Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Space-time cloak can edit history

One of the central planks of science-fiction, the invisibility cloak, has taken one step closer to becoming reality, according to extraordinary new research revealed today in the Journal of Optics. And it isn't just matter it can render invisible, but entire tracts of history.

The "space-time cloak" is a device conceived by Martin McCall, an optical physicist at Imperial College London. It generates a pocket in reality in which actions can be concealed. Unlike "standard" invisibility cloaks, which bend light around an object, a space-time cloak would open up a time gap in the light by controlling its speed through optical fibres, and then seal it again to hide all traces of activity within the gap.

"I realised that it may be possible to use metamaterials to bend light rays in both space and time, not just in space," says Martin McCall, in Nature. "This would add a new dimension to the invisibility cloak - literally."

"You could imagine a burglar using a space-time cloak to create an invisible corridor leading to a safe," says McCall. With the cloak turned on, the burglar could run through this corridor, open the safe, steal the contents, shut the safe and escape, while any security camera trained on the safe would just show a continuous image of a locked door at every point in time, explains McCall. "The dastardly event would have been edited from history," he says.

Nature go on to explain that the key feature of the proposed space-time cloak is that its refractive index - the optical property that governs the speed of light within a material - is continually changed, pulling light rays apart in time. When the leading edge of a light wave hits the cloak, the material is manipulated to speed up the light, but when the trailing edge hits, the light is slowed down and delayed. "Between these two parts of the light, there will be a temporal void - a space in which there will be no illuminating light for a brief period of time," explains McCall.

McCall hopes that a fibre-optic cloak creating a space-time void around 30 centimetres long, to hide actions taking place over a few nanoseconds, could be built within the next year.


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The galaxy is full of fullerenes

Last week, the Astrophysical Journal Letters published an interesting finding from astronomers working with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. It appears that fullerenes (aka buckyballs) are far more widespread in our galaxy than what we thought. The discovery has lead some astronomers to speculate that the spherical carbon molecules may have even seeded life of earth.

Astronomers found fullerenes in staggering quantities throughout the Milky Way, in the space between stars and around dying stars. Fullerenes are molecules consisting of 60 linked carbon atoms. They are also known as buckyballs, so named for their resemblance to the architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes.

As NASA report: "The miniature spheres were first discovered in a lab on Earth 25 years ago, but it wasn't until this past July that Spitzer was able to provide the first confirmed proof of their existence in space. At that time, scientists weren't sure if they had been lucky to find a rare supply, or if perhaps the cosmic balls were all around."

"It turns out that buckyballs are much more common and abundant in the universe than initially thought," said astronomer Letizia Stanghellini of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson. "Spitzer had recently found them in one specific location, but now we see them in other environments. This has implications for the chemistry of life. It's possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth."


Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Radio astronomers find the largest-ever pulsar

Major news from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory today as reports emerge that radio astronomers have discovered the most massive pulsar yet found. The giant neutron-star is almost twice the mass of the sun, and it's discovery will have strong and wide-ranging impacts across several fields of physics and astrophysics.

Pulsars are spinning neutron-stars. They are the radiophonic clocks of the universe, emitting a steady pulse of radio waves with each rotation, which can be detected here on Earth using radio telescopes like the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). This most recent addition to the pulsar family is known as J1614-2230, and is located about 3,000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Scorpio. It is nearly 20% more massive than any previously measured star of its class, and is rotating at an incredible speed, completing 317 rotations every second.

Described, rather poetically, by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory as "the superdense corpses of massive stars that have exploded", neutron-stars have long been known to be ideal natural laboratories for studying the most dense and exotic states of matter known to physics. With all their mass packed into a sphere the size of a small city, their protons and electrons are crushed together into neutrons. A thimbleful of neutron-star material would weigh more than 500 million tons.

Discovering a neutron-star as large as J1614-2230 has come as a major surprise to astrophysicists. It's not just it's sheer size that's causing a flurry, it's the implications for our understanding of what pulsars are made of. Most existing computer models can not account for neutron-stars bigger than 1.5 times the mass of the sun without resorting to modelling the star using exotic particles. But initial measurements of J1614-2230 seem to indicate that this giant amongst neutron-stars is made up of just that - neutrons - rather than the exotic matter, such as hyperons, that many theories have predicted. Paul Demorest of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory believes their discovery "weakens the possibility that neutron stars are made from anything other than neutrons".


Saturday, 23 October 2010

Artists Use Augmented Reality to Hack Public Space

Augmented reality technology is starting to mature, creating increasing complex and imaginative sedimentary layers onto our lived environment.

We can see this in the emergence of urban augmented reality projects, which explore what Bruce Sterling refers to as "atemporality" - where the past, present and the future collide in a collaged moment.
Among the leading applications in this field are the likes of The Museum of London's "Streetmuseum" app and Sarah & Arthur Cox's "A Time Traveller's Guide".

Alongside these attempts to overlay the present with the past, is a trend amongst artists to augment - or improve - our cities' often overly commercial facades. One such example is the art project, "The Artvertiser", created by Berlin-based New Zealander, Julian Oliver. It imagines a near-future where advertising in public space can be replaced by art. It consists of custom-made handheld binocular devices and specially designed software. The Artvertiser considers Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Times Square in New York, and other sites dense with advertisements, as potential exhibition space. The Artvertiser software recognises individual advertisements, each of which become a virtual 'canvas' displaying artworks when viewed through the Artvertiser binoculars. The Artvertiser allows artists to create a new visual layer onto the topology of the city, which can only be seen when viewed through a device which cogently blends the aesthetics of the past, with a futuristic functionality.

A number of other artists are also using augmented reality to allow the public to subvert or remove the logos and adverts that are all around us. The New Scientist recently reported on the work of US artists Mark Skwarek and Jeff Crouse, alongside Julian Oliver's work. The article notes:

"New York artist Jeff Crouse has designed a program called Unlogo, which detects corporate logos in a video stream, then replaces them [...] Mark Skwarek, is using AR to make a political point about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Leak in your Home Town is a smartphone app that overlays an animation of a leaking oil pipe over BP logos in gas stations or on billboards. [He] describes it as a kind of benign graffiti."

"Technology-inspired artists have designed ways for you to mask or perhaps even delete company logos in your field of view as you wander around a city or shopping centre."


Monday, 11 October 2010

Listen to the Deep Ocean - live!

Last year, we reported on research published in Nature that showed how marine biologists were working hand-in-hand with physicists to use bio-acoustics technology for the dual purpose of monitoring marine live, and searching for neutrinos.

The recently launched Listening to the Deep Ocean Environment (LIDO) website takes this collaborative approach one step further. Michel André, a bioacoustician at the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, and his colleagues, have spent the past 10 years placing hydrophones on the seabed, on existing research platforms that monitor earthquakes, tsunamis and detect neutrino particles from space.

They are studying sub-sea noise so that researchers can better understand the effects of human activity on whales and dolphins. But what's really extraordinary about their work is that they're allowing us to tune in. The LIDO website has links to live audio feeds from eleven hydrophones located in European waters, and North American waters.

André, quoted in the New Scientist, notes: "the system is powered from the shore, and streams audio data to a server where the signals are analysed and published directly on the internet."

With more hydrophones in the network the new system could reveal the effects of noise pollution on whales. Hydrophones can pick up sounds from baleen whales hundreds of kilometres away, so installations in different places could be used to triangulate an animal's position and track its course. It should therefore be possible to determine if animals change course in response to bursts of noise, or alter their preferred routes because of new sources of noise like shipping routes or harbours.

"It's the first time we have been able to monitor acoustic events on a large temporal and spatial scale," André says

An algorithm developed by André's laboratory filters the different frequencies in the signal to identify specific sounds, including the songs of 26 species of whales and dolphins, and noise from human activities such as shipping, wind farms, oil and gas drilling, and seismic testing.

Roger Gentry, an adviser for the E&P Sound and Marine Life Joint Industry Programme, comments that, "[Michel] André deserves a lot of credit for thinking in broad terms and using modern technology to make the oceans and marine mammals more familiar and accessible to us all."

André is a previous Rolex award-winner, acknowledged for his work designing a system to protect whales from collisions with ships:


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A drop in the ocean - the Census of Marine Life reveals we've only just begun

This week in London, the Census of Marine Life reported on their ten-year quest to count and document life in the world's oceans.

The discoveries made over the past decade have inspired, surprised and delighted all of us who have been following the work of this epic project, which has dramatically expanded our understanding of the underwater realm. But the Census team ended their work on a humble note, stressing that despite ten years of work, and the coordinated global effort of over 2,700 scientists from more than 600 institutions, who examined every oceanic body on the planet, during 9,000 days at sea on more than 540 expeditions, they have barely scratched the surface of the diversity and strangeness of life in the sea.

"There's a lot of ocean left to explore", says environmental scientist and Census cofounder, Jesse Ausubel.

Dr. Ian Poiner, chair of the Census Steering Committee, underscored the importance of this vast body of research by noting:

"All surface life depends on life inside and beneath the oceans. Sea life provides half of our oxygen and a lot of our food and regulates climate. We are all citizens of the sea. And while much remains unknown, including at least 750,000 undiscovered species and their roles, we are better acquainted now with our fellow travelers and their vast habitat on this globe."

Science News gets to grips with the scale of the work still to do, by observing that according to the Census summary, the tally of 16,764 marine fish species formally named as of early 2010 probably falls short by an estimated 5,000 species. And fish aren't the half of it. They're perhaps 12 percent of the total of marine species, according to the census estimates. Fishes trail after crustaceans and mollusks in number of species, and researchers report evidence of major undercounts in the numbers of recorded species for these other groups too. Overall at least 750,000 marine species, not including microbes, still await discovery, the census teams predict. In the seas, the mysteries easily outnumber known species, now estimated at 250,000.

Deep waters below 200 meters are so under-explored that their life forms constitute "biodiversity's big wet secret," says the census's chief scientist, Ron O'Dor of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Fewer than 10 percent of records of marine life come from the zone of abyssal plains between 4,000 and 5,000 meters deep, yet that zone accounts for half the oceans' area.


Monday, 4 October 2010

Information Physics - The New Frontier?

As classical reductionist physics collides with the quantum brick wall, an information systems model of our universe seems to be emerging. A recent abstract published on arXiv by Professor Kevin Knuth, from the Information Physics Laboratory at the University at Albany in Albany in New York, articulates ways that "Information Physics" may be a new technique to derive new physical laws.

In this seemingly controversial abstract, Knuth writes:

"At this point in time, two major areas of physics, statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics, rest on the foundations of probability and entropy. The last century saw several significant fundamental advances in our understanding of the process of inference, which make it clear that these are inferential theories. That is, rather than being a description of the behavior of the universe, these theories describe how observers can make optimal predictions about the universe. In such a picture, information plays a critical role. What is more is that little clues, such as the fact that black holes have entropy, continue to suggest that information is fundamental to physics in general.

In the last decade, our fundamental understanding of probability theory has led to a Bayesian revolution. ...I will introduce [a] new way of thinking by demonstrating how one can quantify partially-ordered sets and, in the process, derive physical laws. The implication is that physical law does not reflect the order in the universe, instead it is derived from the order imposed by our description of the universe. Information physics, which is based on understanding the ways in which we both quantify and process information about the world around us, is a fundamentally new approach to science."


Saturday, 2 October 2010

Science & science fiction: two worlds meet

"This is the future really ... The 21st century is going to be full of developments like this."
Bruce Sterling, interviewed by Euronews in September 2010.

Euronews have just released a short documentary exploring the intersection between science and science fiction. It is online in various languages, here:

The documentary takes Europe's Museum of Science Fiction (Maison d'Ailleurs: as a case study, focusing on their collaborations with science institutions such as the European Space Agency, and their recent exhibition of robotic art by Ken Rinaldo.
It analyses how engineers and scientists have taken inspiration for important research and inventions from imaginative stories and artistic work created throughout the 19th and 20th century. The documentary reveals that much of what used to be considered science fiction - from the imagined worlds of Jules Vernes and Arthur C Clarke, to futuristic machines and journeys into space - is now reality.

The documentary features interviews with writers, Alastair Reynolds and Bruce Sterling, artist, Ken Rinaldo and the director of the museum, Patrick Gyger.


Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Micronium - The World's Smallest Musical Instrument

Musician Tony Conrad is quoted as saying, "modern physics had been generated as a branch of music" ( New research carried out by the University of Twente seems to bear this out, with engineers and physicists creating the world's smallest musical instrument.

The micronium is the first musical instrument with dimensions measured in mere micrometres that produces audible tones. It has strings a fraction of the thickness of a human hair, with microscopic weights to pluck them: A composition has been specially written for the instrument by Arvid Jense, who is studying MediaMusic at the conservatorium in Enschede.

Science Daily notes that earlier musical instruments with these minimal dimensions only produced tones that are inaudible to humans. But thanks to ingenious construction techniques, students from the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology of the University of Twente in The Netherlands have succeeded in producing scales that are audible when amplified. To do so, they made use of the possibilities offered by micromechanics: the construction of moving structures with dimensions measured in micrometres. These miniscule devices can be built thanks to the ultra-clean conditions in a 'clean room', and the advanced etching techniques that are possible there.

The micronium played a leading role at the opening of a two-day scientific conference on micromechanics at Atak ( in Enschede in September, where Arvid Jense's composition,'Impromptu No. 1 for Micronium', was premiered.

The tiny musical instrument is made up of springs that are only a tenth of the thickness of a human hair, and vary in length from a half to a whole millimetre. A mass of a few dozen micrograms is hung from these springs. The mass is set in motion by so-called 'comb drives': miniature combs that fit together precisely and shift in relation to each other, so 'plucking' the springs and creating sounds. The mass vibrates with a maximum deflection of just a few micrometres. This minimal movement can be accurately measured, and produces a tone. Each tone has its own mass spring system, and six tones fit on a microchip. By combining a number of chips, a wider range of tones can be achieved.

"The tuning process turned out to be the greatest challenge," says Johan Engelen, who devised and led the project.


Monday, 27 September 2010

New Zealand physicists make a major breakthrough

Exciting news from Dunedin today, as several news agencies report that University of Otago scientists have made a "major physics breakthrough". The Dunedin-based scientists are the first in the world to consistently isolate and capture a single atom, and the first to take its photograph. The atom is Rubidium 85.

Their discovery has defied accepted science and might help turn the building blocks of life into ultrafast quantum-logic computers, which are still being developed. Mikkel Andersen, Tzahi Grunzweig, Andrew Hilliard and Matt McGovern started work on the project three years ago. They captured their first atom on January 26, but took another four days to accept what had happened.

In their step towards creating what they call a "kind of atomic romance", a team used laser cooling technology to slow a group of atoms, before a laser beam, or "optical tweezers", isolated and held one atom. "What we have done moves the frontier of what scientists can do and gives us deterministic control of the smallest building blocks in our world." Dr Mikkel Andersen said.

"Our method provides a way to deliver those atoms needed to build this type of computer, and it is now possible to get a set of ten atoms held or trapped at the one time [...] You need a set of 30 atoms if you want to build a quantum computer that is capable of performing certain tasks better than existing computers, so this is a big step towards successfully doing that."

Sources: &

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cassini dives inside Saturn's radio aurora

NASA have produced stunning new images and video of Saturn's shimmering aurora. The images are helping scientists understand what drives some of the solar system's most impressive light shows.

Auroras happen when charged particles are funneled along converging magnetic field lines and into the upper atmosphere of a planet's poles. On Earth, aurora are caused mainly by the solar wind. But on Saturn a complex mixture of other geomagnetic phenomena appear to be involved. For instance, auroras can be caused by electromagnetic waves generated when the Saturn's moons move through the plasma that fills it's magnetosphere.

"Saturn's aurora are very complex and we are only just beginning to understand all the factors involved," said Dr Tom Stallard, from the University of Leicester, who presented some preliminary findings from the images at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome.


Saturday, 25 September 2010

Proofiness: numbers don't lie, but people do

The always fascinating - but sadly increasingly less-prolific - Seed magazine, reports on the phenomena of "proofiness".

It's the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove what you know in your heart is true-even when it's not. As Seed says, [proofiness is] "a particularly powerful form of propaganda, because we're primed to believe anything that's couched in quantitative form. After all, there's very little in this world that has the cold, hard certainty of mathematical proof. Yet people can torture numbers, imbuing lies with an aura of certainty. Politicians and pundits are the modern masters of the dark art. Almost any major political speech or document will be liberally larded with proofiness."


Friday, 24 September 2010

Listening to the Universe at FM Frequencies - LOFAR

The UK's South East LOFAR radio astronomy station has been opened by Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

LOFAR reports that the telescope will 'listen' to the Universe at FM frequencies, helping astronomers detect when the first stars in the Universe were formed, to reveal more about how the Universe evolved. During the ceremony, guests were able to observe a pulsar in real time using the Chilbolton station. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars, so it was most appropriate for her to perform the opening.

Professor Rob Fender of the University of Southampton, Principal Investigator of the LOFAR UK project said "The most amazing thing is that these small dipole antennas can pick up faint radio signals from over 10 billion years ago, when the universe was a fraction of its current size, and that this signal can be mapped over the entire sky by the telescope without a single moving part."

LOFAR has five major research areas:

1. Surveying space beyond our galaxy to try to understand the history of star formation and black hole growth over cosmological time
2. Probing the extreme astrophysical environments that lead to transient bright bursts in the radio sky, such as from pulsars, the highly magnetised remains of dead stars
3. Understanding cosmic rays, the storm of high-energy particles (mostly protons and helium nuclei) that rain down on Earth
4. Studying the local space environment, to see how the wind of particles billowing away from the Sun interacts with the Earth.
5. Investigating cosmic magnetism - the origin of the large-scale fields that pervade the Universe.


Is art and science in the UK about to enter a dark age?

The art and science sectors in the UK faced further bad news this morning, after The Telegraph leaked a list of Quangos which the Conservative / Liberal Democratic Coalition Government plan on closing down.

Among the 177 organisations is the National Endowment for Science, Technology and Arts (NESTA).
Also included on the list are the UK Film Council, who's abolition was announced some months ago, the Museums and Libraries Association, the Advisory Council on Libraries, and a large number of science and research bodies.

Both the art and science communities are already faced with an uncertain future, with large cuts in Government investment expected after the Comprehensive Spending Review this month. Budget cuts of up to 40% are rumoured.

Several campaigns have been established to protect public sector investment in both the arts and science, both major contributors to the contemporary UK economy. Find out more at:

Science is Vital:
Save the Arts:
I value the Arts:

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Disappearing dimensions: quantum gravity creates dots & lines

"I think it is one of the most interesting things to happen in quantum gravity for quite some time"
Renate Loll of Utrecht University, the Netherlands

A paper recently published on Arxiv suggests that, due to the effects of quantum gravity, on tiny scales, 3D space may give way to mere lines.

The New Scientist reports that researchers working on theories of quantum gravity, which aim to unite quantum mechanics with general relativity, have recently noticed that several different quantum gravity theories all predict the same strange behaviour at small scales: fields and particles start to behave as if space is one-dimensional.

"There are some strange coincidences here that might be pointing toward something important," says Steven Carlip at the University of California, Davis.

So on a quantum level, space is dot & lines created from vibrating strings ...

Rather reminds me of the show we put together for the BBC and the Sonic Arts Network a wee while back: 

Monday, 20 September 2010

Magical BEANs: Nano particles may lead to mega data storage

Science Daily reports that new nano-sized particles could provide mega-sized data storage.

The ability of phase-change materials to readily and swiftly transition between different phases has made them valuable as"flash" memory and data storage. Now an entire new class of phase-change materials has been discovered by researchers with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley that could be applied to phase change random access memory (PCM) technologies, and possibly optical data storage as well. The new phase-change materials -- nanocrystal alloys of a metal and semiconductor -- are called "BEANs:.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A solution looking for a problem: the laser turns 50

This month the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the laser. Physicists and engineers are unveiling festivals and conferences to mark this key technological invention.

The anniversaty is ably marked by this fascinating BBC Radio 4 documentary,
The Death-Ray in Your Pocket: 50 Years of Lasers.  The website notes:

"Dr Hermione Cockburn tells the story of the invention of the laser, a battle that consumed some of the biggest names in electronics for almost two years, led to claims, counter-claims and academic back-stabbing, along with a 30-year battle over the patents. There's no simple answer to the question "who invented the laser" so this is the story of the leading claimants, assisted by extracts from their oral histories."

The documentary ends with a meditation on the role of lasers within arts, focusing on
UVA's stunning installation, Speed of Light. It reminded me that earlier this year, transmediale.10 in Berlin marked the anniversary with the production of from one to many by Yvette Mattern.

Famously described as "a solution looking for a problem" by Charles H. Townes, one of scientists credited with their invention, lasers have underpinned some of the last half century’s most important technologies - not least, the optical fibres which make today’s high speed internet possible.  This month, during the fiftieth anniversary, physicists are asserting the laser's influence is far from over.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Finding Ada

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. This year we're acknowledging the astrophysicist, Kathy Romer, based at the University of Sussex in Brighton. Romer is a leading researcher and commentator on the cosmological model. As part of her work at the Sussex Astronomy Centre, she uses multi-wavelength observations of clusters of galaxies to test cosmological theories. She is also exploring the vexed area of dark energy and dark flow, and is a member of the Dark Energy Survey.

Her clear and cogent comments on the recent BBC documentary on
Dark Flow give an exceptional insight into her value as a communicator of complex scientific ideas.