Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A New Mob in Mobtown

On a brisk Sunday afternoon I hopped off the train and headed to the taxi line, "Physicist?" the bellhop inquired.

Well, that's a first, I thought.

Then again, it's not every day that nearly ten thousand physicists descend upon the Baltimore harbor for the annual APS March Meeting.

The March Meeting is the world's largest annual physics meeting, bringing together many research areas within and related to physics.

Indeed, with over 8,000 talks delivered over five days, the scientific program is reminiscent of a small city's phone book.

It's only the second day, but I've already heard over a dozen fantastic talks. In one session, five different research labs presented new physics behind biomineralization. Researchers are interested in how organisms use and metabolize minerals to construct complex and hierarchical architectures like seashells and corals. Another research lab focused on the effect of osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes to structural changes in our own mineral deposits-- bones!

On a completely different scale, Fabio Sciarrino flew in from an international collaboration between Italy, Brazil, and Spain to present a method of quantum communication that works between rotating reference frames. While commercially available quantum encryption and communication systems can work across hundreds miles, they require that the sender and receiver are both on Earth.  Since quantum communication relies on the polarization direction of photons, being Earth-bound ensures that the sender and receiver share a reference frame and agree which way points "up."  The team developed a liquid crystal-based plate that encodes both angular momentum and polarization of incoming photons. Using the liquid crystal plate, the researchers were able to send quantum encrypted photons between rotating references frames and they propose that the method could be used to send quantum messages to and from satellites rotating in orbit.

In a reassuring gesture, one of the busiest sessions I dropped in on was one of a series on science communication. One of the speakers was Kenneth Chang, the science editor at the New York Times. Chang delved into what he thinks about when writing for the Science Times. With the heavy weight placed increasingly towards health sciences, it was interesting to hear how he balances the straight news stories with big scientific questions. The latter were diverse -- from why is glass solid, to outstanding theoretical questions in high temperature superconductors (and more recently, here).

Other highlights spanned polymer plastics that can help armor stop bullets, flow batteries that could scale cost-effective energy storage storage to the scale of the electrical grid, and environmental and economic research on hydraulic fracturing. Simply strolling through the halls it's easy to see what physicists are excited about today. Doors to the talks on graphene devices, theory of superconductivity, and population and evolutionary dynamics were overflowing into the hallway.  

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