Saturday, October 17, 2009

Playing Catchup on a Busy Science Week

Wow, where to start:

1) Last Friday I got up early and watched NASA television's coverage of the LCROSS impact. There were plans to try to record the impact with Louisiana Tech's new observatory, but we have been socked in with rain for weeks now. Anyway, as most of you know, the actual impact appeared to be a dud. No bright flash or spectacular plume kicked up when the rocket booster and the LCROSS spacecraft itself crashed into the Cebeus craters near the Moon's south pole.

Of course, that was not the end of the story. While the news media moves on to other things (Lindsey Lohan's probation violation, missing kids who may or may not be in a hot air balloon) the scientists got to work on analyzing the data from the impacts. Now we know that there was a plume, just at the low end of what was expected in terms of brightness. And early spectroscopy indicated the presence of sodium, which was a surprise. Still no word yet on water vapor, but stayed tuned.

2) The LHC is back in the news, as we get closer to re-start at the end of November. My student, Ram Dhullipudi, who is stationed at CERN, is very busy these days with the software being used to monitor the data. Our experiment, ATLAS, is already taking shifts just like we will during data taking, recording cosmic ray events and trying to exercise the "machinary" of data taking and distribution. The final sectors were cooled down at the end of the week, now the whole accelerator is colder than deep space.

But the biggest news coverage came last week from the arrest of a postdoctoral researcher on terrorism charges. The physicist, who worked on the LHCb experiment and was employed by EPFL in Lausanne, was accused of having ties to Al Quaida in the the Maghreb, a North African terror group. The first I heard of ths was when all CERN users were sent an email from the Director General after the arrest in Vienne, France, reminding users that CERN is an open lab and did not engage in secret or military research.

Research at these large international labs produces an unusual and unqie environment. During the Cold War, Fermilab was the only U.S. grovernment-run site that flew the Hammer and Sickle of the Soviet Union (along with the flags of all the other nations that had scientists working at the lab). At CERN an American and an Isreali might work side-by-side with an Iranian and a Pakistani. The science does not respect national borders, and to the extent possible with the real problems in the world, the labs also try to to produce an work atmosphere free of national rivalries.

3) Speaking of science that goes beyond borders, a team of researchers in Nanjing, China, have created an electromagnetic analog of black holes in metamaterials. There is a cool local tie-in, since this is experimental verification of an effect predicted by Louisiana Tech researcher Dentcho Genov in his recent Nature Physics article (which is reference no. 5 in the Chinese scientists' paper).

4) What is up with apparent magnetic monopoles produced in solids and so-called magnetricity? This is an effect in materials that behave as "spin ices", and as far as I can tell are like phonons and other lattice quanta in that they are not a "real" particle but a quantized effect in the lattice. But this is getting beyond my depth - something I will have to understand better before I teach electricity & magnetism again.

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