Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's In a Name?

I was surprised to see a fresh flurry of news stories in the last few days, more than a month and a half after two papers about ostensible magnetic monopoles in spin ices were posted online (although they just came out in print.)

I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Are you listening?


Apparently one of the teams behind the monopole experiments has a new letter to Nature (with an accompanying News and Views article) measuring the total magnetic "charge" in a model-independent way using muons. (See the lifted graphic for a little explanation.)

The researchers adapted a venerable technique for measuring the charges of ions in electrolyte solutions. In a magnetic field, opposite monopoles drift in opposite directions, and the muons sense the field that results from their separation. Seems like a nice experiment.

But by calling the effect "magnetricity," the scientists insured themselves breathless coverage. It's great marketing, although as far as I can tell they did not measure the magnetic analog of an electric current as claimed by some news stories. They measured the separation that results from the current, but not the current itself.

According to the news release,

Dr Sean Giblin, instrument scientist at ISIS and co-author of the paper, added: "The results were astounding, using muons at ISIS we are finally able to confirm that magnetic charge really is conducted through certain materials at certain temperatures – just like the way ions conduct electricity in water."

Now you might not think that the lethargic drifting of magnetic "charges" that only exist in a very special crystal would form the basis of a new information technology, especially when you realize that "certain temperatures" are about a degree above absolute zero. After all, drifting electric charges in electrolytes (like batteries) are only important because they liberate truly mobile electrons in attached wires that do the real work.

But for researchers who only last month claimed to discover a fundamental particle predicted by Dirac, is revolutionizing electronics too much to ask? According to New Scientist,

Bramwell speculates that monopoles could one day be used as a much more compact form of memory than anything available today, given that the monopoles are only about the size of an atom.

"It is in the early stages, but who knows what the applications of magnetricity could be in 100 years time," he says.

I think I might be able to guess.

[Other stories at Physics World(the best one I saw), The Times, BBC, (did I mention the researchers were from the U.K.?), Popular Science, and Next Big Future.]

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