The remarkable thing about our universe is that it’s possible to explore at least some of its inner workings with very simple tools. Gravity is one example, to which [Galileo]’s inclined planes and balls bear witness. But that’s classical mechanics: surely the weirdness that is quantum mechanics requires far more sophisticated instrumentation to explore, right?
That’s true enough — if you consider a voltmeter and a Mark 1 eyeball to be sophisticated. That’s pretty much all you need for instruments to determine Planck’s constant to a decent degree of precision, the way that [poblocki1982]’s did. There’s a little more to it, of course; the method is based on measuring the voltage at which LEDs of various wavelengths start shining, so a simple circuit was built to select an LED from the somewhat grandly named “photon energy array” and provide a way to adjust and monitor the voltage and current.
By performing the experiment in a dark room with adapted eyes, or by using an opaque tube to block out stray light, it’s possible to slowly ramp the voltage up until the first glimmer of light is seen from each LED. Recording the voltage and the wavelength gives you the raw numbers to calculate the Planck constant h, as well as the Planck error Δh, with the help of a handy spreadsheet. [poblocki1982] managed to get within 11% of the published value — not too shabby at all.
As it turns out, the truth is both less and more than meets the eye. The article above was eventually edited to better reflect the truth that, alas, we have not yet found a way to create objects so massive that even light cannot escape them. Instead, physicist [Jeff Steinhauer] and colleagues at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed an acoustic model of black holes, which is what was used to observe the equivalent of Hawking radiation for the first time. Hawking radiation is the theoretical exception to the rule that nothing makes it out of a black hole and would imply that black holes evaporate over time. The predicted radiation would be orders of magnitude weaker than the background radiation, though, making it all but impossible to detect.
That’s where [Steinhauer]’s sonic black holes come in. In these experiments, phonons, packets of mechanical vibrations that stand in for photons, are trapped in a fast-moving stream of fluid. The point in the stream where its speed straddles the local speed of sound is the equivalent to a real black hole’s event horizon; phonons inside that boundary can never escape. Except, of course, for the sonic equivalent of Hawking radiation, which the researchers found after 97,000 attempts.
When we first stumbled upon this story, we assumed a lab-grown black hole, even an acoustic analog, would take a CERN’s-worth of equipment to create. It turns out to be far simpler than that; [Steinhauer], in fact, built his black hole machine singlehandedly from relatively simple equipment. The experiments do require temperatures near absolute zero and a couple of powerful lasers, so it’s not exactly easy stuff; still, we can’t help but wonder if sonic black holes are within the reach of the DIY community. Paging [Ben Krasnow] and [Sam Zeloof], among others.
[Featured image credit: Nitzan Zohar, Office of the Spokesperson, Technion]
We’ve all seen recreations of the famous double-slit experiment, which showed that light can behave both as a wave and as a particle. Or rather, it’s likely that what we’ve seen is the results of the double-slit experiment, that barcode-looking pattern of light and dark stripes, accompanied by some handwaving about classical versus quantum mechanics. But if you’ve got 20 minutes to invest, this video of the whole double-slit experiment cuts through the handwaving and opens your eyes to the quantum world.
For anyone unfamiliar with the double-slit experiment, [Huygens Optics] actually doesn’t spend that much time explaining the background. Our explainer does a great job on the topic, but suffice it to say that when coherent light passes through two closely spaced, extremely fine openings, a characteristic pattern of alternating light and dark bands can be observed. On the one hand, this demonstrates the wave nature of light, just as waves on the ocean or sound waves interfere constructively and destructively. On the other hand, the varying intensity across the interference pattern suggests a particle nature to light.
To resolve this conundrum, [Huygens] jumps right into the experiment, which he claims can be done with simple, easily sourced equipment. This is belied a little by the fact that he used photolithography to create his slits, but it should still be possible to reproduce with slits made in more traditional ways. The most fascinating bit of this for us was the demonstration of single-photon self-interference using nothing but neutral density filters and a CCD camera. The explanation that follows of how it can be that a single photon can pass through both slits at the same time is one of the most approachable expositions on quantum mechanics we’ve ever heard.
The chip has immediate applications in MRI and radio astronomy. Traditionally, detecting a single photon at radio frequencies is difficult due to the significance of thermal fluctuations. At lower frequencies, cryogenic cooling can reduce the issue, but as frequency increases the fluctuations are harder to tame.
The trick requires a qubit that samples the radio frequency energy. While the radio source is at 173 MHz, the qubit is at 1 GHz, allowing a fine time resolution. Coupling of the two is via an LC circuit that uses a Josephson junction which, of course, requires very cold temperatures. Continue reading “You’re Listening To Quantum Radio”→
We all know CERN as that cool place where physicists play with massive, superconducting rings to smash atoms and subatomic particles to uncover secrets of matter in the Universe. To achieve this aim, they need to do a ton of research in other areas, such as development of special particle detectors.
While such developments are essential to the core research needs of the Centre, they also lead to spinoff applications for the benefit of society at large. One such outcome has been the Medipix Collaborations – a family of read-out chips for particle imaging and detection that can count single photons, allowing X-rays and gamma rays to be converted to electrical signals. It may not be possible for us hackers to get our hands on these esoteric sensors, but these devices are pretty interesting and deserve a closer look. Medipix sensors work like a camera, detecting and counting each individual particle hitting the pixels when its electronic shutter is open. This enables high-resolution, high-contrast, noise hit free images – making it unique for imaging applications.
Some months back, CERN announced the first 3D color X-ray of a human made possible using the Medipix devices. The result is a high-resolution, 3D, color image of not just living structures like bones, muscular tissues and vessels, but metal objects too like the wrist watch, seen in the accompanying photograph. The Medipix sensors have been in development since the 1990’s and are presently in their 4th “generation”. Each chip consists of a top semiconducting sensor array, made from gallium arsenide or cadmium telluride. The charge collected by each pixel is transported to the CMOS ASIC electronics via “bump bonds”. The integration is vertical, with each sensing pixel connected via the bump bond to an analog section followed by a digital processing layer. Earlier versions were limited, by technology, in their tiling ability for creating larger matrices of multiple sensors. They could be abutted on three sides only, with the fourth being used for on-chip peripheral logic and wire-bond pads that permit electronic read-out. The latest Medipix4 Collaboration, still under some development, eliminates this short coming. Through-silicon-via (TSV) technology provides the possibility of reading the chips through copper-filled holes that bring the signals from the front side of the chip to its rear. All communication with the pixel matrix flows through the rear of the chip – the peripheral logic and control elements are integrated inside the pixel matrix.
The Analog front end consists of a pre-amplifier followed by a window discriminator which has upper and lower threshold levels. The discriminator has four bits for threshold adjustment as well as polarity sensing. This allows the capture window to be precisely set. The rest of the digital electronics – multiplexers, shift registers, shutter and logic control – helps extract the data.
Further development of the Medipix (Tech Brief, PDF) devices led to a separate version called Timepix (Tech Brief, PDF). These new devices, besides being able to count photons, are capable of two additional modes. The first mode records “Time-Over-Threshold”, providing rough analog information about the energy of the photon. It does this by counting clock pulses for the duration when the signal stays above the discrimination levels. The other mode, “Time of Arrival”, measures arrival time of the first particle to impinge on the pixel. The counters record time between a trigger and detection of radiation quanta with energy above the discrimination level, allowing time-of-flight applications in imaging.
Besides medical imaging, the devices have applications in space, material analysis, education and of course, high energy physics. Hopefully, in a few years, hackers will lay their hands on these interesting devices and we can get to know them better. At the moment, the Medipix website has some more details and data sheets if you would like to dig deeper. For an overview on the development of such single photon detectors, check out this presentation from CERN – “Single X-Ray Photon Counting Systems: Existing Systems, Systems Under Development And Future Trends” (PDF).
Throughout our day-to-day experiences, we come across or make use of many scientific principles which we might not be aware of, even if we immediately recognize them when they’re described. One such curiosity is that of caustics, which refers not only to corrosive substances, but can also refer to a behavior of light that can be observed when it passes through transparent objects. Holding up a glass to a light source will produce the effect, for example, and while this is certainly interesting, there are also ways of manipulating these patterns using lasers, which makes an aurora-like effect.
The first part of this project is finding a light source. LEDs proved to be too broad for good resolution, so [Neuromodulator] pulled the lasers out of some DVD drives for point sources. From there, the surface of the water he was using to generate the caustic patterns needed to be agitated, as the patterns don’t form when passing through a smooth surface. For this he used a small speaker and driver circuit which allows precise control of the ripples on the water.
The final part of the project was fixing the lasers to a special lens scavenged from a projector, and hooking everything up to the driver circuit for the lasers. From there, the caustic patterns can be produced and controlled, although [Neuromodulator] notes that the effects that this device has on film are quite different from the way the human eye and brain perceive them in real life. If you’re fascinated by the effect, even through the lens of the camera, there are other light-based art installations that might catch your eye as well.
From cars to refrigerators, it seems as if every new piece of tech is connected to the Internet. For better or for worse, we’re deep into the “Internet of Things”. But what about your camera? No, not the camera in your smartphone; that one’s already connected to the Internet and selling your secrets to the highest bidder. Don’t you think your trusty DSLR could be improved by an infusion of Wide Area Networking?
Regardless of what you’re answer to that question might be, [Thomas Kittredge] decided his life would be improved by making his beloved Canon EOS Rebel T6 an honorary member of the Internet of Things. Truth be told he says that he hasn’t quite figured out an application for this project. But since he was looking to mess around with both the LTE-enabled Particle Boron development board and designing his own PCB for professional production, this seemed a good a way to get his feet wet as any.
The resulting board is a fairly simple “shield” for the Particle Boron that let’s [Thomas] trigger up to two cameras remotely over the Internet or locally with Bluetooth. If LTE isn’t your sort of thing though, don’t worry. Since the Boron follows the Adafruit Feather specification, there’s a whole collection of development boards with various connectivity options that this little add-on can be used with.
In the GitHub repository, [Thomas] has put up the files for the PCB, the STLs for the 3D printed enclosure, and of course the firmware source code to load onto the Particle board. He currently has code to expose the two shutter triggers as functions the the Particle Cloud API, as well as a practical example that fires off the camera when specific words are used in a Slack channel.