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The fertile physics of chemical gardens, bridging Europe’s neutron gap, microphones that shaped popular music, polar vortices, turning over the keys at Los Alamos, and more

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Free content from this month's issue of Physics Today, now available online

Contact: Jason Socrates Bardi
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WASHINGTON, D.C., March 4, 2016 -- The following articles are freely available online from Physics Today (, the world's most influential and closely followed magazine devoted to physics and the physical sciences community. You are invited to read, share, blog about, link to, or otherwise enjoy:



The growth and blossoming of crystal “chemical gardens” has fascinated scientists and schoolchildren alike for centuries, and the self-assembling structures were once thought to reveal insights into the mechanism of life emerging from an inorganic setting. In this feature Oliver Steinbock, a professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, Julian Cartwright, a physicist with the Spanish National Research Council, and Laura Barge, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, discuss current research which aims to link chemical gardens to larger self-organizing systems.   

“The physical approach reveals perplexing scaling laws and attracts researchers with backgrounds in nonlinear dynamics, pattern formation, self-assembly, and fluid dynamics. Materials scientists could learn potentially important lessons as chemical gardens create macroscopic complexity and hierarchical nano-to-macro architectures. There is even the possibility of making device-like tubes from molecular processes in a new field of study that has been termed chemobrionics. Finally, by studying chemical gardens that form in geological settings, researchers are again focusing on their role in the origins of life on Earth.”


 The addition of cobalt, copper, iron, nickel, and zinc salts to a sodium silicate solution resulted in the 2.5 cm × 3.5 cm chemical garden seen here. CREDIT Bruno Batista



In this Quick Study, Alex Case, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, discusses the impact of the evolution of microphone technology on vocal styles—and thus popular music as a whole—since playback and recording began in 1877.

“The low-frequency lift, high-frequency cushioning, and mid-frequency clarity captured a larger-than-life, better-than- real vocal. From the ribbon transducer, the crooner was born. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and others built their careers not only through musical talent, training, and practice; they also invented a dexterity around the microphone that enabled them to get the tone they desired. Musicianship now required a performance technique unique to the studio.”




For the last ten years, the Los Alamos National Security corporation has held the operating contract for the iconic Los Alamos National Laboratory, but its days doing so may soon be up. Due to a series of serious accidents in recent years, the for-profit University of California and Bechtel Corp-partnered corporation narrowly missed security tests to have its operating contract renewed by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Physics Today’s David Kramer reports on the series of management restructurings, personnel mishaps, and conflicting interests that caused the operating bid to be put out for only the second time in the laboratory’s 73-year history.

“In particular, the contractor fell short in the subcategories of safety, management systems, and cybersecurity, McMillan told employees in the 11 January memo. A serious accident occurred last May in which nine workers were injured, one critically, at an electrical substation at the lab’s Neutron Science Center.

Had it continued receiving annual extensions, the LANS contract could have run through 2026. But the $2.2 billion annual contract includes a “four strikes and you’re out” provision that now precludes the possibility of an extension based on LANS’s performance during the current fiscal year…”




While the positive feedback loop of Arctic ice melt and rising ocean temperatures has long been scientifically established, discussion continues among climate scientists over whether the increase in temperature is responsible for recent worldwide incidents of extreme weather. In this feature, James Overland, a research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, discusses the ability of Arctic warming to affect jet stream patterns and midlatitude weather, as well as the potential use of Arctic amplification as a new tool for extended weather forecasting.

"In 2012, climatologists Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus proposed that warming of the Arctic can modify the shape of the jet stream—the fast-flowing air currents that circle the planet—enough to directly influence the weather at midlatitudes.

Scientific opinions differ, however, on whether such episodes of extreme weather are random events or are discernible contributions from the Arctic. After all, cold snaps even more severe than those from the past few years hit the US in the early 1960s, in the late 1970s, and earlier in the 20th century, when Arctic sea ice was thicker and more extensive than it is today...”




In this news story, Physics Today’s Johanna Miller reports on the efforts of researchers at the Atomic Energy Commission in Saclay France, University College London, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to use a superconducting resonant circuit to increase the emission rate of a spin-flip transition – a decay of a quantum system to a lower state – by a factor of nearly a trillion, vastly benefitting quantum information.

“The results may be applicable to the NMR technique of dynamic nuclear polarization. Because an atom’s nuclear spin states are so close in energy, even under a strong applied magnetic field, it can be difficult to coax more of them into one state than the other…”




One might expect fanfare for the opening of the world’s most powerful neutron reactor, the European Spallation Source, in Sweden in 2023 – were it not, however, for the projected closing of two medium-flux reactors in 2019. The reactors, located in Berlin and in Saclay, France, have a combined 40 instruments and run 200 to 300 days a year, together serving approximately 15% of Europe’s 6000 researchers using neutron reactors. Physics Today’s Toni Feder reports on the politics of neutron reactor facilities and the challenges the European research community will face in the coming years.

“With beam time not yet curtailed and a flagship facility in the works, mobilizing the neutron- scattering community to minimize the upcoming neutron gap is proving tough, says Christiane Alba- Simionesco, chair of the European Neutron Scattering Association and director of the Laboratoire Léon  Brillouin, where the Saclay reactor -- known as Orphée -- is located. Mitigating measures could include extending the lives of reactors, upgrading existing facilities by building new beamlines and instruments, and developing new alternative sources. But getting cash- strapped governments to pony up for the field on top of their investments in the ESS is a hard sell.”






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