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Volcano research flowing from North Korea, an electric telegraph’s bicentennial, beating the ultrasound diffraction limit, atoms for peace, and more

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

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WASHINGTON, D.C., February 3, 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:



Geologically speaking, Mount Paektu shouldn’t exist - the 2700-meter-volcano, which straddles the border between China and North Korea, isn’t anywhere near a tectonic plate boundary. In this issue, Physics Today’s Toni Feder reports on the efforts of an international collaboration of Western and North Korean scientists, facilitated through the nongovernmental organization Pyongyang International Information Center of New Technology and Economy, to conduct studies at the volcano.

‘The North Korean researchers know the mountain, and “they are well trained— they are better at math than most of our students,” says Oppenheimer. But they lack sophisticated lab equipment, seldom attend international conferences, and have restricted internet access. “That’s why they are reaching out to us to provide expertise. And we benefit from the opportunity to work on a very interesting volcano,” he says.



This Korean ink-brush painting by Han Woojeong shows the lake-filled caldera of Mount Paektu, a volcano that straddles the border between North Korea and China. Its eruption in 946 CE is among the most powerful ever recorded. After signs of revived activity were detected early last decade, North Korea reached out internationally for help in studying the volcano. 


In 1816, a young Francis Ronalds built the world’s first electric telegraph in the back garden of his family’s home in London. Although his technology was superseded by others', his work helped to usher in a new era of human contact and ultimately establishing electrical engineering as a profession. In this feature, Beverly Ronalds, a retired Australian professional engineer and academic, discusses the legacy of her great-great-great-uncle’s electric telegraph, which celebrates its bicentennial this year.

“In Ronalds’s younger years, electricity was still a scientific curiosity, with little thought given to any application. Static electricity was observed in nature, generated by friction and measured with an electroscope. Alessandro Volta invented the electrochemical battery in 1800, and the striking mechanical and chemical effects it produced were explored with great interest. However, no theoretical framework, consistent terminology, or units of measurement were available to help explain the observations, nor was there any clear understanding of how static electricity and Volta’s current were related. Even with so little known about electricity, Ronalds wanted to put it to work…”




For biomedical imaging, ultrasound waves operate on a tradeoff between depth of penetration and resolution due to the diffraction limit, which holds their resolution to roughly half of a wavelength, or 100 – 500 micrometers. To circumvent this, researchers at the Langevin Institute in Paris have devised an ultrasound technique akin to the innovative fluorescent techniques that were recognized by the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Physics Today’s Johanna Miller reports.

“Inspired by that work, Mickael Tanter and his colleagues at the Langevin Institute (affiliated with ESPCI, Inserm, and CNRS) in Paris have now developed a superresolution ultra- sound technique, which they’ve used to image the blood vessels in a rat’s brain with 10-μm resolution…applying the technique in humans could help to detect cancer and other diseases that alter blood-flow patterns.”




In this feature, Joseph D. Martin, an assistant professor in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science unit at Michigan State University, recalls the Michigan Memorial-Phoenix Project, a post-World War II project that sought to explore peaceful uses of nuclear science. The project went on to fund Donald Glaser's Nobel-prize-winning invention, the bubble chamber, and ultimately sparked systematic changes in the way the university supported research and reshaped the university’s relationships with the alumni community and industry.

"The Phoenix Project started small. Its first crumpled dollars came in December 1946 from a raffle held at the J-Hop, the annual student formal. The student legislature organized the raffle to raise funds for a war memorial. Operation Phoenix, as it was sometimes called, was the result. Its mission was both to commemorate the University of Michigan students and alumni who had died in World War II and, as its logo illustrates, to refocus to constructive ends the destructive power unleashed in the war.”






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