Each year Physics World selects its top 10 breakthroughs of the year. A panel of editors (including me) sit down and sift through the year’s physics coverage, picking out our favourites.
The criteria includes that the research is of fundamental importance; makes a significant advance in knowledge; has a strong connection between theory and experiment; and is of general interest to all physicists.
This year, rather unsurprisingly, the award has gone to the international team of astronomers and astrophysicists that ushered in a new era of astronomy by making the first ever multimessenger observation involving gravitational waves.
Of course, the LIGO observatories in the US were instrumental in this work and it is the second time in a row they have been honoured by the Physics World breakthrough. (The three physicists behind LIGO – Kip Thorne, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss – won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, but surely that is of secondary importance).
Other highly commended work in the top 10 include the first topological laser as well as the creation of “time crystals”.
It’s been five years since my last trip to Japan and I can’t help but see how the country has changed in that time.
I starting writing this blog in a coffee shop in central Tokyo while having a cappuccino and eating a pastry. Indeed, during my week in Japan I felt the country westernise at a pace much faster than envisaged. English is becoming more prevalent and coffee/sweet shops are proliferating, I wonder what they will do for Japanese waistlines.
There is also a force for change in academia, with Japan attempting to attract and accommodate foreign researchers. There is a reason for this: Japan’s population is ageing and its birth rate is declining. The country needs to attract people for its basic survival.
One interesting aspect of my visit has been to see how universities are slowly reforming the system to make it more palatable for foreign researchers. The traditional culture at Japanese university departments — at least in physics — is for scientists to be very siloed and specialised. You could argue it has been succesful, just look at how many Nobel prizes have been awarded to Japanese scientists.
But now there is a move to make departments more like their relaxed counterparts in the US and Europe. I took part in a couple of “tea times” where researchers in the department are asked to come together to discuss what they are working on. It is hoped this will boost collaborations and interdisciplinary research.
Barriers still remain for foreigners. One is the language and another is the provision for their spouses and children. Many international schools in the country are out of reach on a researcher’s salary while it is hard for a spouse to often find a job, resulting in isolation.
Yet there are also so many positives. Crime is incredibly low, people are friendly and respectful, the transport system is second to none and the food is incredible, even if it is blighted by the odd pastry.
When I completed my PhD in Germany a decade ago, my supervisor asked whether I would like to do a post-doc in Japan. I thought about it, but came to the conclusion it was a step too far for me.
Tomorrow, I take to the skies and start the long journey from Bristol, UK to Tokyo, Japan.
This is my fourth visit to Japan, but each time there is always something new to discover in this bustling metropolis.
Indeed, Tokyo is one of my favourite cities – the sights, sounds and tastes offer a sensory overload. Yet Japan is also clean, safe and with a transport system that is among the best in the world.
The purpose of the trip is to visit a number of institutions and meet with senior policy makers to gather material for a Physics World special report on Japan, which will be published early next year.
These trips – and I have been on a few – are always exciting, but also exhausting. Fighting jet lag is tricky enough, but combining that with the need to be constantly “switched on” during meetings can be a challenge, particularly in the first couple of days.
Anyway, I need to pack my bags, so keep posted on the blog for updates from my travels.