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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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Podcast: Lucky Planet

This week on the physics central podcast I talk with David Waltham, a geologist at the University of London and the author of Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional—and What That Means for Life in the Universe. In the book, Waltham presents the evidence supporting the idea that Earth is a very rare, very lucky planet, and that there may not be another life-supporting planet in our galaxy or even in the visible universe. Waltham doesn't think we're totally alone in the universe—but he does think we are effectively alone. This debate includes information from biology, geology, astronomy, cosmology and even history. Listen to the podcast to hear some of the evidence that supports this side of the argument—and a few of the things that could prove it wrong.

Also, there are rumors flying that scientists have detected an Earth-like planet and will announce it soon.
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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What Can You Actually Do with Newly-Released NASA Code?

This Thursday, NASA will unveil a catalog of different software that their employees have designed over the years. The code from a total of 1,000 software projects will become available for free and will be copy-right free, too.

Judging from some of the stories about this exciting news, one might get the impression that any person in the general public can take this newly-released material and design their very own rocket project.

This would be a fallacy. The code will likely become an invaluable resource for professional scientists and engineers. But those of us who do not speak the coding vernacular of computer-programming languages like JavaScript and Fortran will have little use for this new mountain of NASA code.

UCSD Fortran Screenshot.

Piecing together bits of code from various sources is similar to creating Frankenstein’s monster. In the end, the different styles of arguments you have amalgamated into your finished project will make it slower and harder to understand and read for others.

Yet, this is how many design their code these days. A final product is often a mishmash of code that designers dissect and extract from other software projects. Although it might be easier for someone to simply borrow pre-written code, it makes for a less desirable product overall.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Predicting Where Water Will Go In A Hurricane

Originally published: Apr 2 2014 - 4:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- In most hurricanes the greatest damage is done not by the wind but from the storm surge, the mountain of water pushed by raging winds from the ocean to deluge the land.

There is always a level of unpredictability when dealing with Mother Nature, but knowing where the water would go when a storm is bearing down on the coast would be useful, particularly in densely populated coastal cities such as New York, which maintains complex systems of houses, office buildings, sidewalks, basements, alleys, subway stations, and streets clogged with parked cars.

Scientists at the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences at Gloucester Point, Va., reported they have a computer model that may do that, starting about 30 hours before the storm comes ashore. At least it worked in retrospect with the Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast in 2012.

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York City.
Image credit: That Hartford Guy via flickr:

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