Physics World’s 2011 breakthroughs and a look to 2012

21 December 2011 | Source: Physics World

Advances in “weak measurement” top Physics World’s 2011 breakthrough list as physicists start looking forward to a year of “gold-plated” Higgs bosons, “sparticles”, neutrino-related controversy and a rare astronomical event.

Physics World’s 2011 breakthroughs and a look to 2012

With the Physics World editorial team strictly focused on work that has offered solid scientific results in 2011, the top spot in the team’s 2011 breakthrough list goes to Aephraim Steinberg and colleagues from the University of Toronto for their experimental work on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.   

Through their use of weak measurement, Steinberg and his team have unravelled years of, what Steinberg calls, “brainwashing” and successfully challenged physicists’ widely held notion that quantum mechanics forbids us any knowledge of the paths taken by individual photons.

Quantum mechanics dominates the top of the list, with another Canadian research team – this time from the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa – in second place, also for their use of weak measurement, which has enabled them to map out the wavefunction of an ensemble of identical photons.

As Matin Durrani, editor of Physics World, writes, “The choice between first and second place was particularly close this year because the number-two finding also involves weak measurement…But we felt that Steinberg’s finding edged it. Other breakthroughs in the list include the first ‘space–time cloak’, a laser made from a living cell and a new way to measure cosmic distances.”

For the full top 10 and an exclusive audio clip of Aephraim Steinberg explaining the breakthrough, visit

In a separate feature, the Physics World writers take a brave look to the future and predict some of the big stories that they anticipate covering in 2012. The first of these is “a gold-plated ‘5α’ sighting of a 125 GeV Higgs”, possibly as soon as early March, when physicists are due to assemble for the Moriond winter conference at La Thuile in Italy.

While the search for supersymmetric particles, or “sparticles”, could offer up some definitive hints, the team doubts that the controversy over faster-than-light neutrinos will be resolved and thinks that the various searches for dark matter may report further findings but will not offer any clear breakthrough.

The opening of major new labs, exciting space missions, including NASA’s already launched Mars Science Laboratory that is due to land on the red planet in August 2012, a selection of anniversaries, and a rare astronomical event called the transit of Venus are going to make 2012 another exciting year for physics.

As Matin writes, “The beauty of physics is that no-one has any idea what lies around the corner. If uncovering nature’s secrets were entirely predictable – if there were no ‘unknown unknowns’ – it would not be research. Still, there are sure to be plenty of exciting developments – the ‘known unknowns’ – to look forward to.”

For the full feature, visit

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