physics

Nature Outlook: Batteries

Batteries have the potential to transform the way we use energy, to make electric cars mainstream and to allow renewable energy sources, which tend to be intermittent, to be integrated into the power grid. Today’s best batteries are reaching their limits, but researchers are experimenting with new chemistries and designs. Read more in this Nature Outlook that I edited.

New Broom Technology Sweeps Through Curling World

Reversing a typical nylon curling brush’s fabric could dramatically change the sport.

Even though the ice is still the same, and most of the 42-pound stones sent down the ice in each contest still come from the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig, there’s a technological controversy brewing in the world of curling. Top players are concerned that a new type of broom makes it too easy to control the direction of the sliding rock, and could damage the ice. Read more in Inside Science.

Development Of Airplanes Is Like Biological Evolution, Engineer Says

Airplanes and birds may have followed similar pattern to increase efficiency.

The development of passenger aircraft over the past century mirrors the evolution of flying animals, and shows that evolution is not just a biological phenomenon, according to a paper published today in the Journal of Applied Physics.

Adrian Bejan, a mechanical engineer at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, argues that evolution is a physical phenomenon, with changes in animals driven by physical laws. In the case of birds, the factors include aerodynamics.

“I want to persuade people that evolution – that is the change in [body shape] over time – recognizes no distinction between the two camps of biology and physics,” he said. Read more in Inside Science.

A drop in the river of time

Some things in science are worth waiting for.

Sometime towards the end of this year, one of the rarest events in science is expected to occur. In a display case in the lobby of the physics department at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, a small drop of black tar distillate known as pitch will detach itself from the stem of a funnel and fall into a waiting beaker below. It will be the first time a drop has fallen in 13 years, and only the ninth such drop since the experiment was set up 86 years ago.

Thomas Parnell, the university’s first professor of physics, set up the pitch drop experiment to show his students that pitch, which is brittle enough to shatter if hit with a hammer, can flow like a liquid if left to its own devices long enough. Over the course of almost a century, the experiment has survived the relocation of the university campus, extensive renovations to the physics building where it is housed and innumerable changes in university administration and staff. But it serenely carries on, despite the turmoil of the world all around it. Read more in Materials Today.

Spot of bother: have we been getting solar activity wrong?

For 400 years sunspot numbers have told us what the sun is up to. But wrinkles in the record have left solar scientists scratching their heads, until now.

EVERY lunchtime, Gustav Holmberg leaves his desk at Lund University in Sweden to take part in a scientific ritual that stretches back to Galileo’s time.

Back at his flat, the historian of science sets up a modest telescope and, taking due care not to burn his eyes, points it directly at the sun. He spends 5 minutes or so counting, and uploads a number to a server in Belgium. There, it is automatically combined with similar numbers from some 90 other observers around the globe, two-thirds of them amateurs like himself.

Satellite engineers use this number, updated daily, to predict how the sun’s future activity will affect their spacecraft. Climate scientists use it to pick out the sun’s long-term effects on Earth’s climate. Electricity companies use it to anticipate solar storms that could affect their grids. It is the international sunspot number: the world’s oldest continuous data series, and one of its most important. Read more in New Scientist.

Pitch-drop custodian dies without witnessing a drop fall

Photo courtesy of University of Queensland.

Photo courtesy of University of Queensland.

John Mainstone, who for 52 years tended to one of the world’s longest-running laboratory experiments but never saw it bear fruit with his own eyes, died on 23 August after suffering a stroke. He was 78.

Mainstone had been looking after the pitch drop experiment at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia since he arrived at the university as a physics professor in 1961. The experiment, set up in 1927 by the university’s first head of the physics department, Thomas Parnell, consists of a sample of tar pitch slowly running through a funnel (see ‘Long-term research: Slow science‘). Read more in Nature.

Slow science

The world’s longest-running experiments remind us that science is a marathon, not a sprint.

Although science is a long-term pursuit, research is often practised over short timescales: a discrete experiment or a self-contained project constrained by the length of a funding cycle. But some investigations cannot be rushed. To study human lifespans or the roiling of Earth’s crust and the Sun’s surface, for instance, requires decades and even centuries.

Here, Nature takes a look at five of science’s longest-running projects, some of which have been amassing data continuously for centuries. Read more in Nature.