Friday, November 21, 2014

Can We Eavesdrop On E.T.?

Simulation assesses odds of intercepting interstellar communications.

Image credit: Yellowstone National Park via flickr |
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It may the biggest and oldest question in science: Are we alone in the universe?

If the answer is no, a second question arises: Who else is out there?

Such questions have motivated a decades-long search for radio and light signals from intelligent beings on other planets. In a recent paper, Duncan Forgan, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, analyzed how likely we are to intercept light beams sent between advanced civilizations in our galaxy. The short answer is: not very likely.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gecko-Style Climbing Becomes a Reality

"... it doesn't feel like you should be gripping glass. You keep expecting to slip off, and when you don't, it surprises you. It's pretty exhilarating." — Elliot Hawkes

Humans have a long (and fascinating) history of climbing, and the history of climbing-specific gear is nearly as long. Ropes, harnesses, pitons, and ascenders all help climbers safely reach new vertical heights. Now there's a new technology on the block. A team of Stanford engineers and physicists has created a gecko-inspired climbing apparatus that gives humans the ability to climb glass walls like never before.

Stanford engineer, Elliot Hawkes, climbs a smooth wall using gecko-inspired pads.
Credit: Reproduced with permission from Hawkes et. al. 2014.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Podcast: Listening for Black Holes and Neutron Stars

Gravitational waves: what are they, and what can they tell us about our universe?

From pulsar timing arrays to ground-based interferometry, there are currently many strategies and instruments in the works to capture gravitational waves over a range of frequencies. Direct detection remains a highly-anticipated--and potentially imminent!--outcome of these vast projects, but what does it really mean? On this week’s podcast, we take a look at a range of instruments and techniques designed to capture these elusive signals. First, theoretical astrophysicist Dr. Chiara Mingarelli explains how watching distant pulsars for tiny changes in the timing of their flashes can tell us about supermassive black hole mergers and the gravitational waves these violent “spacetime storms” produce.

A NASA simulation of two merging white dwarf stars and the gravitational waves they produce.
Image: NASA

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bartender and the Barista: How Physics Makes Beer Easier to Carry than Coffee

Anyone who has ever carried a tray full of pint glasses without getting their feet wet knows that such a feat is hard work, but perhaps our sympathies should go out to the baristas in coffee shops instead. New research has concluded that carrying coffee without spilling is harder than beer since the foam on the surface of beer dampens sloshing.

Credit: Julius Schorzman via Wikimedia Commons

A team of physicists at Princeton and NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering set up an experiment which jolts three identical pint glasses carrying Guinness, Heineken, and black coffee, and measures the resulting oscillations.

This video is the team's entry to the annual APS Gallery of Fluid Motion competition and explains their whole analysis.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Ancient Meteorite Reveals New Evidence On The Solar System's Beginnings

Originally published: Nov 13 2014 - 2:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- An ancient meteorite has now yielded the first physical evidence that intense magnetic fields played a major role in the birth of our solar system.

Shortly after the sun formed about 4.6 billion years ago, a rotating disk of gas and dust that surrounded the newborn star coalesced into the planets that children now memorize. Astronomers peering at young distant stars find these protoplanetary disks usually disappear relatively quickly, in 5 million years or less.

Most of the solar system's protoplanetary disk spiraled into the sun, leaving the star with 99 percent of the solar system's mass. However, it was a mystery how all this material could have swirled into the sun as fast as it apparently did. A number of theories for how this might have occurred involve magnetic fields.

"Magnetic fields can introduce viscosity into the disk, essentially making the gas in it more sticky," said lead study author Roger Fu, a planetary scientist at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "This means gas of differing orbits interacts more strongly with each other, and more gas falls toward the star."

Artist depiction of a protoplanetary disk consisting of a central star surrounded by a gas cloud permeated by magnetic fields. Objects in the foregrounds are millimeter-sized rock pellets known as chondrules, which are the subjects of this study.
Image Credit: Hernán Cañellas, MIT Paleomagnetism Laboratory

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Slip-Sliding Away

Two Massachusetts teams develop slick coatings to keep ketchup, other items from sticking to surfaces.

Image by Quinn Dombrowski |
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Research teams at Harvard University and MIT have independently developed methods of making super-slippery surfaces by creating stable mixtures of liquids and solids. Both teams have founded companies to exploit applications of their patented technology.

The developments promise consumer applications such as toothpaste tubes that release the last portions of their contents without the need to roll them up and bottles that deliver ketchup as soon as they are tilted, eliminating the need to squeeze or shake them.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

What does a journey through a wormhole actually look like?

A simulated wormhole. Credit: Corvin Zahn licensed under cc-by-sa/2.0/de/
Let's talk about wormholes. I won't be spoiling anything to say that the plot of Christopher Nolan's latest film, Interstellar, hinges on the existence of a large wormhole allowing intrepid astronauts to travel through in search of new worlds to colonize.

In the film, the wormhole is basically just a deus ex machina — a simple plot device to get the main characters out into deep space. Nevertheless the film's brief depiction of this theoretical concept left me intrigued to know what a trip through a real wormhole might actually be like.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Podcast: Journey to the Center of the Earth

What do earthquakes, the moon, and the earth’s magnetic field have in common? They’re all connected to the iron core deep inside our planet.

On this week's podcast, join me on a journey to the center of the earth. First, Planetary Science Professor Raymond Jeanloz from the University of California Berkeley will guide us through the iron catastrophe, the event that formed the earth’s core. Surprisingly, it has a lot of do with the planetary impact that chipped the moon from early earth.

A simulation of the magnetic field created by liquid convection in the earth's core.
Image Credit: Dr. Gary A. Glatzmaier/Los Alamos National Laboratory/U.S. Department of Energy.

Then, Professor Jennifer Jackson at Caltech’s Seismological Laboratory will tell us how scientists study the core. Because the core is 4,000 miles down, and the deepest humans have drilled is only seven anda half miles, scientists use indirect methods to study the core. We’ll find out how studying the deep rumblings of earthquakes provides details about the material that makes up the core and how scientist sare recreating more than 3.6 million atmospheres of pressure in the lab.

Finally, Jeanloz will hint at happenings in the core that might flip our world upside down.

-Podcast and post by Jenna Bilbrey

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

One for the History Books - Rosetta Mission Lands on Comet Tomorrow

Impression of Rosetta mission landing. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam
History will be made when Rosetta's lander Philae makes a soft touchdown on a comet tomorrow. ESA's Rosetta spacecraft first captured the world's imagination back in January when it reawakened from hibernation, and tomorrow's landing will mark the crowning achievement in an already scientifically-rewarding mission.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

How the "Interstellar" Spaceship Compares to the Real Thing

Christopher Nolan's new space epic Interstellar opened in theaters late last week. The film follows a team of intrepid astronauts in the not too distant future as they traverse a wormhole to the distant corners of the universe. They navigate black holes and hostile planets in a desperate attempt save the people of Earth from an all consuming, planet-wide dust bowl.

Matthew McConaughey as astronaut Cooper, exploring a frigid planet surface. Image: Paramount.

Legendary physicist Kip Thorne of Caltech was the science advisor and wrote one of the earliest treatments of the movie. General relativity and its weird effects like time dilation, warped space and gravitational singularities are integral to the plot, and we'll have a full rundown of the physics of it all soon.

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