagine most Canadian scientists would thrill to being the recipients of the funding bonanza of 1.2%  of the gross domestic product. According to the Conference Board of Canada, research and development spending in Canada was 0.8% of GDP for 2011 (from the Conference Board of Canada’s Public R&D spending webpage),

[downloaded from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/innovation/publicrandd.aspx]

[downloaded from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/innovation/publicrandd.aspx]

Did you notice, Canada the in 2011 was on the edge of getting a C grade along with the US? Meanwhile, if Brazil was listed, it would get top marks.

The question as to how much money is not enough for research and development (R&D) spending is complex and I don’t think it’s easily answered but it would be nice to see some discussion.

So, you found a quantum trimer. What is it, again?

The University of Innsbruck produced a rather intriguing May 13, 2014 news release (also a May 13, 2014 news item on Nanowerk and on EurekAlert),

Eight years ago Rudolf Grimm’s research group was the first to observe an Efimov state in an ultracold quantum gas. The Russian physicist Vitali Efimov theoretically predicted this exotic bound state of three particles in the 1970s. He forecast that three particles would form a bound state due to their quantum mechanical properties, under conditions when a two-body bound state would be absent. What is even more astounding: When the distance between the particles is increased by factor 22.7, another Efimov state appears, leading to an infinite series of these states. Until now this essential ingredient of the famous scenario has remained elusive and experimentally proving the periodicity of the famous scenario has presented a challenge. “There have been some indications that particles continuously create three-body states if the distance is increased by this factor,” says Rudolf Grimm from the Institute of Experimental Physics of the University of Innsbruck and the Institute of Quantum Physics and Quantum Optics of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. “Proving the scenario was very difficult but we have finally been successful.”

I think the second Efimov state is the quantum trimer but the news release provides no explanation, mentioning the trimer in its headline only.  On the plus side, there’s a very ‘cool’ explanation of quantum gases,

Ultracold quantum gases are highly suited for studying and observing quantum phenomena of particle systems experimentally as the interaction between atoms are well tunable by a magnetic field. However, Rudolf Grimm’s research group got very close to the limits of what is possible experimentally when they had to increase the distance between the particles to one micrometer to be able to observe the second Efimov state. “This corresponds to 20,000 times the radius of a hydrogen atom,” explains Grimm. “Compared to a molecule, this is a gigantic structure.” This meant that the physicists had to be particularly precise with their work. What greatly helped the researchers in Innsbruck was their extensive experience with ultracold quantum gases and their great technical expertise. Their final result shows that the second Efimov state is larger than the first one by a factor of 21.0 with a measurement uncertainty of 1.3. “This small deviation from the factor 22.7 may be attributed to the physics beyond the ideal Efimov state, which is also an exciting topic,” explains Rudolf Grimm.

As for why this Efimov state holds such interest, I found the explanation perplexing but remain intrigued,

The scientific community’s interest in this phenomenon lies in its universal character. The law is equally applicable to nuclear physics, where strong interaction is responsible for the binding of particles in the atomic nucleus, and to molecular interactions that are based on electromagnetic forces. “Interaction between two particles and between many particles is well studied,” says Grimm. “But we still need to investigate and learn about phenomena that arise from the interaction between only a few particles. The Efimov states are the basic example for this.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Observation of the Second Triatomic Resonance in Efimov’s Scenario by
Bo Huang, Leonid A. Sidorenkov, Rudolf Grimm, and Jeremy M. Hutson. Phys. Rev. Lett. 112, 190401 – Published 12 May 2014 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.112.190401
© 2014 American Physical Society

This article is behind a paywall.

The university provided an illustration of an Efimov state,

The mysterious Efimov scenario (Illustration: IQOQI/Harald Ritsch)

The mysterious Efimov scenario (Illustration: IQOQI/Harald Ritsch)

Beautiful, isn’t it?