Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Micronium - The World's Smallest Musical Instrument

Musician Tony Conrad is quoted as saying, "modern physics had been generated as a branch of music" ( New research carried out by the University of Twente seems to bear this out, with engineers and physicists creating the world's smallest musical instrument.

The micronium is the first musical instrument with dimensions measured in mere micrometres that produces audible tones. It has strings a fraction of the thickness of a human hair, with microscopic weights to pluck them: A composition has been specially written for the instrument by Arvid Jense, who is studying MediaMusic at the conservatorium in Enschede.

Science Daily notes that earlier musical instruments with these minimal dimensions only produced tones that are inaudible to humans. But thanks to ingenious construction techniques, students from the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology of the University of Twente in The Netherlands have succeeded in producing scales that are audible when amplified. To do so, they made use of the possibilities offered by micromechanics: the construction of moving structures with dimensions measured in micrometres. These miniscule devices can be built thanks to the ultra-clean conditions in a 'clean room', and the advanced etching techniques that are possible there.

The micronium played a leading role at the opening of a two-day scientific conference on micromechanics at Atak ( in Enschede in September, where Arvid Jense's composition,'Impromptu No. 1 for Micronium', was premiered.

The tiny musical instrument is made up of springs that are only a tenth of the thickness of a human hair, and vary in length from a half to a whole millimetre. A mass of a few dozen micrograms is hung from these springs. The mass is set in motion by so-called 'comb drives': miniature combs that fit together precisely and shift in relation to each other, so 'plucking' the springs and creating sounds. The mass vibrates with a maximum deflection of just a few micrometres. This minimal movement can be accurately measured, and produces a tone. Each tone has its own mass spring system, and six tones fit on a microchip. By combining a number of chips, a wider range of tones can be achieved.

"The tuning process turned out to be the greatest challenge," says Johan Engelen, who devised and led the project.


Monday, 27 September 2010

New Zealand physicists make a major breakthrough

Exciting news from Dunedin today, as several news agencies report that University of Otago scientists have made a "major physics breakthrough". The Dunedin-based scientists are the first in the world to consistently isolate and capture a single atom, and the first to take its photograph. The atom is Rubidium 85.

Their discovery has defied accepted science and might help turn the building blocks of life into ultrafast quantum-logic computers, which are still being developed. Mikkel Andersen, Tzahi Grunzweig, Andrew Hilliard and Matt McGovern started work on the project three years ago. They captured their first atom on January 26, but took another four days to accept what had happened.

In their step towards creating what they call a "kind of atomic romance", a team used laser cooling technology to slow a group of atoms, before a laser beam, or "optical tweezers", isolated and held one atom. "What we have done moves the frontier of what scientists can do and gives us deterministic control of the smallest building blocks in our world." Dr Mikkel Andersen said.

"Our method provides a way to deliver those atoms needed to build this type of computer, and it is now possible to get a set of ten atoms held or trapped at the one time [...] You need a set of 30 atoms if you want to build a quantum computer that is capable of performing certain tasks better than existing computers, so this is a big step towards successfully doing that."

Sources: &

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cassini dives inside Saturn's radio aurora

NASA have produced stunning new images and video of Saturn's shimmering aurora. The images are helping scientists understand what drives some of the solar system's most impressive light shows.

Auroras happen when charged particles are funneled along converging magnetic field lines and into the upper atmosphere of a planet's poles. On Earth, aurora are caused mainly by the solar wind. But on Saturn a complex mixture of other geomagnetic phenomena appear to be involved. For instance, auroras can be caused by electromagnetic waves generated when the Saturn's moons move through the plasma that fills it's magnetosphere.

"Saturn's aurora are very complex and we are only just beginning to understand all the factors involved," said Dr Tom Stallard, from the University of Leicester, who presented some preliminary findings from the images at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome.


Saturday, 25 September 2010

Proofiness: numbers don't lie, but people do

The always fascinating - but sadly increasingly less-prolific - Seed magazine, reports on the phenomena of "proofiness".

It's the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove what you know in your heart is true-even when it's not. As Seed says, [proofiness is] "a particularly powerful form of propaganda, because we're primed to believe anything that's couched in quantitative form. After all, there's very little in this world that has the cold, hard certainty of mathematical proof. Yet people can torture numbers, imbuing lies with an aura of certainty. Politicians and pundits are the modern masters of the dark art. Almost any major political speech or document will be liberally larded with proofiness."


Friday, 24 September 2010

Listening to the Universe at FM Frequencies - LOFAR

The UK's South East LOFAR radio astronomy station has been opened by Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

LOFAR reports that the telescope will 'listen' to the Universe at FM frequencies, helping astronomers detect when the first stars in the Universe were formed, to reveal more about how the Universe evolved. During the ceremony, guests were able to observe a pulsar in real time using the Chilbolton station. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars, so it was most appropriate for her to perform the opening.

Professor Rob Fender of the University of Southampton, Principal Investigator of the LOFAR UK project said "The most amazing thing is that these small dipole antennas can pick up faint radio signals from over 10 billion years ago, when the universe was a fraction of its current size, and that this signal can be mapped over the entire sky by the telescope without a single moving part."

LOFAR has five major research areas:

1. Surveying space beyond our galaxy to try to understand the history of star formation and black hole growth over cosmological time
2. Probing the extreme astrophysical environments that lead to transient bright bursts in the radio sky, such as from pulsars, the highly magnetised remains of dead stars
3. Understanding cosmic rays, the storm of high-energy particles (mostly protons and helium nuclei) that rain down on Earth
4. Studying the local space environment, to see how the wind of particles billowing away from the Sun interacts with the Earth.
5. Investigating cosmic magnetism - the origin of the large-scale fields that pervade the Universe.


Is art and science in the UK about to enter a dark age?

The art and science sectors in the UK faced further bad news this morning, after The Telegraph leaked a list of Quangos which the Conservative / Liberal Democratic Coalition Government plan on closing down.

Among the 177 organisations is the National Endowment for Science, Technology and Arts (NESTA).
Also included on the list are the UK Film Council, who's abolition was announced some months ago, the Museums and Libraries Association, the Advisory Council on Libraries, and a large number of science and research bodies.

Both the art and science communities are already faced with an uncertain future, with large cuts in Government investment expected after the Comprehensive Spending Review this month. Budget cuts of up to 40% are rumoured.

Several campaigns have been established to protect public sector investment in both the arts and science, both major contributors to the contemporary UK economy. Find out more at:

Science is Vital:
Save the Arts:
I value the Arts:

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Disappearing dimensions: quantum gravity creates dots & lines

"I think it is one of the most interesting things to happen in quantum gravity for quite some time"
Renate Loll of Utrecht University, the Netherlands

A paper recently published on Arxiv suggests that, due to the effects of quantum gravity, on tiny scales, 3D space may give way to mere lines.

The New Scientist reports that researchers working on theories of quantum gravity, which aim to unite quantum mechanics with general relativity, have recently noticed that several different quantum gravity theories all predict the same strange behaviour at small scales: fields and particles start to behave as if space is one-dimensional.

"There are some strange coincidences here that might be pointing toward something important," says Steven Carlip at the University of California, Davis.

So on a quantum level, space is dot & lines created from vibrating strings ...

Rather reminds me of the show we put together for the BBC and the Sonic Arts Network a wee while back: 

Monday, 20 September 2010

Magical BEANs: Nano particles may lead to mega data storage

Science Daily reports that new nano-sized particles could provide mega-sized data storage.

The ability of phase-change materials to readily and swiftly transition between different phases has made them valuable as"flash" memory and data storage. Now an entire new class of phase-change materials has been discovered by researchers with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley that could be applied to phase change random access memory (PCM) technologies, and possibly optical data storage as well. The new phase-change materials -- nanocrystal alloys of a metal and semiconductor -- are called "BEANs:.