Friday, June 26, 2015

Of Mice And Magnets

Image credit:mouse: Baggie Bird 1, compass: wikimedia commons, illustration by Michael Greshko
Quantum mechanics governs the quirky, counter-intuitive way the world works at the small scales of atoms and subatomic particles. It might also be important for helping animals understand their place in their surroundings. New research suggests that wood mice, commonly found in Europe, have a built-in compass that exploits quantum processes, the first seen in a wild mammal.

According to a study in Scientific Reports published on April 29, wood mice placed in a container prefer to build their nests in the parts of the container closest to magnetic north and south. When researchers created an artificial magnetic field, the mice nested in line with the new north-south orientation. Scientists suspect that this compass sense comes from electrons dancing around in the mice's eyes.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When Science and Entertainment Work Together

“We’re here to inspire filmmakers,” says Rick Loverd, Program Manager of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences. “We’re here to provide mainstream media content creators with great science.” Launched in 2008, the Exchange works to connect writers, producers, and industry executives with scientists and engineers, both to improve the overall quality of science in mainstream entertainment and to break down negative stereotypes of scientists themselves. On this week’s podcast, we delve into the world of science consulting, exploring what it takes to pull off a successful collaboration. According to Loverd, the key is to put the story first and try to find organic ways to ground it in science. “I don’t think you can steer Hollywood creatives toward something. You can just give them a better idea.”

That’s how the 2011 Marvel blockbuster Thor ended up with a backstory grounded in theoretical physics. When Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll suggested that the title character travel to Earth via an Einstein-Rosen Bridge — a wormhole — the character of Jane Foster, originally a nurse, became a particle astrophysicist instead. That gave her a plausible reason be out in the desert of New Mexico when Thor arrives, explains UCLA postdoctoral scholar Kevin Peter Hickerson. Thinking through the physics to flesh out the backstory, Hickerson helped Marvel producers construct Jane Foster’s laboratory, which (in the movie) relies on high energy physics to detect signatures of dark matter coming from Thor’s hammer. “That was the sort of way in which, very organically to their creative process, a scientist was able to drop some facts and help the filmmakers make something feel slightly more plausible,” says Loverd.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Wrinkle In Time Divides Quantum World From Everyday Reality

Image credit: Alan Cleaver via flickr |
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The world becomes a fuzzy, surreal place at its smallest levels, according to quantum physics. It has long been a mystery why strange quantum behavior is not seen at larger scales in everyday life. Now researchers find that the way Earth warps time could help explain this division.

One mind-boggling consequence of quantum physics is that atoms and subatomic particles can actually exist in states known as "superpositions," meaning they could literally be located in two or more places at once, for instance, until "observed" — that is, until they interact with surrounding particles in some way. This concept is often illustrated using an analogy called Schrödinger's cat, in which a cat is both dead and alive until beheld.

Superpositions are very fragile. Once disturbed in some way, they collapse or "decohere" to just a single outcome. As such, they often involve objects just a few particles large at most — the bigger an object in superposition is, the more difficult it is to keep it unperturbed. However, it is a mystery at what scale the realm of quantum physics ended and the one of classical physics begins, and why such a boundary exists in the first place.

Now researchers suggest that Einstein's theory of space and time could help explain this shift from quantum to classical physics.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to Plan a Physics Party

It's June, the academic year is over, it's time to celebrate! For those of you mad about physics or graduating with a physics degree at any level, how about a physics-themed party? We've compiled a few ideas below, but feel free to get creative and let us know your ideas in the comments. The world has far too few physics parties.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Physics in Verse: A Musical Ode to the Sun

Here's a third and final Physics in Verse poem for you. It's technically the lyrics of a song, but I love the fun and memorable way it presents science about our Sun. The Sun Song is the only way I can remember trivia like "a million Earths could fit in the Sun" or "it's six thousand degrees at the photosphere".

This song hails from a nerdy music group called The Chromatics, and features on their astronomy-inspired album, AstroCappella - "an astronomy class set to music" according to Sky & Telescope magazine. You can listen to their groovy recording here.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Brain Programmed To Anticipate Sounds

Scientists find the route to listening is more complex than they thought.

Originally published: Jun 10 2015 - 8:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- You are sitting in a concert hall about to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, anticipating, among other things, the famous first four notes. When it comes, it sounds just like you thought it would.

Man with headphones credit to Warren Goldswain via shutterstock  | composite image credit Michael Greshko
That anticipation may not just be the fact you know intellectually what’s coming, but something quite physiological: your brain is anticipating some essential properties of the sound and may even be adjusting what you will hear toward what you are expecting. According to research in Germany and the United Kingdom, sound perception is often “top-down”--ear to brain and back down to midbrain in the auditory system. Conventional theory has been fundamentally focused on bottom-up, ear to brain.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Physics is Least Popular in July

Google Trends tracks the popularity of a search term over time and throughout the world. Type in the word "dog" and you get back a whole set of graphs, charts, and maps that show that the English-speaking world really loves "man's best friend" (unsurprising perhaps since non-English speakers presumably search for dog in their own language).

As a physics blog, we're interested in the online popularity of physics, and when we can expect the largest number of readers. This graph shows the relative popularity of the term "physics" in worldwide Google searches from January 2010 to January 2015. Just a quick glance at the data shows that the popularity of physics is cyclical, with an annual peak interest every October when the Nobel Prize in Physics is announced.

Data from Google Trends. Annotations by Tamela Maciel

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Life Lessons from The Martian (it's not all about physics)

Everyone's talking about The Martian, a nerdy novel (and soon-to-be film) about a stranded astronaut's self-reliance on Mars. The story is a whirlwind of adventure and its science is spot on. Unlike your typical superhero, the hero of this novel is equipped with scientific and practical know-how that allows him to (just) scrape through many disasters in the unforgiving Martian environment.

More than any other story I've read, this book emphasizes the need for a broad scientific literacy that lies deeper than a Google search (no internet on Mars), as a matter of life and death.

When I was a kid I thought that all I needed to do to be an astronaut was to become physically fit and learn some astronomy. After all, out in space they'd need an astronomer, right? I pored over the list of basic astronaut requirements, took up running, worried incessantly about my eyesight, and took my first astronomy course when I was 16. Ten years later, I have a PhD in astrophysics but this certainly won't land me a spot on the first manned mission to Mars.

Had The Martian, been published ten years ago instead of last year, I might have taken a few more engineering and biology classes along the way. Silly me for forgetting that the primary challenge for astronauts on another world is keeping themselves alive.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

How Science Helps Golfers Drain Those Tricky Putts

Tips from physics, physiology, and maybe even music can help you improve your score.

Originally published: Jun 5 2015 - 2:30pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) – "Drive for show and putt for dough."

In the world of professional golf, this catchphrase means that a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway has little value if the golfer can't complete the hole by sinking a sinuous 10-foot putt into the cup.

As they prepare for the U.S. Open championship, starting on June 18 in Chambers Bay, Washington, players will devote at least as much practice time to reading the greens, pacing their putts, and maintaining a steady hand with what they call their "flat sticks" as they do to those 300-yard drives.

Image credit:  University of the Fraser Valley via flickr |
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"Putting is 43 percent of the game," said Ty Waldron, director of instruction at Pelz Golf, a company that offers golf schools and clinics. "It's something that separates recreational golfers from the best in the world."

In recent years several studies have revealed the underlying scientific principles of good putting. Elite and weekend golfers alike can use the principles to improve their chances of sinking those tricky 10-footers.

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Friday, June 05, 2015

The Tour de France—In Terms of Jelly Donuts

(Inside Science Currents Blog) -- With today being National Donut Day, and this year’s Tour de France coming up in the next month, I recalled how a late MIT physicist known for his work in the Manhattan Project once combined donuts and the famous bicycle race to teach a lesson about energy. Count on science to mash together two different things in unexpectedly fun ways.

Photos by Mavis via flickr |

So in honor of National Donut Day, we present to you a slightly updated version of one of the very first Inside Science News Service articles I wrote with Rory McGee Richards all the way back in July 22 1999:

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