Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Podcast: The Science of Shakespeare

This week on the podcast I chat with science writer Dan Falk about his new book The Science of Shakespeare. William Shakespeare lived in the thick of what we now call The Scientific Revolution: so did the scientific ideas taking root during this time influence the Bard's work? Scholars are still debating this issue, as Shakespeare never said anything definitive about the science of the day. Falk explores some of the theories, which range from casual mentions of infinity, to the idea that the entirety of Hamlet is an allegory for the historical debate about whether the sun or the earth lies at the center of the solar system. Listen to the podcast to hear more!
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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Physics Course Through Time: Students Retrace the Steps of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Many More

Think back to those fundamental physics classes you took in college. For most, those memories involve a large lecture hall, a chalk board decorated with numbers and letters and a voice explaining how they all connected. For a handful of other students, however, their memories are very different.

Left: Einstein’s summer house in Caputh near Berlin. 
Einstein used to spend the summer months working and receiving guests in this house. 
The group got a detailed tour of the house.
Right: An impromptu lecture on gravitational redshift at the Einstein Tower at the Potsdam 
observatory near Berlin. Soon after completion of this solar observatory it became 
obvious that the instrument precision was insufficient to detect the effect, 
yet the observatory remained an active research site for other solar physics for years. 
According to legend, Einstein had only one word to say about the architectural style: “organic.” 
After the Nazis forced the observatory to remove Einstein’s bust from the foyer of the building, 
instead of destroying the bust, physicist hid it in a safe location and replaced it by a 
small stone ("a stone" in German is "ein Stein").
Credit: All images and captions in this post are courtesy of Gerd Kortemeyer

In 2008, physicist Gerd Kortemeyer and historian of physics Catherine Westfall, associate professors at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, took a trip overseas with a group of undergraduate MSU students. Over the course of five weeks, the groups visited Germany, Switzerland and Denmark where they not only learned, but experienced first-hand the sights and sounds out of which modern physics grew. Kortemeyer and Westfall offered the course again in 2011.

Left: View of the River Aare in Berne, Switzerland. Einstein spent some of his most 
productive and happy years in this quaint capital of Switzerland. Berne is rich in Einstein 
sights, has an excellent museum exhibit on Einstein in its Historical Museum, 
and its beautiful surroundings offer a welcome opportunity to follow Einstein’s footsteps 
as an avid hiker.
Right: Einstein’s 1905 apartment in Berne’s Kramgasse. 
Einstein lived here with his young family while working 
as a patent clerk in the nearby patent office.

“I reflect on my experiences in Europe all the time,” said Joel Adelsberg, an astrophysics major at the time of the trip who took the course in 2008. He is now in his second year of medical school. “I made some great friends on the trip that I still keep in contact with and I always think of my time there and the experiences I had.”

Einstein was granted US citizenship in 1940
after immigrating from Germany -
one of the many original documents
at the Einstein Museum in Berne.
Between 1905 and 1945, scientific luminaries like Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck forever changed the modern world of physics. The Bohr model of the atom, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and quantum theory -- these concepts matured while these men strolled down some of the same streets, lounged in the same apartments and lectured in the same rooms that the MSU students visited during their time in Europe.

“In many respects I think the undergrad physics classes that we’re giving we’re doing physics a little bit of a disservice,” said Kortemeyer earlier this month at the APS April Meeting in Savannah, Georgia. “We are conveying a lot of subject matter, we are talking about mechanisms formulas and laws, but we have not conveyed what physics is really about. There’s a human element to this and much of that can be conveyed, we think, through the history of physics.”

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Supernovae and Indigenous Cultures

Stars have been exploding for billions of years, and some of those explosions are so massive that we can see them with the naked eye here on earth. Novae and supernovae (novae's more explosive older sibling), are the result of runaway nuclear fusion at the heart of white dwarf stars, and their brightness often outshines entire galaxies.

Despite their size and brightness, supernovae are relatively rare — especially those bright enough to be seen with the naked eye — and they often fade within weeks or months. Records of supernovae visible to the naked eye crop up roughly every 250 years, and several cultures with written histories have recorded the dozen or so such events over the past 2,000 years.

The Crab Nebula, a remnant from a supernova that occurred in the year 1054.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA

But some supernovae are only visible in the southern hemisphere, where many cultures have passed down oral traditions instead of written histories. Consequently, there may be evidence of more historical supernovae lurking in the oral traditions of indigenous cultures.

Although some oral traditions allude to possible supernovae in the past, confirmation remains elusive.
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Wait for it, Watch for it and You Could Make History

When it moves,
Tens of thousands tune in to watch.

People invented the term pitch-black for it,
Because black was not good enough.

If it touched you,
you might end up in a hospital.

It generates viral videos on YouTube
by doing absolutely nothing.

“I don’t always drip, but when I do the crowd goes wild,” the University of Queensland’s Pitch Drop Experiment would say if it could speak.

There are a handful of pitch drop experiments around the world, but none as old as the one at the University of Queensland in Australia. In fact, theirs is the world’s longest running laboratory experiment. Now in its 86th year of existence, the pitch drop is at it again, generating headlines.

You should know that this might be the most anticlimactic thing you ever watch. The experiment consists of a funnel filled with a black substance called pitch. About once every decade the pitch will drip.

Last year, the world tuned in to watch the ninth drip form. Not fall. Form. More than 13 months later, the tear-shaped droplet is still hanging on. Yesterday, it moved a few centimeters to merge with the eighth drop. You can see the momentous event, 13 months in the making, below.


In the last 86 years, no one has ever witnessed a drop fall from this pitch drop experiment.

The recent merging of the ninth drop with the eighth is a sure sign that the drop will fall, and if you see it when it falls in real time, "your name will make the official record and make history," according to The Ninth Watch website. The website offers live video streaming of the experiment, and if you're logged in when the ninth drop falls, then your name will forever be associated with the experiment that never ends.
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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kepler's Latest Results Offer Most Habitable Exoplanet Yet

Exoplanets that are most likely to host life have eluded detection, until now. As far as we understand, the most likely place to find extraterrestrial life outside of our solar system is on a planet that is similar in size to Earth and located within the habitable zone of its host star where temperatures are just right for the abundance of liquid water.

Comparison of Earth and Kepler 186f. To the right you can see the orbit of Kepler 186f compared to the other four exoplanets in the system that orbit closer to the star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Today, a group of scientists announced that with Kepler they have discovered the very first Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone. Before now, scientists have observed Earth-sized exoplanets that were too close to their host star and therefore too hot for liquid water. Scientists have also observed a healthy amount of planets within their habitable zone, but the planets are too large to likely contain a rocky surface on which life could exist.

Up to this point, either exoplanets were the right size but too close or they were the right distance but too large. But Kepler 186f is both the right size and distance to potentially harbor life. It would be “just right” in Goldilocks’ eyes.

“We can now say other potentially habitable worlds similar in size to Earth can exist, and it’s no longer in the realm of science fiction,” said Elisa Quintana earlier today at a NASA teleconference. Quintana is a research scientist at the SETI Institute in Moffett Field, California and lead author of the paper detailing the team’s results. The paper is scheduled to be published tomorrow in Science.

Kepler 186f is about ten percent larger than Earth and orbits a cooler star about half the mass of our Sun located approximately 500 light years away. So, it’s not in our immediate neighborhood. The star that Kepler 186f revolves around is what astronomers call an M-dwarf, which means there might be more planets like Kepler 186f that are nearby said second author of the paper, Tom Barclay during the teleconference.

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Tune in Friday for a Webcast on BICEP2 Images of Gravitational Waves in the Cosmic Microwave Background

From the Kavli Foundation announcement . . .

"THE FIRST DEFINITIVE PROOF that the universe underwent an almost unimaginably fast expansion when it was only a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old has taken the world by storm. This sudden growth spurt was first theorized more than three decades ago. Yet only last month did astrophysicists reveal "smoking gun" evidence that the universe swelled from microscopic to cosmic size in an instant — an announcement that's being compared to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

"On April 18, two of the scientists who made this groundbreaking discovery will come together for a conversation with two of the pioneering leaders of the field. Together, they will examine the detection of a distinctive, swirling pattern in the universe’s first light, what the swirl tells us about that monumental growth spurt, and the many implications on the way we understand the universe around us."
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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 of dozens of athletic venues in North America.

"Sound loses energy as it travels, so the key is to keep the venue small and intimate," said Wrightson.

Image credit: warrenski via flickr |

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Non-Newtonian Side to Jack White

Jack White, former lead singer of The White Stripes band, recently released a music video of “High Ball Stepper” – a song off his new solo album Lazaretto – that takes advantage of the alien-like properties of non-Newtonian fluids. Although you won’t learn how the science behind the music video works from watching, you can certainly see the cool effects of non-Newtonian fluids while listening to White rocking out on his electric guitar. If, however, you do want to learn the science behind the scenes, then keep reading.

In the video, a gelatinous mixture is poured over speakers. The fluid then begins to bubble and dance to the beat of White’s tune. The volume and subsequent vibrations of the speaker increase as the song progresses, reaching max volume at about two minutes in. The variation in the strength of the speakers' vibrations gives you a nice look at both the liquid and solid-like properties of non-Newtonian fluids.

Toward the beginning of the song, the fluid looks as if it’s trying to boil. This is the result of interfering waves. Liquids will react to a force by creating waves. If those waves interfere, then you sometimes get raised localization points, which are the lumpy bumps that appear in White's video and the video below.

About two minutes in, you’ll see the fluid fly up for an instant. During that moment, it looks more like a composed pancake than a disjointed mass of water. This is the solid-like behavior that non-Newtonian fluids adopt when they experience a rapid force.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Look Up Tonight: The Tetrad Lunar Eclipse Explained

If you're living in North or South America, look toward the sky tonight for a total lunar eclipse. Beginning around 2 AM Eastern Time tonight (technically April 15th), the moon will pass into the Earth's shadow, and the eclipse will peak between 3 and 4 AM Eastern Time.

Lunar eclipses (varying from total eclipses to barely noticeable ones) are fairly common — typically two to three occur each year. Tonight's eclipse, however, is just the beginning.

After tonight, three subsequent lunar eclipses will all be total eclipses as well, each separated by about six month intervals. This "tetrad" of lunar eclipses occurs infrequently; in fact, only about 16 percent of lunar eclipses ever belong to a tetrad such as the one beginning tonight.

A lunar eclipse from 2007 captured by Jens Hackman of Weikersheim, Germany.
Image Credit: Jens Hackman/NASA

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Australia Rejects Homeopathy

Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has determined that homeopathy is utterly, totally, glaringly useless. It's nice when governmental organizations get things right.

You could read the NHMRC statement about their homeopathy ruling, or just watch the infinitely more entertaining send up on homeopathy by the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb

You should enjoy the whole thing, but the key message comes at about 1:40 into the clip.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Flex Your Vector Skills in the New Game Sector Vector

Some unexpected things are happening at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA. First-year engineering students are spending nearly three times longer in the classroom and senior industrial design students are taking an interest in physics.

Game logo.
Complements of James O'Brien,
Greg Sirokman and Derek Casio.
This is due to the ingenuity of WIT faculty members James O’Brien, assistant professor physics, Greg Sirokman, assistant professor of chemistry, and Derek Casio, assistant professor of industrial design.

The game that is engaging student learning in novel ways and bringing WIT students from different fields of study together is called Sector Vector. It is a board game that the three creators say takes learning of basic vector concepts to a fun, new level that improves the overall learning experience. The results speak for themselves.

Before James O’Brien introduced Sector Vector into his introductory engineering lectures, students were spending an average of 40 minutes in class. Afterward, they were voluntarily spending around 116 minutes in class – almost three times as long.

Also to the game’s credit was the improvement in quiz scores. O’Brien conducted a study of about 200 students, all of which completed two online vector quizzes. After taking the first quiz, half of the students played Sector Vector and the other half completed traditional vector homework assignments. Students who played Sector Vector scored on average 12 percentage points higher on their second vector quiz whereas the other students improved their scores by four percentage points.

“We’re in a school that is heavily leading toward project-based learning,” O’Brien said earlier this week in a press conference for the APS April Meeting. “[We’re] really trying to think outside of the box in terms of how you prepare lessons for the students and also how you try to inspire them to think.”

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