Adelaide Fringe shows!

Excited to be in Adelaide in 2019 for my first Fringe!  Doing seven shows in six days, all at the Rob Roy Hotel, 106 Halifax St South Adelaide.

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Tuesday 12th March: Physics in the Pub  (booked out)



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Wednesday 13 March – Solo Show

The Most Amazing Planet in the Universe – an Astronomer’s Ode to Earth





Thursday 14th March – Sunday 17th March

The Poet’s Guide to Science – a hilarious play of modern dilemmas, featuring working scientists

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Quantum pancake reveals clues to better electronics

First published on Cosmos Magazine site, 25/9/18

An experiment with a cloud of ultracold atoms squashed into a quantum pancake has revealed never-before seen quantum effects that could lead to more efficient electronics, including high temperature superconductors.

A team at Swinburne University in Australia observed a quantum anomaly in lithium-6 gas cooled to a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero and squashed between two laser beams.

“We’re seeing quantum mechanics that’s visible on a macroscopic scale – a large collection of tens of thousands of atoms all behaving quantum mechanically,” says project leader Chris Vale, a researcher at Swinburne’s Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies.

The team’s work is published in the journal Physical Review Letters, concurrently with that of a team from Heidelberg in Germany which reported similar results.

The Australian team used laser beams focused into a flat plane to create a pancake of lithium-6 gas with a radius of 200 microns and the thickness of a single atom – around 500 nanometers. Then the researchers compressed the gas slightly with a magnetic field, to set it vibrating. Shining another laser from below, they measured the vibration frequency of the gas cloud by watching the shadow of the cloud on a camera.

The frequency of this radial vibration, known as a breathing mode, gave the telltale sign of a quantum anomaly: it vibrated 2.5% faster than the classical model predicted.

Symmetry in the classical model dictates that gas properties such as pressure and density should scale in a straightforward way as the size of the gas cloud oscillates. But the full quantum analysis predicts a higher frequency: the classical theory breaks down because of strong interactions between the gas particles.

To further test the model, the scientists jammed more atoms between the laser beams, and turned the pancake from a two-dimensional crepe into a fatter flapjack. Its three-dimensional nature conformed to the classical model.

Vale says the interactions between the gas particles in the quantum crepe was mid-way between two well-known states of matter: Bose-Einstein condensates, in which atoms in a gas interact strongly and exhibit uniform quantum behaviour, and low temperature superconductivity, in which electrons in a material form weakly-bound pairs known as Cooper pairs that can carry electricity through a material with no energy loss.

“There’s a continuous crossover between these two limits, what happens in the middle is not well understood,” he says

“There’s a lot of interesting physics there. For example, this is where we find the highest superfluid transition temperatures, in the intermediate zone where the binding energy of the fermion pairs is similar to the natural energy scale for the system, the Fermi energy.”

By studying a two-dimensional system, Vale hopes to spark developments of new materials for the electronics industry, for example topological insulators or high-temperature superconductors.

In the current highest-temperature superconductors, ceramics based on copper oxide, the superconducting current is carried in two-dimensional layers within the material – although exactly how the electrons pair up is not fully understood.

The power of the experiments at Swinburne is their simplicity, says Vale – the microscopic properties of the lithium atoms and their interactions are precisely known, which is not always possible in more complex materials such as solids.

“In a sense, our cold atoms are acting as a quantum simulator, where we can test models of many-body physics with precisely known inputs that can be difficult to pin down in other materials,” he says.

Continue Reading Quantum pancake reveals clues to better electronics

Wave of the Century

Originally published in ANU Reporter:

The discovery of gravitational waves is the culmination of a search by a generation of ANU physicists, reports DR PHIL DOOLEY, BSc (Hons) ’90, PhD ’99.

An excited hush fell over the briefing room at Parliament House as Professor David McClelland stepped up to the microphone.

“I’m pretty sure you all know by now but I want to say it. We’ve done it,” he said as his voice quavered.

Spontaneous applause broke out, as McClelland allowed himself a smile. Camera flashes popped and TV cameras zoomed in.

“We detected a wave that was generated 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes crashed into each another… the most violent event ever witnessed.”

The announcement was sweet reward for McClelland, an ANU laser physicist who has spent his career working towards this moment.

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves but thought they were too small for humans to ever detect.

To prove Einstein wrong and right in a single stroke is rare treat for a scientist.

“This is a moment that will be remembered for a thousand years,” McClelland said.

Gravitational waves are vibrations of space and time themselves, one of the most outlandish predictions of Einstein’s 1916 General Theory of Relativity. Yet, they appeared exactly as predicted and join the long list of successes of Einstein’s theory over the last century.

The first success of Relativity came three years after Einstein’s publication, when a solar eclipse allowed astronomers to pick out the tiny deflection of distant starlight by the sun’s gravity.

Continue Reading Wave of the Century

A new spin on data storage

Seems physicists are inventing particles faster’n I can write about em. Who ever knew you could call a twisted magnetic field a particle?

First published here:, 8 May 2017.

Magnetic field patterns in two types of skyrmions (Wikimedia)

Study into spirals of magnetic spin showcases potential of layered materials for future data storage

Tiny spirals of magnetism called skyrmions could be used as ultrahigh density energy-efficient data carriers.

Jarvis Loh, Gan Chee Kwan and Khoo Khoong Hong from the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing have modeled these minute spin spirals in nanoscopic crystal layers. They found that alternating layers of manganese silicide (MnSi) and cobalt silicide (CoSi) forms a promising material architecture.

“Skyrmions are nanosized entities, only tens of nanometers, so they hold the promise of higher storage density than the current technology,” said Gan.

Storage based on skyrmions would represent binary data such as ‘1’s and ‘0’s as clockwise and anticlockwise spin spirals, respectively. Skyrmions can improve energy efficiency as they can be created and manipulated with currents significantly smaller than those required for conventional magnetic hard disk technology.

Skyrmions had been experimentally observed in manganese silicide, prompting the team to explore simulations of manganese silicide in its pristine form and in combination with similar materials.

The team selected cobalt silicide because cobalt sits close to manganese in the periodic table, and its similar lattice characteristics mean it should combine well with manganese silicide. Cobalt also has strong magnetic properties — it is ferromagnetic.

The team’s simulations showed that coupling cobalt silicide to manganese silicide enables the spin spirals in manganese silicide to be engineered. “What’s interesting is that we can now vary the size of skyrmions in an easy and elegant way,” Loh said.

In the skyrmion’s center the magnetic spin of the atoms is flipped 180 degrees relative to the spin on its outside edge; between the edge and the center the spins progressively tilt between the two extremes. Critical in the size of skyrmions is the ability of the material to support high relative tilt between neighboring atoms in the lattice, which enables the skyrmion to be packed into a smaller spiral.

The team found that adding cobalt silicide layers to the manganese silicide layers increased the possible relative tilt. However there is an upper limit — for cobalt silicide layers double the thickness of the manganese silicide, the material ceased to support skyrmions and transitioned to a more conventional ferromagnetic behavior.

One of the attractions of skyrmions as a data storage medium is their robustness, says Loh. “Unlike current magnetic storage, skyrmions are resistant to defects in the lattice. They are topologically protected.”

The team plans to apply their successful approach to other potential architectures, such as nanowires.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Institute of High Performance Computing.


  1. Loh, G. C., Khoo, K. H. & Gan, C. K. Helimagnetic order in bulk MnSi and CoSi/MnSi superlattices Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials 421, 31–38 (2017). | Article
Continue Reading A new spin on data storage

Silicon brings more colour to holograms

Silicon holograms harness the full visible spectrum to bring holographic projections one step closer

We can’t yet send holographic videos to Obi-Wan Kenobi on our droid, but A*STAR researchers have got us a little bit closer by creating holograms from an array of silicon structures that work throughout the visible spectrum1.

Many recent advances in hologram technology use reflected light to form an image; however the hologram made by Dong Zhaogang and Joel Yang from the A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering uses transmitted light. This means the image is not muddled up with the light source.

The team demonstrated the hologram of three flat images at wavelengths ranging from blue (480 nanometers) to red (680 nanometers). The images appeared in planes 50 microns apart for red and higher spacings for shorter wavelengths.

“In principle, it can be tuned to any wavelength,” says Yang.

Holograms can record three-dimensional images, which mean they can store large amounts of information in increasingly thin layers.

Recently, holograms that are mere hundredths of the thickness of a human hair have been made from metal deposited onto materials such as silicon. The holograms are created by nanoscale patterns of metal that generate electromagnetic waves that travel at the metal–silicon interface; a field called plasmonics.

Silicon holograms are slightly thicker than the metal-based ones, but have the advantage of being broadband. Plasmonic holograms only operate in the red wavelengths because they undergo strong absorption at blue wavelengths.

A disadvantage of the silicon holograms is their poor efficiency at only three per cent; however Dong estimates this could easily be tripled.

“The losses can be lowered by optimizing the growth method to grow polycrystalline silicon instead of amorphous silicon,” he says.

The hologram is an array of tiny silicon skyscrapers, 370 nanometers tall with footprints 190 nanometers by 100 nanometers. Unlike a city grid, however, the tiny towers are not laid out in neat squares but at varying angles.

The hologram operates with circularly polarized light, and the information is encoded on to the light beam by the varied angles of the skyscrapers. These alter the phase of the transmitted light through the ‘Pancharatnam–Berry effect’.

“What’s interesting about this hologram is that it controls only the phase of the light by varying the orientation of the silicon nanostructures. The amplitude is the same everywhere; in principle you can get a lot of light transmitted,” says Yang.

The A*STAR researchers focused on nanofabrication and measurements and collaborated with Cheng-Wei Qiu from National University of Singapore, whose team specializes in hologram design.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and the Data Storage Institute


  1. Huang, K., Dong, Z., Mei, S., Zhang, L., Liu, Y. et al. Silicon multi-meta-holograms for the broadband visible light. Laser & Photonics Reviews 10, 500–509 (2016)| Article


Original on A*STAR journal website, published by Nature Group.

Continue Reading Silicon brings more colour to holograms

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