Thursday, February 15, 2018

Wrestling the Demon: the Physics of Free Will

At the intersection of physics and philosophy, there's a question that's weighed on the minds of great thinkers for centuries: Is there truly such a thing as free will? When we make a choice, are we fundamentally any different than a calculator "choosing" which segments of its display to light up when the = button is pressed?

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Introducing the Newest Member of the PhysicsCentral Team

Allow me to take a moment to introduce myself and tell you a bit about my background. I am the new APS science writing intern. Currently, I hold four bachelor's degrees and am working on a master's.  My first bachelor's was in English from Florida Gulf Coast University. Last May (2017) I graduated from Florida State University with three Bachelor of Science degrees in astrophysics, meteorology, and biomathematics. This past fall I started my master's degree in space studies through the University of North Dakota.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Cutting-Edge Science Applies Ancient Advice

Chemistry, in one form or another, has been practiced for thousands of years—but for most of that time, it was more akin to wizardry than the hard science we know today. The alchemists of old wielded a strange and marvelous power, to mix two substances and create something entirely new, something that couldn't be separated back into its original parts...except by more alchemy. Through trial and error, mixing up ingredients that seemed like they might be powerful—smelly sulfur, or metals like mercury—we slowly gathered enough pieces of the puzzle that clever people began to see the outlines of the whole shape: the Periodic Table.

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Friday, February 02, 2018

Ask-a-Physicist: Pulling "Juice" Out of Thin Air

This week, Andrew from Quincy, WA wrote in to ask:

I'm writing a book, and trying to think of small-scale power sources—I want the ideas to be at least theoretically possible. Is it theoretically possible to slightly compress an atom to cause the electrons to vibrate? Also could that cause heat as well, and could you harness either of those to produce electricity?

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Thursday, February 01, 2018

I Want to Believe

Many physicists have a moment they can point to as the moment they decided to study physics. Often it is a teacher, or an experiment, or a demo show that made them think physics was the most interesting and fascinating subject. Others might be inspired to follow the path of a favorite author or television character. For me, Dana Scully was that character. I grew up watching the X-Files and for the first time I saw someone like me (well, not exactly like me, I'll never be that well put together or able to walk in heels) as a scientist. For many from my generation she was the first time we saw a female lead on TV that was not a sidekick and was treated as a full and engaging character. She also happened to be a physicist. This made me feel like I could do that, too.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Physics of a "Blood Moon"

Once in a rare while, the moon turns red—because the sky is blue. That might sound like nonsense, but it's the simplest accurate way to explain what happened early this morning, when the moon disappeared from view before returning with an eerie, rusty cast to it.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Ask a Physicist: Which Falls Faster, a Brick or an Elephant?

Last week, reader James from Melbourne wrote in:

I was having a discussion with a colleague about what would hit the ground first if it fell from a plane (let’s say 15,000 ft). An elephant (let’s say African) or a standard brick. Curious to know your thoughts. Thanks! 

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Waves & Whirlpools: on Energy, Structure, Matter, & Antimatter (Part IV)

With the first parts of this series (read part I, part II, and part III), we've built up the idea that the electric charge of a particle is very closely analogous to the angular momentum of an eddy in a fluid. Alike-spinning whirlpools repel, while opposite-spinning ones attract and, when they meet, annihilate one another—with the energy they contained radiating away as waves, just like matter and antimatter. But the surface of a pond is only two-dimensional, so to find out just how far this analogy goes, we're going to have to stretch our imaginations into higher spaces. Let's dive in.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Complex Flows, Simple Rules

Seeing bare tree branches silhouetted against a sunset sky is one of the best things about winter. Bereft of leaves, the trees reveal their intricate skeletons—almost fractal, reminiscent of neurons, or the network of blood vessels that perfuse the body. These complex patterns of growth and branching are produced by an invisible algorithm—less a blueprint than a computer program—encoded in the tree’s DNA, optimized over millions of years of evolution. Taking data on sunlight, airflow, and proximity to other branches, the tree regulates the expression of growth hormones to ensure that it’s making the most of its space. With all the care that goes into their creation, it’s no surprise that the patterns they produce come out so marvelously complex.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Window Into the Heart of the Sun

When magnetic fields clash, they can rapidly unleash powerful explosions. Now scientists may have solved the decades-old mystery behind how these outbursts can happen so quickly. The findings could one day help explain the origins of the most powerful explosions in the universe and point to ways to build stable nuclear fusion reactors.

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