Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bill Nye Drops the Ball on DeflateGate

The one person who really looks bad in the whole DeflateGate scandal is Bill Nye.
No matter how you feel about Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Patriots, one good thing that has come out of the DeflateGate scandal has been a national discussion of the ideal gas law, thermodynamics, and air pressure. When is the last time you heard anybody outside a high school or college science class bring up PV=nRT?

And people aren't just discussing it, they're passionately arguing it, doing experiments, making calculations - it's amazing. Then along comes Bill Nye to throw some icy cold anti-intellectual water on the issue.

I never could before have imagined Bill Nye being anti-intellectual, but here's the proof. See the portion beginning at 43 seconds in.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Inside the Global Effort to Track Mysterious Space Radio Signals

Astronomers are building a global collaboration to identify recently discovered radio blips seemingly originating from deep space. Called "fast radio bursts," or FRBs for short, these enigmatic cosmic signals have so far confounded astronomers, and are the subject of a growing effort to track and observe them.

An artist's rendition of the Parkes telescope observing a cosmic radio signal.
Image: Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

A lot of questions surround the origins of these strange signals, and astronomers are stepping up efforts around the world to identify where they're coming from. Each radio chirp lasts just a few milliseconds and were only identified after scientists went back and reviewed years-old data and found them hiding in plain sight.

"We've known about these FRBs for a while but we don’t know a lot about them," said Emily Petroff, a PhD candidate at Swinburne University of Technology and organizer of the collaboration.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Historic Atom Smasher Felled

Unfortunate news out of Pittsburgh this week. The nearly 80-year-old, long defunct Westinghouse Atom Smasher has been toppled.

The felled Atom Smasher in Forest Hills, Penn.
Image: WTAE Pittsburgh
The five-story steel bulb was the first industrial particle accelerator ever built, and was the most powerful in the world when it was completed in 1937. Its unusual bulb shape is because it is an old Van de Graaff style electrostatic accelerator. The steel dome would build up a huge electrical charge, repelling positively charged ions down a beam tube onto an experiment  or detector. It's a design that today is mostly obsolete, but a few modern accelerators use a version of the technology.

The Physics Buzz team visited the site in November of 2013, and discovered more about it's history and design. It's not even the only one left over from the 1930s either.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

A New Anti-Water Metal: What It Is and What It Is Not

Scientists at the University of Rochester have created new metal surfaces that are super water repellent, using short intense laser blasts. Because these surfaces don't accumulate water, they are self-cleaning and resistant to both corrosion and ice, making them good candidates for solar panels, aerofoils, and even toilets. The researchers published their findings yesterday in the Journal of Applied Physics.

Think you've seen this effect before? We'll explore how these new surfaces were made, what they can do, and how they are very different from two other effects you may be thinking of.

A water droplet bounces off the hydrophobic laser-etched metal. The parallel micro-grooves are just visible.
Image courtesy of J. Adam Fenster, University of Rochester

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Your Smartphone Can Do Physics

That smartphone you carry around in your pocket all day is a pretty versatile lab assistant. It is packed with internal sensors that measure everything from acceleration to sound volume to magnetic field strength. But I'll wager most people don't realize what their phones can actually do.

Screenshot from AndroSensor.
Apps like SensorLog (iOS) or AndroSensor (Android) display and record raw data from the phone's movement, any background noises, and even the number of satellites in the neighborhood.

Watching this data stream across my screen, I'm reminded just how powerful a computer my phone really is. Wrapped into one, the smartphone is an accelerometer, a compass, a microphone, a magnetometer, a photon detector, and a gyroscope. More advanced phones can even measure things like temperature and air pressure.

Smartphone Physics in the Park

To explore the power of your phone, here's a simple physics experiment you can do at your local park. Simply by swinging on a swing and collecting a bit of data, you can measure the length of the swing without ever pulling out a ruler.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Abusing Science with Stories of Post-Death Experiences

I love Kojo Nnamdi's show on NPR. He's a smart, tech savvy, engaging host, and I almost always learn something new when I listen in. A few weeks ago, unfortunately, I learned that Kojo is not immune to falling for pseudoscientific nonsense.

The topic came up when Kojo interviewed Judy Bachrach about her new book  Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and "Science" of Life After Death. Before I go any further, I want to point out that I added the quotations around the word "science" in the title because I can't bare to see the word abused the way Bachrach uses it.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Keeping Climbers Alive with Physics

Tommy Caldwell (second from left) and Kevin Jorgeson (fourth from left) celebrating
their climb of Dawn Wall yesterday afternoon. Credit: Peter Stevens via flickr

Yesterday afternoon in Yosemite National Park, rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made history by completing the first free ascent of Dawn Wall, reputed to be the hardest climb in the world. Caldwell and Jorgeson owe their success to their remarkable perseverance, strength, technique, and also to three key bits of physics keeping them alive.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Podcast: Paleomagnetism 101

Earth's magnetic field, which is generated by convection currents in the highly-conductive liquid outer core, has been documenting our planet’s past for billions of years. Just like that of a standard bar magnet, our magnetic field behaves, on average, like an axial dipole: it has a north pole and a south pole and the field lines connecting them follow a characteristic geometry. Thanks to certain magnetic minerals that are incorporated into rocks as they form, the orientation of this magnetic field is written into the rock record.

On this week's podcast, we take a look at paleomagnetism to understand these magnetic signatures and what they can tell us about the past.

A view of the Aurora Borealis as seen from Iceland.
Image Credit and Copyright: Moyan Brenn

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Wearable Furnace: Keeping Toasty Warm With Nanowire Fabric

Runners using aluminum blankets to keep warm. Credit: Adapted from Ian Hunter | flickr
If you've ever stood exposed and shivering at the end of a run, you'll know just how quickly the body loses heat without protective clothing. To prevent this, aluminized plastic blankets are a common sight at the end of races; they insulate from cold air and reflect back the body's heat. But these blankets are impractical and uncomfortable for daily use, trapping in moisture as well as heat. 
Using some basic principles of radiation reflection and a coating of silver nanowires, physicists have now developed a new type fabric which can keep you toasty warm and comfortable. So warm in fact that the authors think their insulating fabric could be a solution to the large amounts greenhouse gases created by wintertime indoor heating.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Physicists Create "Air Laser" In Laboratory

Originally published: Jan 6 2015 - 8:45am, Inside Science News Service
By: Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- A laser could be created with air in a practical way, a new advance that could one day be used to help spot explosives or pollutants from afar, researchers say.

Laser light is generated by pumping energy into atoms or other objects. A chain reaction can occur in which energized atoms all stimulate each other to give off laser light.

Image credit: FastLizard4 via flickr | http://bit.ly/14rZuS8

One way laser light differs from normal light is that all the light waves in a laser beam are the same frequency — that is, color. Another difference is that all the light waves in a laser beam are coherent — the peaks and troughs of these light waves overlap exactly. These properties help laser beams focus on tight spots and stay narrow for long distances.

The material that gets stimulated to generate laser light can be exotic in nature, such as ruby or sapphire. However, in principle, even air can serve as a laser — a normal laser fired into the atmosphere, dubbed a pump laser, could potentially stimulate air it passed through enough to make that very air act like a laser in return.

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