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Puzzling out ancient diets, learning from Chernobyl and Fukushima, LIGO in-toto, New Horizon’s troubled conception, support networks for female physicists, physics in 100 years, and more

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

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 5, 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:



Physics Today’s Toni Feder reports on a program developed by the American Association of Physics Teachers to help alleviate isolation among female physics faculty, an understated issue in a heavily gender-lopsided field. The horizontal mentoring program, which expands on an earlier program begun in 2008 through an NSF ADVANCE grant, will be available for any interested U.S.-based female physics faculty member. Through an online tool that uses algorithms based off questionnaire answers to group members into so-called eAlliances, the program seeks to create support networks for members to give and receive advice in person.

‘Isolation has many meanings,’ said Idalia Ramos of the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao. ‘You might be the only woman in your department. Or the only astronomer in a physics department. Or in a college with no physics department. Or a single mother.’”




This past February marked the announcement of one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the 21st century – the detection of gravitational waves. The waves, which were generated 1.3 billion years ago by the violent merger of two far-off black holes, were detected Sept. 14, 2015, by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s detectors in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Physics Today’s Sung Chang gives the full story of LIGO’s inception and creation, as well as what the future holds when the Advanced LIGO detectors begin operating at full power in 2019.

"Realizing that advances in lasers could turn his thought experiment into a real one, [Rainer] Weiss wrote up in 1972, in an internal MIT report, his idea for a kilometer-scale interferometer and a list of all the possible noise sources he could think of. By 1983 he had teamed up with Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne, both at Caltech, to propose the pair of interferometers that ultimately became LIGO. NSF approved construction of LIGO in 1990, and it took nearly another decade to build the two 4 km instruments, one in Livingston, Louisiana, and the other in Hanford, Washington. (The original Hanford instrument had a second 2 km interferometer.)

"Along the way, the three-person team of Weiss, Thorne, and Drever evolved into LIGO Laboratory, the joint Caltech–MIT venture that operates the LIGO instruments. In 1997, Barry Barish, the second executive director of LIGO Laboratory, established the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which today includes more than 1000 scientists from 83 institutions worldwide."




To figure out what humans might have eaten thousands of years ago, bioarchaeologists examine the microwear on fossilized teeth with 3-D maps derived from advanced optical microscopy. Christopher Schmidt, a professor of anthropology at the University of Indianapolis and Ashley Remy, a research assistant at the University of New Mexico Cancer Research Facility, discuss the intricacies of these ancient dental analyses in this quick study.

“Through the study of dental microwear, we can determine, for example, if a population was eating wild, poorly processed foods such as those consumed by hunter-gatherers or the domesticated foods consumed by farmers and pastoralists. … Microwear consists of scratches and pits created during chewing as lower and upper teeth come into contact. Of particular interest to microwear analysts like us are the molars, which are responsible for much of the mechanical breakdown of food.”





On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft zipped past Pluto, snapping pictures of the dwarf planet and its moon Charon, completing an objective that was over 26 years in the making. In this feature, Michael Neufeld, a senior curator in the space history department of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., recalls the tortuous history of the mission, which began long before the spacecraft left Earth Jan. 19, 2006, and offers a kaleidoscopic view of the setbacks – and triumphs – that even the humblest of NASA missions can encounter.

“No one factor can be singled out as decisive in that result. So fragile and contingent was the New Horizons victory that everything had to line up to make it possible. A tortured birth lasting more than a decade is, however, not that unusual a story in the NASA robotic space program. Congressional interventions are not new in NASA’s science program either, although major path-changing ones tend to occur only at intervals of a decade or more, when the agency’s political position is weak.

"What the Pluto mission story does provide is a window on U.S. space science and technology policy during the 1990s and 2000s. … The post-1990 environment of smaller missions, competitively chosen from a larger number of space-science institutions, many of them outside NASA, has created a culture in which political lobbying and intervention are more likely.”




This month marks 30 years since Reactor 4 at the Soviet-run Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded. Physics Today’s Toni Feder provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of the site, including the Ukrainian government’s $1.6 billion plan to update the reactor’s confinement with a 26,000-ton, internationally-funded arched steel structure. She also explores the lessons ignored – and learned once more – in the aftermath of handling the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

“For a long time, the prevailing view in the West was that a Chernobyl-scale event couldn’t happen there. The thinking was that the accident was due to a faulty Russian reactor design, poor training, and a corrupt Soviet system, says Sonja Schmid, a faculty member in science and technology studies at Virginia Tech. But, she says, the Soviets ‘were competitive and at the same level [as the West] in skills and expertise, so why would they choose a reactor design that was manifestly bad?’

"After the Fukushima disaster, the dismissive logic no longer held up. 'We will have more accidents. What do we do?' she says. 'Fukushima has changed a lot to the better, in terms of learning from both accidents.'”




In this futuristic feature, Frank Wilczek, the Herman Feshback professor of Physics at MIT, discusses the major physics breakthroughs of the last century, and gives some predictions of what the next one hundred years may hold – including developments in gravitational wave astronomy, exoplanetary astronomy, and quantum computing. He also contemplates the continued rise of microelectronics, expanding the range of human sensory perception, and the creation of body-like machines and brain-like computers.

“Over the past 100 years, the pace of foundational change in physics has slowed, while the pace of innovation that physics supports has quickened. Those shifts reflect the achievement of reliable, comprehensive standard models.”




Physics Today would like you to join Frank Wilczek in thinking about what the next 100 years will bring to physics. We invite you to imagine yourself in 2116, ready to write an essay for the magazine in the style of a Search and Discovery news story. Your essay should report on an exciting discovery, an advance in physics, or a new technology. It should be at most 2000 words long and should not have been published previously.

We will award a prize of $7500 to the author of the winning essay. If more than one essay wins, the prize will be divided equally among the winning authors. A distinguished jury of physicists will select the winner or winners in the final round of judging. The decisions of the judges are final.

Winning entries will be published in Physics Today. The winners will be asked to sign a standard transfer-of-copyright agreement.

You may submit only one entry, and it must be received by June 1, 2016. Include your daytime phone number and email address. Employees of the American Institute of Physics and AIP Publishing are not eligible for this contest. Entries should be emailed to physics2116 [at], with the title of your essay as the subject line.





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