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.