Archive for Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize for Physics Matters

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 1, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been a bit tied up writing lecture notes and participating in telecons today, so I’ve just got time for a little post to mention that tomorrow morning (October 2nd 2018) will see the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics.

I do, of course, already have a Nobel Prize of my own, dating from 2006, when I was lucky enough to attend the prize-giving ceremony and banquet.

I was, however, a guest of the Nobel Foundation rather than a prizewinner, so my medal is made of chocolate rather than gold. Still, it was a very nice weekend!

I have no idea who will win the Physics Nobel Prize tomorrow. If you have any suggestions please put then forward through the comments box.

I’d say there’s an outside chance that there might be an award for the discovery of exoplanets, as that has certainly altered humanity’s perception of its place in the Universe. It’s by no means obvious to me who should win it, however. Possibilities are Possible winners include Didier Queloz, Aleksander Wolszczan, Dale Frail, and Michel Mayor, but which? It may also be too soon after the gravitational waves prize last year. Perhaps it’s time for something less exotic this year? To find out you’ll have to wait for the announcement, around about 10.45 (UK/Irish time) tomorrow morning.

Anyway, for the record, I’ll reiterate my opinion that while the Nobel Prize is flawed in many ways, particularly because it no longer really reflects how physics research is done, it does at least have the effect of getting people talking about physics. Surely that at least is a good thing?

UPDATE: And the winner is…

One half to Arthur Askey Ashkin, and the other half jointly to Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, for “groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics.”

So there are you are. The rumours were, as usual, completely wrong.

Oh, and Donna Strickland is the first woman to win the physics Nobel since Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. Congratulations to her, and indeed to all this year’s winners!


The IKEA Universe

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 29, 2018 by telescoper

I heard yesterday the sad news of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Swedish furniture chain IKEA.  People can be very snobbish about IKEA, but its emphasis on affordable design has been a boon for people on low incomes for many years. When I was an impoverished postdoc living in London I used it a lot, especially their Billy bookcases. I also have a very sturdy Omar in my bedroom…

I remember years ago  that while shopping in the IKEA at Neasden I discovered that they were running a competition, for which entrants had to complete the sentence:

I shop at IKEA because…

My entry completed it thus:

I shop at IKEA because it’s as cheap as fuck.

I didn’t win.

But I digress. Not many people are aware that IKEA also furnishes  important insights into modern cosmology, so I’ll try to explain here. I’ve blogged before about the current state of cosmology, but it’s probably a good idea to give a quick reminder before going any further. We have a standard cosmological model, known as the concordance cosmology, which accounts for most relevant observations in a pretty convincing way and is based on the idea that the Universe began with a Big Bang.  However, there are a few things about this model that are curious, to say the least.

First, there is the spatial geometry of the Universe. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, universes come in three basic shapes: closed, open and flat. These are illustrated to the right. The flat space has “normal” geometry in which the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. In a closed space the sum of the angles is greater than 180 degrees, and  in an open space it is less. Of course the space we live in is three-dimensional but the pictures show two-dimensional surfaces.

But you get the idea.

The point is that the flat space is very special. The two curved spaces are much more general because they can be described by a parameter called their curvature which could in principle take any value (either positive for a closed space, or negative for an open space). In other words the sphere at the top could have any radius from very small (large curvature) to very large (small curvature). Likewise with the “saddle” representing an open space. The flat space must have exactly zero curvature. There are many ways to be curved, but only one way to be flat.

Yet, as near as dammit, our Universe appears to be flat. So why, with all the other options theoretically available to it, did the Universe decide to choose the most special one, which also happens in my opinion to be also the most boring?

Then there is the way the Universe is put together. In order to be flat there must be an exact balance between the energy contained in the expansion of the Universe (positive kinetic energy) and the energy involved in the gravitational interactions between everything in it (negative potential energy). In general relativity, you see, the curvature relates to the total amount of energy.

On the left you can see the breakdown of the various components involved in the standard model with the whole pie representing a flat Universe. You see there’s a vary strange mixture dominated by dark energy (which we don’t understand) and dark matter (which we don’t understand). The bit we understand a little bit better (because we can sometimes see it directly) is only 5% of the whole thing. The proportions do look very peculiar.

And then finally, there is the issue that I have ablogged about (here and there) previously, which is why the Universe appears to be a bit lop-sided and asymmetrical when we’d like it to be a bit more aesthetically pleasing.

All these curiosities are naturally accounted for in my New Theory of the Universe, which asserts that the Divine Creator actually bought  the entire Cosmos  in IKEA.

This hypothesis immediately explains why the Universe is flat. Absolutely everything in IKEA comes in flat packs. Curvature is not allowed.

But this is not the only success of my theory. When God got home He obviously opened the flat pack, found the instructions and read the dreaded words “EASY SELF-ASSEMBLY”. Even the omnipotent would struggle to follow the bizarre set of cartoons and diagrams that accompany even the simplest IKEA furniture. The result is therefore predictable: strange pieces that don’t seem to fit together, bits left over whose purpose is not at all clear, and an overall appearance that is not at all like one would have expected.

It’s clear  where the lop-sidedness comes in too. Probably some of the parts were left out so the whole thing isn’t  held together properly and is probably completely unstable. This sort of thing happens all the time with IKEA stuff. And why is it you can never find the right size Allen Key to sort it out?

So there you have it. My new Theory of the Universe. Some details need to be worked out, but it is as good an explanation of these issues as I have heard. I claim my Nobel Prize.

If anything will ever get me another trip to Sweden, this will…

Nobel Prize Memories

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on December 10, 2016 by telescoper

Ye Olde Facebooke has reminded me that  on 10th December 2006, ie exactly ten years ago today, I was in the lovely city of Stockholm for that year’s Nobel Prize celebrations.

I was bit taken aback when I got the invitation from the Nobel Foundation, partly because I didn’t expect to be invited in the first place and partly because there wasn’t and never has been a ‘Mrs Peter Coles’:


In the absence of an actual Mrs Coles I went with a colleague from the University of Nottingham, where I was working at the time.

As guests of the Nobel Foundation, we  attended the award ceremony but also the sumptuous banquet afterwards (both of which are traditionally held on a Sunday 10th December):


I found this old selfie taken as I was trying on the gear for the occasion in the room we were given in Stockholm’s very swanky Grand Hotel:


They even gave us each a Nobel Prize of our own, though only made of chocolate!


I’ve kept quite a lot of souvenirs from that weekend because I knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but looking at them thus morning it just struck me what a lot has happened in the decade since. I had no inkling at the time of the Nobel celebrations that I would be moving to Cardiff the following summer (2007) nor that I would move to Sussex and back to Cardiff.

I wonder what the next ten years will bring?

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by telescoper

Well, as I suspected, the Nobel Prize Committee for Physics played with a very straight bat and did not award this years Prize to gravitational waves. I thought there was a reasonable chance they might bend the rules, and the polling was very even , so clearly some people thought so too. Anyway, I don’t think any bookmakers will be taking bets on next year!

Anyway, none of this should detract at all from the winner. Half this year’s prize was awarded to David J. Thouless (University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA)  and the other half to F. Duncan M. Haldane (Princeton University, NJ, USA) and J. Michael Kosterlitz
(Brown University, Providence, RI, USA)

”for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”

Although they now live and work in the USA, all three of the winners were born in the United Kingdom (two of them, Kosterlitz and Thouless, in Scotland); Haldane retains British nationality, Kosterlitz is now an American citizen and Thouless has joint US/UK nationality.

And here’s the text of the citation:

This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.

The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.

It’s not my field, but I send my heartiest congratulations to Professors Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz. Enjoy your trip to Stockholm – it’s lovely in December!

Note that the Thomson-Reuters Nobel Prize “predictor”“, which is not often right, was wrong again!


Variations on the Theme of Northern Lights

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 9, 2015 by telescoper

This morning I woke up as usual to BBC Radio 3. Unusually however this morning’s breakfast programme was broadcast live from the picturesque town of Tromsø in Norway, which is well inside the Actic Circle so is dark all day at this time of year. The broadcast from Norway part of a three-week extravaganza called Northern Lights, which focusses on the music and culture North of 60° latitude.

Anyway, this prompted me to do a brief post about a couple of related matters connected by the theme of Northern Lights.

The first is to draw your attention to the fact that, to coincide with this Nobel Prize Week in Stockholm, the artist Olafur Eliasson has set up a temporary public artwork in Stockholm called Your Star, which involves putting an artificial star into the sky over Stockholm. I gather it has been quite difficult to get the star to behave in the windy conditions, but in any case you can use the website to view six short videos and even create your own star..

The second is this wonderful video of the  Aurora Borealis? If you haven’t seen this before then take a look. It’s not a fake. This is what it’s really like.

I stood under a show like this once, in Tromsø in fact, and I can tell you ever the word “awesome” applied to anything, this is it. The curious thing is that I had the definite feeling that there was a booming and whooshing sound to go with the light show. I wasn’t the only one there who thought they could hear it as well as see it. And I wasn’t drunk either. Well, not very.

I’m reliably informed however that there is no physical mechanism that could produce sound waves of sufficient power to reach ground level from the altitude at which the light is generated. It must have been psychological, as if the brain wants to add a backing track when it sees something as spectacular as this. Any views on this phenomenon would be welcome via the comments box..


UPDATE: here’s an interesting take on the Auroral Sounds issue.

Physics Nobel Prize 2010

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 5, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick newsflash: the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov (both of the University of Manchester)  “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene“.

For more details see the official announcement.

Heartiest congratulations to them both! Thoroughly well deserved.

ps. They were predicted to win two years ago by Thomson Reuters.

pps. It’s a clean sweep for UK-based scientists, so far. I wonder if the government is listening?