The most significant scientific achievement of 2006 was, according to the issue of Science magazine that came out today, the solution of a 100-year-old mathematical problem that had baffled some of the best minds of the 20th century. Russian Mathematician Grigory Perelman solved this problem in a series of papers he circulated in 2003, and this year the mathematical community officially recognized his solution by offering him the Fields Medal, the most important prize in mathematics.
The Poincaré conjecture, as the problem is known, belongs to the field of math called topology. But the methods that led to Perelman’s proof took hints from the physical world, and may have implications for research in theoretical physics, experts say.
Continue reading “Science Magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year 2006”
In this year’s holiday edition of New Scientist, I report the definitive proof that math — even the kind of math Euclid would be proud of — can make this world a better place. No longer will we lean on our pic-nic tables having to fear the nefarious spillage of our wine: Mathematicians and physicists have conjured up a fool-proof method to stabilize wobbly tables, and it always works. They have the mathematical proof of that.
My hope is that some day mathematicians will also find ways to solve — or at least explain — another one the world’s tragic geometric inconsistencies: Why the pieces of those Ikea bookshelves never seem to fit together.
My colleague Phil Schewe at AIP has now revealed his pick for physics story of the year, as well as his long list of runner-ups. Several of the Physics News Update items in the list (the ones on dark energy, the new WMAP data, wireless energy transfer, and stock market criticality) were stories I wrote up.
Coming up soon at sciencewriter.org: my own picks of the top 10 science (not just physics) stories of 2006. They will be up at the end of next week.
The Health Physics Society has put out an information sheet on polonium-210, the radioactive material that was found in the body of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. The fact sheet explains in particular the effects of polonium-210 on the intestinal lining.
San Francisco Chronicle science writer Keay Davidson found out that it’s easy to buy “trace amounts” of the isotope for $69 on the Web site of a company that sells scientific equipment. (Radioactive isotopes are used in all sorts of research — for example for tagging specific snippets of DNA — and have of course many uses in medicine, for example in PET scans.) However, the company’s site says, “You would need about 15,000 of our Polonium-210 needle sources at a total cost of about $1 million — to have a toxic amount.”