Monday, December 22, 2014

Solstice, Shmolstice – Why The Coldest Days Are Still To Come

Originally published: Dec 22 2014 - 11:45am, Inside Science News Service
By: Katharine Gammon, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Residents of the Northern Hemisphere, don’t worry about the winter solstice – it’s not the middle of winter, and in some places, it’s not even the start of wintry weather.

So why exactly is the shortest day of the year so distant from the coldest temperatures? It’s usually another month before the bone-aching freezes of winter hit their worst.

That gap is what’s known as the seasonal lag, said Anthony Arguez, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, North Carolina. The lag occurs primarily because the earth’s land and oceans absorb some of the sun’s energy and release it slowly over time.

“There’s not a good answer for why people say that December 21 is the beginning of winter,” he said. “There’s nothing magical that says that winter has to happen after the solstice.” While the temperature of soil more than 30 feet below the surface remains basically constant, the soil higher up holds in heat, even while the air temperatures drop off. Arguez pointed out that summertime temperatures have a similar lag – the hottest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically in July or August.

Image credit: weegeeboard via flickr |
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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mystery Object

The other day, a mystery showed up at the door of the PhysicsCentral offices. The inimitable Buzz Skyline discovered this mystery object in his neighborhood and brought it to H.Q. We have no idea what it is, other than really cool looking, so we decided to do what CERN did a few weeks ago and ask our loyal readers to weigh in.

There aren't a lot of clues that go along with it either. A few of the guesses we floated are that it has something to do with astronomy or something to do with crystallography. Maybe it was used in an educational setting or a laboratory. In short, we have no idea.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Black Hole Fingerprints: Help Radio Galaxy Zoo Reach Its 1 Millionth Classification

The long winter nights are upon us — what better way to pass the evening than by doing your bit for science? Best part is, you can still watch that favorite holiday movie.

Last week we featured a podcast all about the power of citizen scientists helping to analyze very large datasets.

This week, I want to highlight one such citizen science project that just celebrated its one year anniversary! This project is known as Radio Galaxy Zoo, a title that you might recognize from the very successful Galaxy Zoo.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Podcast: Manh(a)ttan Brings Nuclear Physics to Primetime

This fall, a new primetime drama appeared on the television network WGN America, featuring scientists at Los Alamos working tirelessly--desperately, even--to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, all while maintaining utmost secrecy. Manhattan draws on the rich underlying history of its namesake, the Manhattan Project, but steers clear of documentary tendencies. Whereas the premise of the show and several key figures are largely based on their real-life counterparts, the main cast is populated by fictional characters, whose personal and scientific struggles acquaint us with the broader themes of privacy, government surveillance, and trust. Today on the podcast, we discuss how Manhattan brings nuclear physics to primetime TV, and what’s gained or lost along the way.

A replica of the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki during WWII.
Image Credit: US Department of Defense

Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and former director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, is impressed with Manhattan’s creative and dramatic storyline, and notes that the on-screen science, vetted by several technical consultants, is not only presented accurately, but also motivates much of the narrative and character development. While she acknowledges that the central conflict of the first season--a rivalry between two different designs for the atomic bomb--was magnified for dramatic purposes, Ouellette maintains that it makes for “more powerful storytelling, and there’s always going to be that tradeoff.” In reality, both bomb designs, the gun-type Thin Man and the implosion model, were developed into working weapons, and one of each type, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Japan in 1945.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An Offer You Can't Refuse: How Extortion Can Enhance Cooperation in Society

Cooperation is a hard behavior to explain. Often it involves making at least a small sacrifice for the benefit of the whole, which superficially seems to be at odds with evolutionary pressures that encourage individuals to maximize their benefits at the expense of their competitors.

Lots of theories exist to explain why cooperation arises in society, but a relatively new one examines how extortionists can lead to complete cooperation in a society. It's an idea I'm sure Mafia Don Vito Corleone of the movie The Godfather would have considered trivially obvious.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Brain-Like Circuits Can Mimic Pavlov's Dogs

Originally published: Dec 15 2014 - 1:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Artificial electronic circuits that mimic the pathways connecting neurons in the brain can learn, unlearn and store memories, researchers have reported. These inventions could not only help researchers better understand how the brain works, but could also lead to advanced new computers.

Brains are the most powerful computers known. This is due in large part to their complexity — the human brain has roughly 100 billion neurons, with about one million billion connections known as synapses wiring them together.

Scientists have long strived to mimic the brain electronically using either software or hardware. However, current software simulations of the brain, such as the IBM Blue Gene project, require lots of energy as well as dozens of cabinets of computers, while conventional hardware imitations of the brain are limited by the lack of components that can adequately mimic the way synapses behave, said researcher Shriram Ramanathan, a materials scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Image credit: Singkham via shutterstock |

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Why Plug-In-Hybrid Vehicles May Be The Car Of The (Near) Future

Don't bet on all electric cars taking over for more than a decade, researchers indicate.
Image credit: 
Tom Wang via shutterstock

This story follows a story published November 25, 2014 on electric vehicles and how the driving range customers want may differ from what is best for their budgets.

Owning a car provides freedom. Drive hundreds of miles if you want. When you're low on gas, fill up in five minutes. Electric cars don't work that way. Most modern models can travel fewer than 100 miles on a full charge, and gas tanks fill much faster than batteries charge. But one type offers a compromise that combines the benefits of an electric car with the convenience of a combustion-powered vehicle.
"I come to the conclusion that the main competitor of electric cars is the plug-in hybrids because they offer the best of both worlds," said Ricardo Daziano, who studies the way engineering and economics affect the adoption and improvement of new technologies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "So you can go electric on your daily commute and then you feel good about the environment."

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Walking On Water: Physics of Clear Ice

A video went viral yesterday showing two hikers in Slovakia walking across a frozen lake. What is amazing about this lake is the fact that it froze crystal clear such that the hikers appear to be walking on calm water.

In cased you missed it, here is the video:

Now, like any self-respecting scientist, I tried to get APS approval to repeat their hike, you know, just to verify the experimental results, but sadly no can do. The stark and beautiful scenery of the Slovakian mountains will have to wait until another day.

While I was daydreaming, I wondered what caused this particular lake to freeze clear? What's special about its conditions? And can I make clear ice at home? As usual, physics has the answers.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Podcast: Citizen Science Answering the Call

Over the past decade, citizen science projects have been popping up in every conceivable discipline, evolving with the internet to bring the power of the public to bear on increasingly large datasets. Astronomy has a long history of amateur involvement, and many projects are now up and running to process piles of data from space telescopes, sky surveys, and planetary orbiters. Today on the podcast, we take a look at a few of these projects to find out why they’re so useful and what drives citizen scientists to volunteer.

Dr. Andrew Westphal of Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratories is the project director and principal investigator for Stardust@home, an effort to find rare interstellar particles embedded in the aerogel detector returned from NASA’s Stardust mission in 2006. In part, volunteers (or “dusters”) are motivated by competition, as their pattern recognition chops are evaluated and reported in real time. 

An aerogel collector for the Stardust mission. The Stardust mission is one of several science projects that has enlisted the help of volunteers to comb through large amounts of data.
Image Credit: NASA

Even more alluring to dusters, Westphal maintains, is the chance to participate in cutting edge scientific investigations, and to know that their help is actually making a difference. And it is! So far, the project has identified three interstellar particles in the aerogel (and, unexpectedly, another four particles hitching a ride on the foil-like aluminum aerogel mounts) and their discoverers have named them Orion, Haylabook, and Sorok.
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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hearing the Pianist's Fingers: The Importance of Touch in Piano Music

Credit: Lecates via Wikimedia Commons
Can you tell the difference between the two tones played in this recording?

I'm not convinced that I can, but a group of trained musicians were able to listen to a series of tones like this and consistently distinguish between the two. This is important because there is actually a difference in the tones: in this particular recording, the first tone is an E note played such that the piano key does not hit the bottom of the wooden frame that holds the keys in place (known as the key frame), and in the second tone, the key does hit the key frame. Otherwise, the tones are identical.

From this experiment and others, a team of musicians and acoustic scientists have concluded that touch can be heard in piano music, addressing a century-old debate. Their work has been recently published in the November issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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