The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics

I woke up a little late this morning. I wanted to be up at 4:30am. It was 4:40 when I realized the alarm I had set the night before was going off, and I pulled myself out of bed. Jodi was already up, working on her class prep for the week. I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed upstairs to my office to connect to and listen to the announcement of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics (“… no earlier that 11:45am” European Central Time, as their website always says). 

“I think the internet is down again,” Jodi said as she sat at the writing desk in my office. I sat down at my computer desk, and verified it – our internet connection to the outside world was out, as it had been on Sunday when I returned from a conference in Sweden. We tried a few things with the cable modem, but nothing worked. So, I fired up the LTE connection on my iPad and connected to the live stream of the announcement a few minutes late.

They were still in the part in Swedish, but a minute or so after we connected, they switched to the English version: the prize for physics was awarded…

…for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics” with one half to Arthur Ashkin “for the optical tweezers and their application to biological systems”, the other half jointly to Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses.”

When I first saw a demonstration of optical tweezers in 1998, it was in the summer at a CERN colloquium by then new Nobel Laureate, Steve Chu. Optical tweezers were thre basis of his own prize, and so it was fitting the the optical tweezer breakthrough itself would one day be highlighted by the Swedish Academy of Science and the Nobel Prize. LASIK surgery, among many other applications, were enabled by the other half of the prize. The ability to generate ultra-short, highly intense pulses of laser light have made a great deal of modern technology possible. The seeds of all that were planted by the 1985 paper on chirped pulse amplification by Strickland and Mourou. This was the subject of Strickland’s Ph.D. research, and by the time she earned her Ph.D. in 1989 she and Mourou had also demonstrated the first tabletop Terawatt laser prototype. Not bad for a Ph.D.!

As I put together my slides for the beginning of my introductory physics class today, other interesting things came to my attention. Ashkin was drafted to serve in WWII but put into the enlisted reserve to work on the technology for radar at the Columbia Radiation Laboratory. Mourou has a very thin paper trail on the web, making learning more about his career more difficult then the other two. Strickland has been the President of the Optical Society but is only an Associate Professor at her university (which makes me wonder about promotion standards at her university, and then fear for them at my own). 

You learn a lot from a Nobel Prize… and not always what you expect.

CERN Travel Journal: June 5 – June 9, 2018

I left behind SMU in late May to begin a short period of rest and recovery ahead of travel to CERN.

I’ve decided to use my blog to reflect on my summer research activities as they unfold. I find such reflection not only useful for thinking about what is accomplished and what is not, but also to communicate to an audience some of the aspects of the research life of a particle physicist (at least, one that has to travel to a remote site just to do their research).

This past week was a travel week for me, kicking off my time at CERN for the next few weeks. Prior to that, I visited my parents to get some much-needed rest and relaxation, as well as to (most importantly) spend time with family I don’t get to see very often due to teaching and research duties throughout the year. I arrived at CERN late on Wednesday (later than anticipated), and hit the ground running on Thursday.

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A View from the Shadows: Tune That Dial to Black Hole

A simulation image, tweeted out by the NRAO, showing what astronomers can expect to see (right) when they crunch the radio data from the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

In our book, “Reality in the Shadows,” we devote an entire chapter to the phenomenon of the black hole (“A Shadows Where No Light Shines“). We dealt in things that are known – for instance, that black holes exist and that they can be detected using their effects on the surrounding space and matter – and things that are not known for certain – the mathematics needed to fully describe a black hole, for instance. Black holes are a deep dive. They represent the mass of at least one stellar core compressed into a volume smaller than the nucleus of an atom. Whereas neutron stars are like nature’s largest atomic nucleus, black holes are nature’s heaviest, but smallest, atomic nucleus. This makes them a challenge to modern physics. In a black hole, gravity is extremely strong… but so are the other forces of natures, those described by quantum physics. Yet no evidence-verified union of gravity and quantum physics exists. That makes black holes an excellent candidate to learn what we have not yet learned about places in the universe where gravity and quantum forces are both strong.

One of the exciting things that we didn’t get to include in the book, because it was not yet concluded as of publication, is an ongoing attempt to “photograph” the event horizon of the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, our home galaxy. In this essay, I’ll take a look at this effort and give you some ideas about just how big that black hole is, and why it might be possible to photograph it by tuning into it using radio waves.

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A View from the Shadows: The New Astronomy

Image credit: LIGO/Virgo/Caltech/MIT/Leo Singer (Milky Way image: Axel Mellinger)

Sometimes, scientific fields move fast. They move so fast, even three authors working with a really responsive and excellent publisher who has fully embraced “print-on-demand” as a business model cannot keep up. Such is the reality of the new astronomy, gravitational wave astronomy. The LIGO, and then the VIRGO, instruments have worked so spectacularly well in the last two years (and are operated by such an effective team of scientists and engineers) that results from these instruments out-paced our ability to incorporate their discoveries fully into our writing. In a later edition of “Reality in the Shadows,” we’ll of course try to capture the full picture of the early period of this new astronomy. But for this post, it’s sufficient to have a look at something that just didn’t make it into our book: colliding neutron stars.

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