Space and the island of stability are not far away from black
Nano is in, macro is out? As the year draws to a close, it shows: not at all, on the contrary - old and new departments benefited extensively from each other. And with them many other scientific disciplines.
Some would think that nano and quantum computers ruled the world of physics. But looking back at the end of the year, the classic fields of physics - materials science, optics, energy or electronics - dominated the picture. They held their ground bravely alongside the fuss surrounding the new disciplines and even seem to be experiencing a kind of renaissance. In doing so, they increasingly use the knowledge of modern specialist areas. The experimenters trace many mechanical or optical functions of the substrates they examine directly back to nanoscopic or quantum physical phenomena, although the focus was often on the macroscopic properties.
At the same time, the trend that emerged in the past year was confirmed, that new findings are evidently primarily generated at the border areas between the disciplines. The overlaps often extend far into biology, astronomy, geology or chemistry. The physicists and technicians didn't even stop at sports in the year of the soccer World Cup in Germany.
The best example of interdisciplinary work this year was the Nobel Prize in Physics, which went to two cosmologists. The two Americans John Mather and George Smoot received the award for measurements they had carried out with NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (Cobe) satellite. With it, they discovered the smallest temperature differences in the background radiation of space, the reverberation of the Big Bang, from which one can read how the universe developed after its birth. In addition, the two scientists proved that the spectral distribution of the fading primal scream of the universe resembles that of a black body and thus resembles the sun or a glowing hotplate in its behavior - only that it is significantly colder at minus 270 degrees Celsius.
Electromagnetic waves on all channels
The optics blend seamlessly with heat and thus electromagnetic waves – the infrared of the thermal radiation continuously transitions into the visible spectrum. This year, the physicist Stefan Hell from Göttingen overcame a law of optics that the Thuringian physicist Ernst Abbe (1840-1905) carved in stone more than a hundred years ago as a natural law. It reads: Under a microscope, only objects that are larger than about half the wavelength of the light used can be seen. Now Hell, who is also director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, shook this foundation and crumbled Abbe's memorial stone, so to speak. He developed a so-called Sted microscope (Stimulated Emission Depletion), which – although it Light works – delivering an image that is around ten times as sharp as that of conventional instruments. A few weeks ago, Hell received the German Future Prize, which is endowed with 250,000 euros, from the Federal President Horst Köhler for this masterpiece.
But something new was also happening in the long-wave range: scientists working with David Smith from Duke University have created something extraordinary, something that inspires the imagination of almost everyone. They made a kind of camouflage coat - a structure that makes you invisible. At least two-dimensional objects that lie in one plane, and at least for beings that perceive their environment exclusively in a certain wavelength range of microwaves. Despite these severe limitations, this design attracted extraordinary media interest late this year. After all, many immediately think of the heroes from their childhood: Siegfried from the Nibelungen saga, the legendary Alpine king Laurin or the spaceship Enterprise and the magic student Harry Potter.
The pure teaching for everyday life
The "invisibility cloak" and the Nobel Prize for research with the Cobe satellite make it clear how closely linked physics is with many other scientific disciplines. And that she can not only deliver the lofty, but also something that is very close to everyday life.
There is nothing more exciting for many people than sport – football, to be more precise. Because the soccer World Cup was probably moving everyone in their own country, the physicists could not help but give good advice - for example how to throw a ball back into the field as effectively as possible after a touch or how best to sink a pen alty kick into the opponent's goal. It remains to be seen whether these findings will help the national team in South Africa in 2010. Because one thing is certain: the laws of physics apply equally to everyone.
In general, the biomechanics, to which the soccer tips belonged, have blossomed quite a bit this year. Several scientific contributions have examined biophysical processes, be it walking, seeing, the behavior of cells or enzymes in electrical fields, or the material properties of biological substances such as spider silk.
Cancer in Crosshairs
It's not a long way from biology to medicine. Physicists also made important contributions to this this year. Just think of the imaging processes of magnetic resonance tomographs, the sharpness of which, according to Leif Schröder from the University of California in Berkeley, could be significantly improved if atoms of the harmless noble gas xenon were circulating in the patient's body and should first be inhaled.
But the engineers and technicians have also declared war on cancer. Scientists at the European research center CERN in Switzerland were able to show that tumor cells can be destroyed better with antiprotons – the antimatter of the hydrogen nucleus – than with the classic corpuscles. The Society for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt is also extremely successful in the field of cancer therapy using ion bombardment. The experiences made there with the healing of brain tumor patients are so convincing that a therapy center for this technology is now being set up in Heidelberg, for example.
Patients can be happy about this "waste product" of the Darmstadt basic researchers, who actually want to create and examine new elements in their system. The Hessian researchers had reason to celebrate when Federal Research Minister Annette Schavan finally officially named the chemical element 111 - which had already been produced at GSI in 1994 - "Roentgenium" (Rg) - although not "Schnapszahlus" either would have been a bad choice. The delay in naming came after it became known that the lead scientist, who later went to the United States to do research, had apparently falsified results there. However, a commission has now been able to prove that everything was right in Darmstadt, which is why nothing stood in the way of the baptism.
The GSI researchers are actually looking for the so-called "island of stability" in the sea of the periodic table of chemical elements. The superheavy atomic nuclei there are said to be characterized by exceptional "longevity" compared to their neighbors. A few days ago, the research facility reported that they seem to have discovered at least "a reef off the island" with the element Hassium-270. According to measurements, this variant of the atomic nucleus, which was also produced at GSI and contains 108 protons and 162 neutrons and is named after the federal state of Hesse, only decays into a lighter partner after 22 seconds. That is extraordinarily long for such a heavy particle. The Darmstadt researchers are already looking forward to their new accelerator system Fair, with which they want to discover and explore the island of stability in a few years.