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The Steps to Closing a Nuclear Power Plant

By: Hannah Pell
On September 20th, 2019 — one year ago today as I write this — the infamous Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant was permanently shut down. TMI Unit-2 has been shuttered since the partial meltdown in 1979, an event described as the “most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history.” The accident caused significant shifts in public understanding and perception of nuclear power, and the effects of those five days in 1979 are still felt today.

When a nuclear power plant is officially shut down, the decommissioning process begins. Federal regulators — specifically the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — require that nuclear plant sites must be cleaned up within 60 years of initial shutdown, so the clock is ticking and there is a lot of work to be done. Currently, 19 commercial nuclear power reactors are undergoing the decommissioning process in the U.S. What exactly does it take to safely close a nuclear power plant, and why does it t…
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Stealing Design Secrets from the Unexpected Master of Origami

According to folklore, earwigs like to crawl through the ears of sleeping humans, burrow into their brains, and lay eggs. Perhaps for this reason, or maybe because of their large rear-end pinchers, these insects tend to fall in the “creepy” category. Don’t be fooled through, earwigs are more sophisticated than they look: they're record-holders in the ancient art of origami.

Stadium Acoustics Pump Up the Volume

At sports venues designed to maximize crowd atmosphere, beware of hearing loss.Originally published: Apr 14 2014 - 2:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Brian Owens, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- The roar of the crowd is a major part of the excitement of attending a sporting event. A noisy, engaged crowd makes for a better experience for fans, and is often credited with helping the players on the field, too.

"The players love it," said Carl Francis, director of communications for the NFL Players Association. "Fan support definitely has an impact on the players."

Stadium designers know this, and the new generation of stadiums now incorporate design features that help boost fan support by trapping and amplifying crowd noise. The most important aspects are to keep the size of the stadium as small as possible, and to provide reflecting surfaces that can turn the noise back to the crowd, said Jack Wrightson, a Dallas-based acoustical consultant who has worked on the design o…

My job is to study the ‘fun stuff’ - The journey to becoming an informal physics education researcher

By: Brean Prefontaine 
 We all know what is about to happen when someone asks, “What do/did you study?” As soon as you utter the word “physics” you have to brace for the inevitable “oh, I was never good at physics” or “I hated physics” or, possibly the most heartbreaking, “I had a really bad physics teacher.” It’s truly heartbreaking. A far-fetched dream of mine is to live in a world where I won’t hear these responses to my admission of studying physics. We all just want other people to love physics as much as we do. Changing the world is a really hard thing to do. 
But, we can all change a small part of the world with a little bit of passion - at least this is what I tell myself because I think that my current research is really important. All of my research is related to how people interact with physics in informal learning environments, or really any place that is not a physics classroom. This could mean learning about physics at a museum, after school program, science camp, or sci…

Chaos, Fractals, and Complexity: Big Ideas in the “Science of ‘Roughness

By: Hannah Pell
“Assume the cow is a perfect sphere.” 
Any of us who have taken a physics class or two has probably met the Spherical Cow at some point (or a version of it). How can I calculate the volume of an irregular, misshapen 3-D object like a cow? Well, I’ll smooth out the edges and approximate it to a sphere, and my answer will surely be close enough. 
To find solutions for introductory physics problems such as these we make particular assumptions about the mechanical system in question. Physicists really like being able to identify symmetries or make approximations (remember all those Taylor Series?). Physics is useful for answering questions like, given this initial set of conditions defining some physical system, what could happen over time? Not surprisingly, the more restrictions we can put on the system and the more assumptions we can make, that number of possibilities reduces dramatically. (Thankfully, it's also very convenient that everything can be modeled as a harmo…

Decrypting the History of Alice and Bob

By Hannah Pell
Alice and Bob are recurring characters in science. They can usually be found chatting over the phone or playing games of chance with each other, such as poker or flipping coins. But no matter Alice’s and Bob’s thought-experiment scenario, there is always some sort of a communication problem at the core of it: they want to send a private message to each other without an interception (usually from Eve the eavesdropper). Because of these secret messages, Alice’s and Bob’s interactions are commonly used to frame questions about how information can transfer securely — from point A(lice) to point B(ob).

Alice and Bob have a long history rooted in cryptography, the study of secure communications. To trace how Alice and Bob became such a well-known archetype in computer science, electrical engineering, physics, and mathematics, we’ll first have to go back to the emergence of public key cryptography in the 1970s.

Cryptography and the RSA Paper
“Public key” cryptography refers to …

How to Drive a Car Upside Down: The Physics of Formula One Racing

By: Hannah Pell

The Starting Line
As I write this, twenty cars are sitting at the starting line of the Formula One (F1) 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone based in the UK. The drivers have just finished their formation lap, and the $10 million engines are idling at roughly 5000 rpm (for comparison, the average car idles between 600 to 1000 rpm).

“And it's lights out and away we go!”

The cars accelerate from 0 to 200 kph (125 mph) in about 4 seconds. Drivers downshift through their 8 forward-gear transmissions to 110 kph (70 mph) as they approach their first turn, accelerating back up to maximum speeds of around 315kph (195 mph) on the straightaways within the next few seconds. As they round sharp corners, the drivers experience g-forces similar to astronauts during Earth re-entry. Engines are now revving at more than 10,000 rpm, reaching temperatures greater than 2,500 degrees Celsius. After 52 laps spanning a total distance of 300 km (190 miles), Max Verstappen wins it for…