Fundamental physics answers big questions and solves real-life problems

The fundamental physics research taking place at the University of Alberta is aimed directly at the heart of our biggest questions, like why there is something, rather than nothing. Here is a selection of stories from 2012.

Suzette Chan - 7 February 2013

(Edmonton) The fundamental physics research taking place at the University of Alberta is aimed directly at the heart of our biggest questions, like why is there something, rather than nothing.

By posing and finding answers to these big questions, this research also makes it possible to improve daily life by finding better ways to deliver therapeutics in the body and solving the issue of protein behavior that causes degenerative diseases like Mad Cow - while also bringing ecosystems back into balance.

"The Physics department at the University of Alberta takes a central role in international research collaborations focused on solving so many fundamental questions about nature and our place in the universe - from the quest for the Higgs boson and other subatomic particles to those that address our biophysical world of living systems," says Mauricio Sacchi, the Chair of the Department of Physics.

Here are ten significant Department of Physics stories of 2012.

Understanding space burps

In January 2012, astrophysicist Gregory Sivakoff announced that his team accurately measured when a black hole let out a so-called "space burp." While the strong gravity of a black hole will attract and trap all objects that approach too closely, even light, some matter can narrowly escape. These jets of radio emitting plasma are essentially the byproducts of what the black hole is ingesting.

Sivakoff's work has led to an expansion of his research team and an opportunity to spearhead the University of Alberta's participation in an international collaboration called the Square Kilometre Array (, which will employ a next-generation array of thousands of radio telescopes to, among other goals, observe plasma jets.

"We understand that these black holes are 'burping' this material out," Sivakoff says. "We want to understand how it's related to their meal and what they're eating, and to understand what the effects of this 'burp' are on the environment around them."

Scanning a supervolcano, exploring geothermal energy

Last year, University of Alberta professor Martyn Unsworth made progress in both pure and applied areas of his geothermal research. As part of an international scientific collaboration working in southern Bolivia, Unsworth's group used geophysical imaging techniques to map the location of molten rock beneath a restless volcano. The method uses low frequency radio waves and is similar to CT scanning methods. The location is significant because this part of the Andes has produced a number of supervolcano eruptions in the last 10 million years and there is concern that another such eruption could occur in the future. Speaking to the New York Times, Unsworth suggested that a zone of low electrical resistivity detected 15 to 20 km below the surface "is likely a magma chamber."

Meanwhile back home, Unsworth leads the geothermal component of the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative, which is investigating the possibility of using geothermal energy as an alternative heat source for the oilsands industry. "The low gas prices are a challenge to changing the way the oilsand companies do business," he said. In collaboration with Inga Moeck, a new research chair in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, "we are moving toward pilot studies as part of our five-year plan."

Building the coldest lab in Canada

Early last year, John Davis was just putting together a lab designed to bring temperatures down to -273 C, to explore superconductivity. "We have successfully commissioned our new dilution refrigerator," he reported. "We were able to reach 0.0072 Kelvin, which is now the record coldest experiment in Alberta. Quite fun. We aren't yet at the coldest in Canada, but we're on our way!"

While some researchers are looking at futuristic superconductivity applications such as magnetic levitation devices, Davis envisions something with a wider benefit. He says that superconductors on large-scale power grids could dramatically reduce world power consumption. "And that technology is within sight.

Discovering how the brain encodes memory

Along with a U.S. colleague, two University of Alberta physicists may have discovered how memories are encoded in our brains. Professor Jack Tuszynski and grad student Travis Craddock, identified key molecular components that fit together and were capable of creating the information processing and storage capacity that the brain needs to form and retain memory.

"This could open up amazing new possibilities of dealing with memory loss problems, interfacing our brains with hybrid devices to augment and 'refresh' our memories," says Tuszynski. "More importantly, it could lead to new therapeutic and preventive ways of dealing with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia, whose incidence is growing very rapidly these days."

Unravelling the mystery of misfolding prions

Researchers at the University of Alberta's Department of Physics and the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) are the first to map out the folding pathways of prions, malformed proteins that lead to diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow" disease) in cattle. The team of researchers, including Hao Yu, pictured right, used specially designed optical tweezers to pull apart molecules of the prion protein PrP and map their motions with unprecedented precision. Lead investigator Michael Woodside said, "We are using tools from physics to help solve hard problems in biology."

Entering the Higgs era of particle physics

The discovery of a very small subatomic particle was the biggest international fundamental physics story of 2012, and the University of Alberta played a role in it. Department of Physics researchers have taken part in every stage of the development and design of the ATLAS detector. ATLAS is one of the two massive apparatuses at the Large Hadron Collider accelerator at CERN that was designed to detect the Higgs boson and other new subatomic phenomena.

Physicists and technicians made parts of the ATLAS detector at the University of Alberta campus. "The biggest innovation was that the electronics had to be resistant to radiation beyond what electronics NASA sends into space," said Doug Gingrich, director of the University of Alberta's Centre for Particle Physics. "We pushed state-of-the-art in digital microelectronics and used the fastest and smallest manufacturing processes available at the time to develop, in consultation with IBM and CERN, our own specialized circuits."

While the university contributed much to the design and construction of the ATLAS detector, Gingrich said the project also gave back over the years. "We trained six people who have gone on to become professors and four people who have permanent jobs at high tech firms, including CERN."

In addition, the university struck up collaborative relationships with universities and research facilities around the world. As physicists analyze ATLAS findings for specific physics phenomena, collaborative opportunities continue to open up. "Most of the searches for quantum gravity that I'm involved with are with Europeans, but this is by chance," said Gingrich. "The collaboration is from everywhere."

Improving how fracking is monitored

This fall, NSERC announced that it would fund half the $1.86 million budget for a University of Calgary/University of Alberta project that would allow scientists to listen to hydraulic fracture treatments in Alberta oil and gas fields.

Mirko van der Baan, an associate professor with the Department of Physics at the University of Alberta, says the funding complements a three-year research project undertaken by the Microseismic Industry Consortium, which he leads jointly with David Eaton of the University of Calgary.

Van der Baan said the work of both projects is of great interest as researchers, energy companies, governments and citizens look at the costs and benefits of using fracking technology to reach previously hard-to-access source of energy.

"The same technology is used for monitor shaft stability in mines, engineered geothermal systems, steam-injection into heavy-oil reservoirs and it may be applicable to monitor of CO2 sequestration projects," says Van der Baan.

The consortium has almost doubled the number of sponsors (from 17 to 31) in its three-year life and has supported 26 undergrads, graduate students and postdocs, an indication of the number of highly qualified personnel the project is training.

"Many of our students and postdocs have been approached for internships or part-time work by companies," said Van der Baan. "The first question most new sponsors have is who they can hire. So it's looking bright for our students and postdocs."

Using physics tools to solve science problems

If trees could talk, they might be able to explain the quantum physics of photosynthesis. But while talking trees can be found in novels like "The Lord of the Rings," it will be up to scientists like Megan Engel to discover the facts in real life.

Engel, an astrophysics major who is now a biophysics grad student, was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University, alma mater of J. R. R. Tolkien, whose writing inspired Engel to use her talents to their utmost potential. With interdisciplinary science interests, Engel is looking into Oxford's new programme on bio-inspired quantum technologies as a place to pursue the secrets of photosynthesis. She says, "tools from physics are being used to solve problems that other disciplines, biology and chemistry have historically examined."

According to Craig Heinke, one of Engel's mentors during her undergraduate years, the Rhodes scholarship brings top achievers from many nations to study together at a top university. "Winning a Rhodes, in addition to highlighting a successful student and program, builds connections between our top students and top achievers worldwide," said Heinke. "These connections will help to strengthen the reputation and research ability of the Department of Physics, and the University of Alberta."

Forecasting space weather research

How is weather on Mercury helping to advance computer-based research on Earth? To process the enormous amounts of data that the NASA Messenger spacecraft is beaming back from Mercury's atmosphere, University of Alberta physics grad student Jan Paral has gained special access to one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, IBM's BlueGene.

It's all part of CESWP (Cloud-Enabled Space Weather Modeling and Data Assimilation Platform), a cloud computing databank that student scientists can access preconfigured space weather simulation tools, grab powerful computing resources when they need them, and build on each other's results. "You instantly have access to a common set of tools and infrastructure you need to do your research," said physics professor Robert Rankin, who spearheaded the multi-partner project. "If someone wanted to use Jan's code, he points them to the virtual environment and they're off and running."

Learning how to get space exploration done

When David Miles was a child, he read books about space travel. Now a graduate student in the Department of Physics, Miles earned a rare opportunity to learn how space exploration was and will be done in real life when he won a $28,000 scholarship to study at the International Space University. "The ISU has a great way of going into the history and the politics, the how and why things were done," he said. "Having a good research question is not enough to get things done."