Tag Archives: physics

Congratulate China on the world’s first quantum communication network

China has some exciting news about the world’s first quantum network; it’s due to open in late August 2017 so you may want to have your congratulations in order for later this month.

An Aug. 4, 2017 news item on phys.org makes the announcement,

As malicious hackers find ever more sophisticated ways to launch attacks, China is about to launch the Jinan Project, the world’s first unhackable computer network, and a major milestone in the development of quantum technology.

Named after the eastern Chinese city where the technology was developed, the network is planned to be fully operational by the end of August 2017. Jinan is the hub of the Beijing-Shanghai quantum network due to its strategic location between the two principal Chinese metropolises.

“We plan to use the network for national defence, finance and other fields, and hope to spread it out as a pilot that if successful can be used across China and the whole world,” commented Zhou Fei, assistant director of the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology, who was speaking to Britain’s Financial Times.

An Aug. 3, 2017 CORDIS (Community Research and Development Research Information Service [for the European Commission]) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the technology,

By launching the network, China will become the first country worldwide to implement quantum technology for a real life, commercial end. It also highlights that China is a key global player in the rush to develop technologies based on quantum principles, with the EU and the United States also vying for world leadership in the field.

The network, known as a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) network, is more secure than widely used electronic communication equivalents. Unlike a conventional telephone or internet cable, which can be tapped without the sender or recipient being aware, a QKD network alerts both users to any tampering with the system as soon as it occurs. This is because tampering immediately alters the information being relayed, with the disturbance being instantly recognisable. Once fully implemented, it will make it almost impossible for other governments to listen in on Chinese communications.

In the Jinan network, some 200 users from China’s military, government, finance and electricity sectors will be able to send messages safe in the knowledge that only they are reading them. It will be the world’s longest land-based quantum communications network, stretching over 2 000 km.

Also speaking to the ‘Financial Times’, quantum physicist Tim Byrnes, based at New York University’s (NYU) Shanghai campus commented: ‘China has achieved staggering things with quantum research… It’s amazing how quickly China has gotten on with quantum research projects that would be too expensive to do elsewhere… quantum communication has been taken up by the commercial sector much more in China compared to other countries, which means it is likely to pull ahead of Europe and US in the field of quantum communication.’

However, Europe is also determined to also be at the forefront of the ‘quantum revolution’ which promises to be one of the major defining technological phenomena of the twenty-first century. The EU has invested EUR 550 million into quantum technologies and has provided policy support to researchers through the 2016 Quantum Manifesto.

Moreover, with China’s latest achievement (and a previous one already notched up from July 2017 when its quantum satellite – the world’s first – sent a message to Earth on a quantum communication channel), it looks like the race to be crowned the world’s foremost quantum power is well and truly underway…

Prior to this latest announcement, Chinese scientists had published work about quantum satellite communications, a development that makes their imminent terrestrial quantum network possible. Gabriel Popkin wrote about the quantum satellite in a June 15, 2017 article Science magazine,

Quantum entanglement—physics at its strangest—has moved out of this world and into space. In a study that shows China’s growing mastery of both the quantum world and space science, a team of physicists reports that it sent eerily intertwined quantum particles from a satellite to ground stations separated by 1200 kilometers, smashing the previous world record. The result is a stepping stone to ultrasecure communication networks and, eventually, a space-based quantum internet.

“It’s a huge, major achievement,” says Thomas Jennewein, a physicist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “They started with this bold idea and managed to do it.”

Entanglement involves putting objects in the peculiar limbo of quantum superposition, in which an object’s quantum properties occupy multiple states at once: like Schrödinger’s cat, dead and alive at the same time. Then those quantum states are shared among multiple objects. Physicists have entangled particles such as electrons and photons, as well as larger objects such as superconducting electric circuits.

Theoretically, even if entangled objects are separated, their precarious quantum states should remain linked until one of them is measured or disturbed. That measurement instantly determines the state of the other object, no matter how far away. The idea is so counterintuitive that Albert Einstein mocked it as “spooky action at a distance.”

Starting in the 1970s, however, physicists began testing the effect over increasing distances. In 2015, the most sophisticated of these tests, which involved measuring entangled electrons 1.3 kilometers apart, showed once again that spooky action is real.

Beyond the fundamental result, such experiments also point to the possibility of hack-proof communications. Long strings of entangled photons, shared between distant locations, can be “quantum keys” that secure communications. Anyone trying to eavesdrop on a quantum-encrypted message would disrupt the shared key, alerting everyone to a compromised channel.

But entangled photons degrade rapidly as they pass through the air or optical fibers. So far, the farthest anyone has sent a quantum key is a few hundred kilometers. “Quantum repeaters” that rebroadcast quantum information could extend a network’s reach, but they aren’t yet mature. Many physicists have dreamed instead of using satellites to send quantum information through the near-vacuum of space. “Once you have satellites distributing your quantum signals throughout the globe, you’ve done it,” says Verónica Fernández Mármol, a physicist at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. …

Popkin goes on to detail the process for making the discovery in easily accessible (for the most part) writing and in a video and a graphic.

Russell Brandom writing for The Verge in a June 15, 2017 article about the Chinese quantum satellite adds detail about previous work and teams in other countries also working on the challenge (Note: Links have been removed),

Quantum networking has already shown promise in terrestrial fiber networks, where specialized routing equipment can perform the same trick over conventional fiber-optic cable. The first such network was a DARPA-funded connection established in 2003 between Harvard, Boston University, and a private lab. In the years since, a number of companies have tried to build more ambitious connections. The Swiss company ID Quantique has mapped out a quantum network that would connect many of North America’s largest data centers; in China, a separate team is working on a 2,000-kilometer quantum link between Beijing and Shanghai, which would rely on fiber to span an even greater distance than the satellite link. Still, the nature of fiber places strict limits on how far a single photon can travel.

According to ID Quantique, a reliable satellite link could connect the existing fiber networks into a single globe-spanning quantum network. “This proves the feasibility of quantum communications from space,” ID Quantique CEO Gregoire Ribordy tells The Verge. “The vision is that you have regional quantum key distribution networks over fiber, which can connect to each other through the satellite link.”

China isn’t the only country working on bringing quantum networks to space. A collaboration between the UK’s University of Strathclyde and the National University of Singapore is hoping to produce the same entanglement in cheap, readymade satellites called Cubesats. A Canadian team is also developing a method of producing entangled photons on the ground before sending them into space.

I wonder if there’s going to be an invitational event for scientists around the world to celebrate the launch.

Hollywood and physics: which movie gets it right?

Colin Hunter has written a May 18, 2017 posting for the Perimeter Institute’s (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) Slice of Pi blog about Hollywood and physics,

Sometimes filmmakers base plotlines and special effects on well-established science. Sometimes they’re even prescient, anticipating or inspiring later scientific and technological advances (remember when a videophone was the stuff of Jetsons-like fantasy?). [For anyone unfamiliar with The Jetsons cartoon]

Other times, filmmakers take a bit (or a lot) of creative license with science, resulting in scenes or entire films that are considerably more “fi” than “sci.” We focused a scientific lens on some of our favourite films (and some duds) and graded them for accuracy.

What did we miss? Comment below, or tweet your favourite movie-science wins and fails to @Perimeter.

Watch a great MinutePhysics video explaining time dilation and the so-called twins paradox.

I encourage you to read the whole piece. It’s an easy read.

3D picture language for mathematics

There’s a new, 3D picture language for mathematics called ‘quon’ according to a March 3, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Galileo called mathematics the “language with which God wrote the universe.” He described a picture-language, and now that language has a new dimension.

The Harvard trio of Arthur Jaffe, the Landon T. Clay Professor of Mathematics and Theoretical Science, postdoctoral fellow Zhengwei Liu, and researcher Alex Wozniakowski has developed a 3-D picture-language for mathematics with potential as a tool across a range of topics, from pure math to physics.

Though not the first pictorial language of mathematics, the new one, called quon, holds promise for being able to transmit not only complex concepts, but also vast amounts of detail in relatively simple images. …

A March 2, 2017 Harvard University news release by Peter Reuell, which originated the news item, provides more context for the research,

“It’s a big deal,” said Jacob Biamonte of the Quantum Complexity Science Initiative after reading the research. “The paper will set a new foundation for a vast topic.”

“This paper is the result of work we’ve been doing for the past year and a half, and we regard this as the start of something new and exciting,” Jaffe said. “It seems to be the tip of an iceberg. We invented our language to solve a problem in quantum information, but we have already found that this language led us to the discovery of new mathematical results in other areas of mathematics. We expect that it will also have interesting applications in physics.”

When it comes to the “language” of mathematics, humans start with the basics — by learning their numbers. As we get older, however, things become more complex.

“We learn to use algebra, and we use letters to represent variables or other values that might be altered,” Liu said. “Now, when we look at research work, we see fewer numbers and more letters and formulas. One of our aims is to replace ‘symbol proof’ by ‘picture proof.’”

The new language relies on images to convey the same information that is found in traditional algebraic equations — and in some cases, even more.

“An image can contain information that is very hard to describe algebraically,” Liu said. “It is very easy to transmit meaning through an image, and easy for people to understand what they see in an image, so we visualize these concepts and instead of words or letters can communicate via pictures.”

“So this pictorial language for mathematics can give you insights and a way of thinking that you don’t see in the usual, algebraic way of approaching mathematics,” Jaffe said. “For centuries there has been a great deal of interaction between mathematics and physics because people were thinking about the same things, but from different points of view. When we put the two subjects together, we found many new insights, and this new language can take that into another dimension.”

In their most recent work, the researchers moved their language into a more literal realm, creating 3-D images that, when manipulated, can trigger mathematical insights.

“Where before we had been working in two dimensions, we now see that it’s valuable to have a language that’s Lego-like, and in three dimensions,” Jaffe said. “By pushing these pictures around, or working with them like an object you can deform, the images can have different mathematical meanings, and in that way we can create equations.”

Among their pictorial feats, Jaffe said, are the complex equations used to describe quantum teleportation. The researchers have pictures for the Pauli matrices, which are fundamental components of quantum information protocols. This shows that the standard protocols are topological, and also leads to discovery of new protocols.

“It turns out one picture is worth 1,000 symbols,” Jaffe said.

“We could describe this algebraically, and it might require an entire page of equations,” Liu added. “But we can do that in one picture, so it can capture a lot of information.”

Having found a fit with quantum information, the researchers are now exploring how their language might also be useful in a number of other subjects in mathematics and physics.

“We don’t want to make claims at this point,” Jaffe said, “but we believe and are thinking about quite a few other areas where this picture-language could be important.”

Sadly, there are no artistic images illustrating quon but this is from the paper,

An n-quon is represented by n hemispheres. We call the flat disc on the boundary of each hemisphere a boundary disc. Each hemisphere contains a neutral diagram with four boundary points on its boundary disk. The dotted box designates the internal structure that specifies the quon vector. For example, the 3-quon is represented as

Courtesy: PNAS and Harvard University

I gather the term ‘quon’ is meant to suggest quantum particles.

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

Quon 3D language for quantum information by Zhengwei Liu, Alex Wozniakowski, and Arthur M. Jaffe. Proceedins of the National Academy of Sciences Published online before print February 6, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1621345114 PNAS March 7, 2017 vol. 114 no. 10

This paper appears to be open access.

The mathematics of Disney’s ‘Moana’

The hit Disney movie “Moana” features stunning visual effects, including the animation of water to such a degree that it becomes a distinct character in the film. Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Few people think to marvel over the mathematics when watching an animated feature but without mathematicians, the artists would not be able to achieve their artistic goals as a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on phys.org makes clear (Note: A link has been removed),

UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] mathematics professor Joseph Teran, a Walt Disney consultant on animated movies since 2007, is under no illusion that artists want lengthy mathematics lessons, but many of them realize that the success of animated movies often depends on advanced mathematics.

“In general, the animators and artists at the studios want as little to do with mathematics and physics as possible, but the demands for realism in animated movies are so high,” Teran said. “Things are going to look fake if you don’t at least start with the correct physics and mathematics for many materials, such as water and snow. If the physics and mathematics are not simulated accurately, it will be very glaring that something is wrong with the animation of the material.”

Teran and his research team have helped infuse realism into several Disney movies, including “Frozen,” where they used science to animate snow scenes. Most recently, they applied their knowledge of math, physics and computer science to enliven the new 3-D computer-animated hit, “Moana,” a tale about an adventurous teenage girl who is drawn to the ocean and is inspired to leave the safety of her island on a daring journey to save her people.

A Jan. 3, 2017 UCLA news release, which originated the news item, explains in further nontechnical detail,

Alexey Stomakhin, a former UCLA doctoral student of Teran’s and Andrea Bertozzi’s, played an important role in the making of “Moana.” After earning his Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 2013, he became a senior software engineer at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Working with Disney’s effects artists, technical directors and software developers, Stomakhin led the development of the code that was used to simulate the movement of water in “Moana,” enabling it to play a role as one of the characters in the film.

“The increased demand for realism and complexity in animated movies makes it preferable to get assistance from computers; this means we have to simulate the movement of the ocean surface and how the water splashes, for example, to make it look believable,” Stomakhin explained. “There is a lot of mathematics, physics and computer science under the hood. That’s what we do.”

“Moana” has been praised for its stunning visual effects in words the mathematicians love hearing. “Everything in the movie looks almost real, so the movement of the water has to look real too, and it does,” Teran said. “’Moana’ has the best water effects I’ve ever seen, by far.”

Stomakhin said his job is fun and “super-interesting, especially when we cheat physics and step beyond physics. It’s almost like building your own universe with your own laws of physics and trying to simulate that universe.

“Disney movies are about magic, so magical things happen which do not exist in the real world,” said the software engineer. “It’s our job to add some extra forces and other tricks to help create those effects. If you have an understanding of how the real physical laws work, you can push parameters beyond physical limits and change equations slightly; we can predict the consequences of that.”

To make animated movies these days, movie studios need to solve, or nearly solve, partial differential equations. Stomakhin, Teran and their colleagues build the code that solves the partial differential equations. More accurately, they write algorithms that closely approximate the partial differential equations because they cannot be solved perfectly. “We try to come up with new algorithms that have the highest-quality metrics in all possible categories, including preserving angular momentum perfectly and preserving energy perfectly. Many algorithms don’t have these properties,” Teran said.

Stomakhin was also involved in creating the ocean’s crashing waves that have to break at a certain place and time. That task required him to get creative with physics and use other tricks. “You don’t allow physics to completely guide it,” he said.  “You allow the wave to break only when it needs to break.”

Depicting boats on waves posed additional challenges for the scientists.

“It’s easy to simulate a boat traveling through a static lake, but a boat on waves is much more challenging to simulate,” Stomakhin said. “We simulated the fluid around the boat; the challenge was to blend that fluid with the rest of the ocean. It can’t look like the boat is splashing in a little swimming pool — the blend needs to be seamless.”

Stomakhin spent more than a year developing the code and understanding the physics that allowed him to achieve this effect.

“It’s nice to see the great visual effect, something you couldn’t have achieved if you hadn’t designed the algorithm to solve physics accurately,” said Teran, who has taught an undergraduate course on scientific computing for the visual-effects industry.

While Teran loves spectacular visual effects, he said the research has many other scientific applications as well. It could be used to simulate plasmas, simulate 3-D printing or for surgical simulation, for example. Teran is using a related algorithm to build virtual livers to substitute for the animal livers that surgeons train on. He is also using the algorithm to study traumatic leg injuries.

Teran describes the work with Disney as “bread-and-butter, high-performance computing for simulating materials, as mechanical engineers and physicists at national laboratories would. Simulating water for a movie is not so different, but there are, of course, small tweaks to make the water visually compelling. We don’t have a separate branch of research for computer graphics. We create new algorithms that work for simulating wide ranges of materials.”

Teran, Stomakhin and three other applied mathematicians — Chenfanfu Jiang, Craig Schroeder and Andrew Selle — also developed a state-of-the-art simulation method for fluids in graphics, called APIC, based on months of calculations. It allows for better realism and stunning visual results. Jiang is a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Teran’s laboratory, who won a 2015 UCLA best dissertation prize.  Schroeder is a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar who worked with Teran and is now at UC Riverside. Selle, who worked at Walt Disney Animation Studios, is now at Google.

Their newest version of APIC has been accepted for publication by the peer-reviewed Journal of Computational Physics.

“Alexey is using ideas from high-performance computing to make movies,” Teran said, “and we are contributing to the scientific community by improving the algorithm.”

Unfortunately, the paper does not seem to have been published early online so I cannot offer a link.

Final comment, it would have been interesting to have had a comment from one of the film’s artists or animators included in the article but it may not have been possible due to time or space constraints.

Atomic force microscope with nanowire sensors

Measuring the size and direction of forces may become reality with a nanotechnology-enabled atomic force microscope designed by Swiss scientists, according to an Oct. 17, 2016 news item on phys.org,

A new type of atomic force microscope (AFM) uses nanowires as tiny sensors. Unlike standard AFM, the device with a nanowire sensor enables measurements of both the size and direction of forces. Physicists at the University of Basel and at the EPF Lausanne have described these results in the recent issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

A nanowire sensor measures size and direction of forces (Image: University of Basel, Department of Physics)

A nanowire sensor measures size and direction of forces (Image: University of Basel, Department of Physics)

An Oct. 17, 2016 University of Basel press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Nanowires are extremely tiny filamentary crystals which are built-up molecule by molecule from various materials and which are now being very actively studied by scientists all around the world because of their exceptional properties.

The wires normally have a diameter of 100 nanometers and therefore possess only about one thousandth of a hair thickness. Because of this tiny dimension, they have a very large surface in comparison to their volume. This fact, their small mass and flawless crystal lattice make them very attractive in a variety of nanometer-scale sensing applications, including as sensors of biological and chemical samples, and as pressure or charge sensors.

Measurement of direction and size

The team of Argovia Professor Martino Poggio from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) and the Department of Physics at the University of Basel has now demonstrated that nanowires can also be used as force sensors in atomic force microscopes. Based on their special mechanical properties, nanowires vibrate along two perpendicular axes at nearly the same frequency. When they are integrated into an AFM, the researchers can measure changes in the perpendicular vibrations caused by different forces. Essentially, they use the nanowires like tiny mechanical compasses that point out both the direction and size of the surrounding forces.

Image of the two-dimensional force field

The scientists from Basel describe how they imaged a patterned sample surface using a nanowire sensor. Together with colleagues from the EPF Lausanne, who grew the nanowires, they mapped the two-dimensional force field above the sample surface using their nanowire “compass”. As a proof-of-principle, they also mapped out test force fields produced by tiny electrodes.

The most challenging technical aspect of the experiments was the realization of an apparatus that could simultaneously scan a nanowire above a surface and monitor its vibration along two perpendicular directions. With their study, the scientists have demonstrated a new type of AFM that could extend the technique’s numerous applications even further.

AFM – today widely used

The development of AFM 30 years ago was honored with the conferment of the Kavli-Prize [2016 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience] beginning of September this year. Professor Christoph Gerber of the SNI and Department of Physics at the University of Basel is one of the awardees, who has substantially contributed to the wide use of AFM in different fields, including solid-state physics, materials science, biology, and medicine.

The various different types of AFM are most often carried out using cantilevers made from crystalline Si as the mechanical sensor. “Moving to much smaller nanowire sensors may now allow for even further improvements on an already amazingly successful technique”, Martino Poggio comments his approach.

I featured an interview article with Christoph Gerber and Gerd Binnig about their shared Kavli prize and about inventing the AFM in a Sept. 20, 2016 posting.

As for the latest innovation, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Vectorial scanning force microscopy using a nanowire sensor by Nicola Rossi, Floris R. Braakman, Davide Cadeddu, Denis Vasyukov, Gözde Tütüncüoglu, Anna Fontcuberta i Morral, & Martino Poggio. Nature Nanotechnology (2016) doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.189 Published online 17 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Replicating brain’s neural networks with 3D nanoprinting

An announcement about European Union funding for a project to reproduce neural networks by 3D nanoprinting can be found in a June 10, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

The MESO-BRAIN consortium has received a prestigious award of €3.3million in funding from the European Commission as part of its Future and Emerging Technology (FET) scheme. The project aims to develop three-dimensional (3D) human neural networks with specific biological architecture, and the inherent ability to interrogate the network’s brain-like activity both electrophysiologically and optically. It is expected that the MESO-BRAIN will facilitate a better understanding of human disease progression, neuronal growth and enable the development of large-scale human cell-based assays to test the modulatory effects of pharmacological and toxicological compounds on neural network activity. The use of more physiologically relevant human models will increase drug screening efficiency and reduce the need for animal testing.

A June 9, 2016 Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

About the MESO-BRAIN project

The MESO-BRAIN project’s cornerstone will use human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that have been differentiated into neurons upon a defined and reproducible 3D scaffold to support the development of human neural networks that emulate brain activity. The structure will be based on a brain cortical module and will be unique in that it will be designed and produced using nanoscale 3D-laser-printed structures incorporating nano-electrodes to enable downstream electrophysiological analysis of neural network function. Optical analysis will be conducted using cutting-edge light sheet-based, fast volumetric imaging technology to enable cellular resolution throughout the 3D network. The MESO-BRAIN project will allow for a comprehensive and detailed investigation of neural network development in health and disease.

Prof Edik Rafailov, Head of the MESO-BRAIN project (Aston University) said: “What we’re proposing to achieve with this project has, until recently, been the stuff of science fiction. Being able to extract and replicate neural networks from the brain through 3D nanoprinting promises to change this. The MESO-BRAIN project has the potential to revolutionise the way we are able to understand the onset and development of disease and discover treatments for those with dementia or brain injuries. We cannot wait to get started!”

The MESO-BRAIN project will launch in September 2016 and research will be conducted over three years.

About the MESO-BRAIN consortium

Each of the consortium partners have been chosen for the highly specific skills & knowledge that they bring to this project. These include technologies and expertise in stem cells, photonics, physics, 3D nanoprinting, electrophysiology, molecular biology, imaging and commercialisation.

Aston University (UK) Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies (School of Engineering and Applied Science) is one of the largest photonic groups in UK and an internationally recognised research centre in the fields of lasers, fibre-optics, high-speed optical communications, nonlinear and biomedical photonics. The Cell & Tissue Biomedical Research Group (Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing) combines collective expertise in genetic manipulation, tissue engineering and neuronal modelling with the electrophysiological and optical analysis of human iPSC-derived neural networks. Axol Bioscience Ltd. (UK) was founded to fulfil the unmet demand for high quality, clinically relevant human iPSC-derived cells for use in biomedical research and drug discovery. The Laser Zentrum Hannover (Germany) is a leading research organisation in the fields of laser development, material processing, laser medicine, and laser-based nanotechnologies. The Neurophysics Group (Physics Department) at University of Barcelona (Spain) are experts in combing experiments with theoretical and computational modelling to infer functional connectivity in neuronal circuits. The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) (Spain) is a world-leading research centre in photonics with expertise in several microscopy techniques including light sheet imaging. KITE Innovation (UK) helps to bridge the gap between the academic and business sectors in supporting collaboration, enterprise, and knowledge-based business development.

For anyone curious about the FET funding scheme, there’s this from the press release,

Horizon 2020 aims to ensure Europe produces world-class science by removing barriers to innovation through funding programmes such as the FET. The FET (Open) funds forward-looking collaborations between advanced multidisciplinary science and cutting-edge engineering for radically new future technologies. The published success rate is below 1.4%, making it amongst the toughest in the Horizon 2020 suite of funding schemes. The MESO-BRAIN proposal scored a perfect 5/5.

You can find out more about the MESO-BRAIN project on its ICFO webpage.

They don’t say anything about it but I can’t help wondering if the scientists aren’t also considering the possibility of creating an artificial brain.

Babies have more general physics knowledge than experts realized

A Feb. 10, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily sheds some light on babies and their knowledge of physics,

We are born with a basic grasp of physics, just enough not to be surprised when we interact with objects. Scientists discovered this in the past two decades. What they did not know yet was that, as early as five months of age, this ‘naive’ physics also extends to liquids and materials that do not behave like solids (for example, sand), as demonstrated by a new study.

A Feb. 10, 2016 SISSA (International School of Advanced Studies) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the conclusions and the research in more detail,

If we hold a ball and then let go of it and the ball remains suspended in mid-air, even a baby a few months old will be surprised. Just like an adult, the baby expects the ball to fall to the floor. Even at such a young age humans already have some rudimentary knowledge of the behaviour of solids. Now a new study extends this knowledge to add liquids and other non-solids to the “naïve physics” of infants.

“This new study developed out of previous experiments”, explains Alissa Ferry, SISSA research scientist and among the authors of the paper, “in which we observed that infants were surprised when a liquid failed to behave as a liquid (in those experiments we “cheated” by disguising solids as liquids)”. Their surprise, explains Ferry, demonstrates that their expectations for a liquid had not been met. “However, what we couldn’t establish was whether the infants knew how a liquid should behave or whether they just expected it to be different from a solid”.

Ferry and colleagues (the first author is Susan Hespos of Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, where the experiments were conducted) therefore devised a new set of tests with a greater range of materials and “interactions”. In a first “habituation” phase, the infants were shown the contents of a glass by tilting the glass in front of them. The glass either contained a solid (which, when not moving, had identical appearance to water) or some water. When the glass was tilted back and forth, the two materials behaved differently: the solid remained perfectly still whereas the water moved. This phase served to teach the infants whether they were looking at a solid or a liquid.

Next, the infants were shown an identical glass to the one seen in the previous phase (making them believe that it was the same glass) which contained either the material they had already seen or the other material. At this point, the infants watched the experimenter either pour the contents (liquid or solid) of the glass into another glass containing a grid or submerge the grid in the liquid (or rest it on top of the solid) inside the glass.

“In the previous experiments we merely poured the contents of the glass. This time we added a grid to find out whether the infants really understood the loose cohesiveness of liquids, which can pass through a perforated surface and recompose in the vessel unlike solids which, being highly cohesive, cannot pass through a grid” explains Ferry.

In the habituation phase, in fact, the infants could know how liquids change shape with movement, but it was unknown if they could use this knowledge to understand other properties of liquids, like loose cohesiveness. “If infants understand the properties of liquids, then they should be surprised when, what they think is a liquid gets trapped on a grid”.

And the analysis of the infants’ behaviour shows that when they expected a liquid they were surprised to see it blocked by the grid (or see the grid unable to penetrate the material). Conversely, if they thought they were looking at a solid, then they were surprised when they saw it pass through the grid.

The investigators also used other materials like sand and small glass spheres. “Even in these cases the infants showed that they knew the behaviour of substances”, concludes Ferry. “This is especially interesting because, while we can imagine that 5-month-old infants already have had extensive direct experience with liquids and especially water through meals, baths and 9 months in the amniotic liquid, it’s unlikely that they’ve had many encounters with sand or glass balls, suggesting that infants have a naïve understanding of the physics of nonsolid substances”.

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

Five-Month-Old Infants Have General Knowledge of How Nonsolid Substances Behave and Interact by Susan J. Hespos, Alissa L. Ferry, Erin M. Anderson, Emily N. Hollenbeck, anb Lance J. Rips. Psychological Science February 2016 vol. 27 no. 2 244-256 doi: 10.1177/0956797615617897 Published online: January 7, 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Creating new manufacturing technologies with photonic sintering

There’s a nice of explanation of nanoparticle sintering, a process which is central to producing new materials, according to a Dec. 1, 2015 Oregon State University (OSU) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Engineers at Oregon State University have made a fundamental breakthrough in understanding the physics of photonic “sintering,” which could lead to many new advances in solar cells, flexible electronics, various types of sensors and other high-tech products printed onto something as simple as a sheet of paper or plastic.

Sintering is the fusing of nanoparticles to form a solid, functional thin-film that can be used for many purposes, and the process could have considerable value for new technologies.

Photonic sintering has the possible advantage of higher speed and lower cost, compared to other technologies for nanoparticle sintering.

The news release goes on to provide some technical details and information about commercialization efforts,

In the new research, OSU experts discovered that previous approaches to understand and control photonic sintering had been based on a flawed view of the basic physics involved, which had led to a gross overestimation of product quality and process efficiency.

Based on the new perspective of this process, which has been outlined in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers now believe they can create high quality products at much lower temperatures, at least twice as fast and with 10 times more energy efficiency.

Removing constraints on production temperatures, speed and cost, the researchers say, should allow the creation of many new high-tech products printed onto substrates as cheap as paper or plastic wrap.

“Photonic sintering is one way to deposit nanoparticles in a controlled way and then join them together, and it’s been of significant interest,” said Rajiv Malhotra, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the OSU College of Engineering. “Until now, however, we didn’t really understand the underlying physics of what was going on. It was thought, for instance, that temperature change and the degree of fusion weren’t related – but in fact that matters a lot.”

With the concepts outlined in the new study, the door is open to precise control of temperature with smaller nanoparticle sizes. This allows increased speed of the process and high quality production at temperatures at least two times lower than before. An inherent “self-damping” effect was identified that has a major impact on obtaining the desired quality of the finished film.

“Lower temperature is a real key,” Malhotra said. “To lower costs, we want to print these nanotech products on things like paper and plastic, which would burn or melt at higher temperatures. We now know that is possible, and how to do it. We should be able to create production processes that are both fast and cheap, without a loss of quality.”

Products that could evolve from the research, Malhotra said, include solar cells, gas sensors, radiofrequency identification tags, and a wide range of flexible electronics. Wearable biomedical sensors could emerge, along with new sensing devices for environmental applications.

In this technology, light from a xenon lamp can be broadcast over comparatively large areas to fuse nanoparticles into functional thin films, much faster than with conventional thermal methods. It should be possible to scale up the process to large manufacturing levels for industrial use.

This advance was made possible by a four-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation Scalable Nanomanufacturing Grant, which focuses on transcending the scientific barriers to industry-level production of nanomaterials. Collaborators at OSU include Chih-hung Chang, Alan Wang and Greg Herman.

OSU researchers will work with two manufacturers in private industry to create a proof-of-concept facility in the laboratory, as the next step in bringing this technology toward commercial production.

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

On the self-damping nature of densification in photonic sintering of nanoparticles by William MacNeill, Chang-Ho Choi, Chih-Hung Chang, & Rajiv Malhotra.  Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 14845 (2015)  doi:10.1038/srep14845 Published online: 07 October 2015

This is an open access paper.

Access (virtual) to a quantum lab for everybody

I love the idea behind this project “find a way to make research equipment available to everyone” and that’s what the researchers at the University of Vienna (Austria) hope they have achieved according to a Sept. 16, 2015 University of Vienna press release (also on EurekAlert),

Topical research experiments are often too expensive or too complex to be rebuilt and incorporated in teaching. How can one, nevertheless, make modern science accessible to the public? This challenge was tackled in the research group Quantum Nanophysics led by Markus Arndt at the University of Vienna. For the first time, two research laboratories were created as complete, photorealistic computer simulations allowing university and high-school students as well as the general public to virtually access unique instruments. “One could describe it as a flight simulator of quantum physics”, says Mathias Tomandl who designed and implemented the essential elements of the simulation in the course of his PhD studies.

The press release goes on to describe the process for using the laboratory and some real life events promoting the lab,

A learning path guides the visitors of the virtual quantum lab through the world of delocalized complex molecules. A series of lab tasks and essential background information on the experiments enable the visitors to gradually immerse into the quantum world. The engaging software was developed together with university and high-school students and was fine-tuned by periodic didactic input. The teaching concept and the accompanying studies have now been published in the renowned scientific journal Scientific Reports.

Wave-particle dualism with large molecules

The virtual laboratories provide an insight into the fundamental understanding and into the applications of quantum mechanics with macromolecules and nanoparticles. In recent years, the real-life versions of the experiments verified the wave-particle dualism with the most complex molecules to date. Now, everyone can conduct these experiments in the virtual lab for the first time.

The quantum lab on tour through Austria

Currrently, a light version of the virtual lab can be experienced as an interactive exhibit in the special exhibition “Das Wissen der Dinge” in the Natural History Museum Vienna. In the travelling exhibition “Wirkungswechsel” of the Science-Center-Netzwerk the exhibit will be available at various locations throughout Austria.

Here’s a video produced by the researchers to demonstrate their virtual quantum lab,

For more information about the exhibitions,

Special exhibition “Das Wissen der Dinge”: http://www.nhm-wien.ac.at/ausstellung/sonderausstellungen/das_wissen_der_dinge_1

Travelling exhibition “Wirkungswechsel”: http://www.wirkungswechsel.at/

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

Simulated Interactive Research Experiments as Educational Tools for Advanced Science by Mathias Tomandl, Thomas Mieling, Christiane M. Losert-Valiente Kroon, Martin Hopf, & Markus Arndt. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 14108 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep14108 Published online: 15 September 2015

This paper is open access.

Complex networks to provide ‘grand unified theory’

Trying to mesh classical physics and quantum physics together in one theory which accounts for behaviour on the macro and quantum scales has occupied scientists for decades and it seems that mathematicians have discovered a clue so solving the mystery. A Sept. 13, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes the findings,

Mathematicians investigating one of science’s great questions — how to unite the physics of the very big with that of the very small — have discovered that when the understanding of complex networks such as the brain or the Internet is applied to geometry the results match up with quantum behavior.

A Sept. 9, 2015 Queen Mary University of London press release, which originated the news item, describes the collaboration between Queen Mary and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology mathematicians,

The findings, published today (Thursday) in Scientific Reports, by researchers from Queen Mary University of London and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, could explain one of the great problems in modern physics.

Currently ideas of gravity, developed by Einstein and Newton, explain how physics operates on a very large scale, but do not work at the sub-atomic level. Conversely, quantum mechanics works on the very small scale but does not explain the interactions of larger objects like stars. Scientists are looking for a so called ‘grand unified theory’ that joins the two, known as quantum gravity.

Several models have been proposed for how different quantum spaces are linked but most assume that the links between quantum spaces are fairly uniform, with little deviation from the average number of links between each space. The new model, which applies ideas from the theory of complex networks, has found that some quantum spaces might actually include hubs, i.e. nodes with significantly more links than others, like a particularly popular Facebook user.

Calculations run with this model show that these spaces are described by well-known quantum Fermi-Dirac, and Bose-Einstein statistics, used in quantum mechanics, indicating that they could be useful to physicists working on quantum gravity.

Dr Ginestra Bianconi, from Queen Mary University of London, and lead author of the paper, said:

“We hope that by applying our understanding of complex networks to one of the fundamental questions in physics we might be able to help explain how discrete quantum spaces emerge.

“What we can see is that space-time at the quantum-scale might be networked in a very similar way to things we are starting to understand very well like biological networks in cells, our brains and online social networks.”

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

Complex Quantum Network Manifolds in Dimension d > 2 are Scale-Free by Ginestra Bianconi & Christoph Rahmede. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 13979 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep13979 Published online: 10 September 2015

This is an open access paper.