Comment Physics World  August 2019

The tech that makes it happen

A fresh approach. (Weber Cooling NL)

A few months ago, I discovered something amazing. Thanks to some clever R&D, a task that used to consume 10 minutes of my day can now be done at the touch of a button. After performing a back-of-the-envelope calculation (five days a week in the lab, 48 weeks a year, four years as a PhD student…), I began gently banging my head against the table. An entire week of my life spent on this now completely unnecessary chore! Just imagine how much more science I and hundreds of others could have done if we’d had this fantastic piece of kit!

The good news is that innovations like this are happening all the time, in all areas of research. From nuclear fusion and astronomy to food manufacturing and biosciences, advances in scientific instrumentation and supporting technologies (including vacuum systems, cryogenics, magnets and more) are helping scientists not only to save time, but also to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Here’s an example. For a few days in mid-April 2019, people all over the world ooh-ed and ahh-ed at an image of the black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy. The image was the first of its kind, and its existence is a tribute to the hard work and ingenuity of hundreds of astronomers. But, as Andy Extance reveals, the image would also never have happened without a slew of specialized technologies.

This Physics World Focus on Instruments & Vacuum is full of such stories, highlighting the role that “behind-the-scenes” technologies play in solving problems both in the lab and in the wider world outside it. Sensitive radiation detectors that make it quicker and safer to clean up contamination. Smarter microscopes that save bioscientists from drowning under “big data”. Manufacturing advances that bring new capabilities to smartphones. Precision instruments that help quantum computers perform delicate gate operations. And – a personal favourite – vacuum cooling systems that keep freshly harvested veggies from spoiling on their way to your plate.

Other articles in the issue concentrate on technologies that are still under development. Clouds of cold, trapped atoms are marvellously responsive to stray magnetic fields. If the systems that keep them cold and trapped and can be made smaller and lighter, a new generation of hand-held sensors beckons. Particle accelerators make splendid tools for treating certain types of cancer. If we can develop ways of building them more cheaply, with a smaller physical footprint, their use will become more widespread. It is even possible that advanced magnet technologies will offer a route to practical fusion energy. Now that really would be an amazing discovery.