Four degree rise, shrinking X-ray microscopes and spider web fibre optics

Australian Institute of Physics, Australian Institute of Physics Congress, Media releases
  • The catastrophe of 4 degree rise – warning for Lima talks
  • Lab junk into LabPunk
  • Strobe light flashes to capture a speeding electron
  • Using spider-web fibre optics for the world wide web
  • Shrinking X-ray microscopes for a closer look at the cellular world

These topics and more on day two of the national physics conference – Tuesday 9 December

The catastrophe of a four degree temperature rise – clouds not helping

Steve Sherwood’s work on clouds suggests a 4°C rise is more likely than 2°C. But are they listening in Lima? Improved modelling of clouds has indicated that it may no longer be possible to limit the warming of the globe to 2°C by 2100 — an increase that was considered merely ‘dangerous’. Potentially we could be facing 3°C, or even 4°C. Steve is Director of the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW, and models both the expected temperature increase from given CO2 levels; and the effect of that new climate on human population. His team’s improved modelling of expected cloud reductions has shown that the upper level is more likely than previously thought. And what would it be like? “4°C would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous,” says Sherwood. “It would make life difficult, if not impossible, in much of the tropics, and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet”.

This year remains on course to be the hottest year on record, meaning that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record will all have occurred in the 21st century.

Lab junk into Labpunk

A physicist with a passion for art and an artist with a passion for science are re-purposing scientific lab equipment to make original jewellery and sculpture art.
Margaret Wegener (the physicist) and AK Milroy (the artist) have turned an old laser crystal into a flash bulb lapel pin (top right). The pin was presented to plenary speaker Paul Corkum, who uses lasers to create incredibly fast ‘flash bulbs’ to catch electrons in orbit around an atom.

Theoretical physicist Lisa Randall’s memento is a silver warped space-time cuff (left), depicting the model of the universe that her work addresses. She receives it today at her plenary talk on multiple universes.

Physicists require pure materials, such as quartz crystals that provide extremely accurate measures of time; this also makes them excellent for art, says Margaret. “Some broken crystal resonators that were given to me have been cut as gemstones (bottom right), and they look fabulous.”

Wegener and Milroy have created a unique piece of wearable art for each plenary speaker at the Congress derived from that speaker’s area of physics. Their work will be on exhibition at the Congress.

Strobe light flashes to capture a speeding electron

Strobe lights and camera flashes have let us capture the motion of galloping horses and speeding bullets, but Paul Corkum can make flashes of light so quick that he can watch electrons in orbit around an atom, or see how they move in chemical reactions. These attosecond pulses—a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second—have put the Canadian physicist on pundits’ hotlist for a Nobel Prize in Physics. It’s a long way from when, as a grad student, he had to convince interviewers he could handle the shift from theoretical to experimental physics: “It’s no problem. I can take the engine of a car apart, repair it and put it back together so it will work.” He got the job.

World wide spider web—spinning natural fibre optics

Anyone who’s stumbled into spider webs knows how transparent they are, and now Douglas Little from Macquarie University is using this property to create fibre optics. Super-strong and up to a thousandth of the width of a human hair, the organic nature of spider silk makes it suitable for use in biomedical sensors, as well as in photonics and the future of the world wide web.

Shrinking X-ray microscopes down to fit on the laboratory bench

A portable synchrotron? The $200 million Australian Synchrotron’s creates amazing X-ray microscopic images. But a Monash physicist thinks he can create an X-ray microscope sized to fit on your lab bench. X-ray microscopes offer resolution down to a few tens of millionths of a millimetre—the size of an average-sized virus, or a thousandth of the size of a blood cell. But X-ray microscopy usually requires really, really significant machinery: Australia’s most powerful X-ray microscope—the Synchrotron at Clayton—takes a hundred scientists to operate, and is the size of a football field. What if you could realise the amazing resolution of X-ray microscopy on a machine that sat on your laboratory bench? Daniele Pelliccia of Monash University is working on making this possible.