Talking ‘big science’ in Oxford

February seems like a decade ago now — thanks to a broken collar bone I suffered on the bike later that month and now the worldwide shutdown due to COVID-19.

On 22 February, I headed to Oxford for a one-day meeting about “big science” in physics that was organised by the St Cross Centre for the History and Philosophy of Physics at Oxford University.

Held in the Martin Wood Lecture theatre at the Department of Physics, the meeting, which was open to the public, covered the past, present and future of big science.

I was invited to give the closing talk covering what we can expect to look forward to in the coming decade from big science facilities in physics.

In the talk, which you can view above, I also offered a few predictions for the decade ahead (“brave”, one person said to me afterwards) — one of which was that astronauts will return to the Moon.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks likey that some of those predictions may now not happen in the coming ten years. So, I have learnt at least one thing since the talk — things can change very quickly. Another being not to make predictions in the first place.

2019 – the year of the black hole

It’s the final day of the year so the perfect time to look back and congratulate myself on some things that I did/enjoyed working on this year.

In physics, this year was all about the first-ever image of a black hole. Here is the story I wrote when the announcement was made in April. This breakthrough was one of those rare-ish events in physics that makes it to the front page of (almost) every newspaper. This picture, although not looking like much at first glance, is set to become an iconic image in science — one for the textbooks.

The monumental discovery was, of course, Physics World‘s breakthrough of the year for 2019 and you can read our top 10 here.

Planning the next collider

This year I covered how particle physicists are planning the next big experiment after the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, which discovered the Higgs boson in 2012.

The stakes are high and there are a number of competing designs for a machine that will probably come online in the 2040s. In January CERN released its blueprint for a huge 100 km-circumference collider to study the Higgs boson in great detail — much better than is currently possible at the LHC. In February, we ran an interview with CERN boss Fabiola Gianotti about planning the next collider..

There was disappointment a month later when Japan failed to put its full weight behind hosting the International Linear Collider — another one of those designs for a future machine to study the Higgs and somewhat of a frontrunner at the moment. The decision was much to the chagrin of the particle-physics community.

Towards the end of the year, CERN announced in December that the high-luminosity upgrade to the LHC would take a year longer than scheduled. Yet it was not all bad news, with the LHCb experiment at the LHC managing to spot a special kind of asymmetry in “charm meson” particles, which had never been seen before.

Bit and bobs

In other news, there was the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize to the discovery of the first planet outside our solar system and for advances in cosmology, the UK announced it would boost research into a viable fusion power plant with £220m while the Nobel laureate and particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann died aged 89.

The new definition of the kilogram came into force in May and some were displeased that a major prize went to “failed ideas”, i.e. supergravity.

The decade gone and the one ahead

In an interesting blog post, Chad Orzel notes that the decade that is about to end belonged to the black hole — on the one hand given the discovery of the first image and on the other via the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015 (caused by the merger of two black holes) by the twin LIGO detectors in the US.

Extending this idea, I would argue that perhaps this decade was all about “big science”. Some of the biggest discoveries this decade in physics have come from work done by huge international collaborations. To name a few: CERN finding the Higgs boson; the discovery of gravitational waves at LIGO; the advent of multimessenger astronomy; the first probe to land on a comet; and the first observation of high-energy cosmic neutrinos by the IceCube observatory.

Orzel argues that quantum computing will be the biggest advance of the coming decade. Given this year’s announcement of “quantum supremacy” by Google, at the moment it’s hard to see beyond that.

And finally, if you prefer the lighter side of physics, then check out my list of top 10 “quirky” physics/maths stories of the year.

I’m writing a book about the physics of baby

Yes, you read the headline right — I’m very excited to announce that I am writing a book.  It is on something that has given me numerous sleepless nights and countless colds and illnesses over the past four years: babies.

The tome has the working title The Secret Science of Baby and will examine where physics and babies collide. By that I don’t mean accelerating little ones in a huge collider and seeing what comes out (probably a lot of poo and vomit), but rather where physicists are working on problems to better understand the “infant universe” — from the fluid mechanics of nappies, modelling the synchronicity of  contractions in the uterus to the vacuum physics of breastfeeding.

The Secret Science of Baby will cover many aspects about having and dealing with a baby from conception and pregnancy to cooing and, yes, even pooing.

Some of the topics that will be examined include how the first breath of a newborn can be described by a mathematical formula derived in the 1800s as well as the connection between swimming sperm and painting a wall. It will also touch on how the theory of phase transitions (such as that of water turning into ice) could be used to describe how babies acquire structured language.

Alongside the fascinating physics of baby, I will also include some personal anecdotes and, hopefully, funny stories about bringing up two little nippers.

The book will be published by the US publisher BenBella and many thanks go to Glenn Yeffeth for seeing the potential in this idea. The book will, fingers crossed, be out in 2022.

Keep an eye out for any updates on the blog, but given I need to write a book now, they may be few and far between (even more so than usual) but Twitter is usually the place I put my random musings.

Nobel considerations

This week has been all about the Nobel prizes. You can read our coverage, here, here and here.

The physics prize went to James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos”, while the chemistry prize was awarded to John Goodenough (a solid-state physicist), Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries.

This week I hosted the Physics World weekly podcast where I was joined by colleagues to chew the fat over the awards and lament yet another year where the Nobel committee has failed on the diversity front (in the science prizes, 9/9 were men).

Before this year’s awards were announced, we also had a bit of fun picking our favourite Nobel prizes. I opted for the discovery of liquid helium (1913 prize) that I argued opened up a new chapter in low-temperature physics. You can read it here.

So who could win next year’s Nobel Prize in Physics? Well, I will pick Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for their work on testing Bell’s inequalities. But I thought they would win this year, so, as always, it remains a mugs game.

What’s your favourite chemical element?

This year has been designated the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The celebrations mark 150 years since the iconic chart – which contributed greatly to the development of modern chemistry and atomic and nuclear physics – was devised by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.

At Physics World, we have been marking the IYPT by picking our favourite elements in the so-called “Battle of the Elements” — a series of blogs making a case for a particular element.

A couple have already been published, including mine, which you can read here. (spoiler: it’s about helium because of its importance for physics experiments).