Thursday, March 26, 2015

Physics Life Hack Number 2 - Makeshift Firestarter

A simple way to start a fire using the physics of electricity
Let's suppose you're out camping. It's damp and cold and you need to start a fire in a hurry. But alas the matches are wet and impossible to light!

Here's a quick and simple alternative that uses the power of electricity and two items which you might just have laying around anyway: a battery and a gum wrapper. Seen it before? Keep reading to find out the physics behind the hack.

Credit: Cropped image from Martin Cathrae via flickr

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Podcast: How Robocats Land on Their Feet

The physics of “cat-turning” has been a subject of fascination for hundreds of years, in part because a cat’s almost uncanny ability to land on its feet seems, at first glance, to violate the conservation of angular momentum.

“It sounds like a paradox when you first talk about it,” says Dr. Will Robertson of the University of Adelaide. “Obviously when the cat is falling, there’s no one else helping it to flip over in the air.”

Images of a falling cat published in Nature in 1894.
Image Credit: Nature via Wikimedia Commons

Robertson and his students have designed a cat-like robot to mimic one of the mechanisms used by real cats to reorient themselves in free fall. The trick is to consider the cat not as a rigid body, but as “lots of rigid bodies all chained together. So when we consider it as a whole, everything internal to the cat can do its own thing so long as the overall angular momentum remains constant.”

Image Credit: Ben Shields et al./University of Adelaide

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"The Happiest Thought of My Life": 100 Years of General Relativity

One hundred years ago this year, Einstein first published his theory of general relativity. This theory fundamentally changed how physicists think about the universe and is thoroughly embedded in the everyday technologies we rely on here on Earth.

In tribute, the talent behind Science Magazine created a wonderful interactive comic that describes the key idea behind general relativity — that space and time warp around massive objects, leading to the "force" we call gravity. Click on this image to view the comic, or follow the link here.

Click to view an interactive comic on general relativity, featuring superhero Einstein!
Credit: Screenshot from Science Magazine's comic.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Simple Test May Detect Toxic Drugs Faster

Originally published: Mar 20 2015 - 2:15pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Ben P. Stein, Director

(Inside Science) -- Testing whether a drug is safe and effective usually takes many years and millions of dollars. Now, researchers have discovered a surprisingly simple method that could quickly and inexpensively weed out many toxic drugs early in the testing process. The test simply explores how much a drug alters a cell's outer covering, or membrane.

Pharmaceutical companies go to great lengths to find out if a drug is toxic to humans. After test tube and animal trials, researchers move to trials with people. Even human trials, however, don’t always catch drugs that have toxic or unexpected effects on some people.

Image credit: motorolka via shutterstock |

Inside The Cell

Researchers from the Weill Cornell Medical College and Rockefeller University, both in New York City, have developed a simple method that successfully flagged more than half the toxic drugs they tested. They presented their results at last month's annual meeting of the Biophysical Society in Baltimore.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Physics Life Hack Number 1 - Hack Your Eyes

Mathlete sees clearly with this physics life hack
A simple trick can help you see clearly  - with physics!

Age has not been kind to my eyesight or my memory. That means that while I now need glasses to correct for the farsightedness of the increasingly inflexible lenses in my eyes, I often forget where I put them (the glasses, not my eyes). That can be a real problem for someone whose entire job consists of reading.

Fortunately, we at Physics Buzz would like to share a life hack for all the optically challenged and forgetful folk like me.

If you don't have glasses handy, you can significantly improve your vision with this cool manuever demonstrated by Physics Buzz's own blogger, Mathlete.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Children Learn Cursive by Teaching Robots

Training 2-foot robot improves 6- to 8-year-olds’ handwriting skills.

Image credit: Images courtesy of EPFL
Rights information: EPFL

Originally published: Mar 18 2015 - 10:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) – A team of Swiss and Portuguese scientists has developed a "learning by teaching" program intended to help children improve their handwriting skills by teaching robots to write letters of the alphabet.

In preliminary studies of the prototype system, elementary school children starting to learn cursive script successfully engaged with a small humanoid robot and improved the robot's handwriting to a level that satisfied the children.

The next step will quantify the impact of those interactions on the children's handwriting.

Séverin Lemaignan, a member of Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (abbreviated in French as EPFL) outlined the group's philosophy at the Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Portland, Oregon this month.

"Get a child-proof robot to write badly," he explained. "Then make it able to learn with the help of children."

Essentially, Lemaignan added, "the goal is to provide a tool for teachers that is given a new role in the classroom – that of a student who knows even less than the slowest student in the class."

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Podcast: Manhattan Project Historical Park

In 1997, when Cindy Kelly learned of the impending demolition of the V Site at Los Alamos, the cluster of wooden structures in which the plutonium bomb detonated in the first nuclear test was assembled, she acted quickly. Leaving her position at the Department of Energy in 2000, she founded the Atomic Heritage Foundation to raise awareness and gather partners to preserve the Manhattan Project sites.

The partially assembled “Gadget” atop its 100-ft. tower prior to the Trinity Test.
Image Credit: DOE/Public Domain

Fifteen years later, these efforts have paid off, as Congress passed and the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 19, 2014. The NDAA, which sets the budget for the Department of Defense each year, contained a special provision this time around to authorize a Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge.
Image Credit: DOE/Public Domain

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sights and Sounds from a NASA Rocket Launch

Last Thursday I reported on the launch of a new quad of NASA satellites, called the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS), which are designed to measure the dynamics of the Earth's magnetic field and a poorly-understood process called magnetic reconnection.

I was able to witness the launch live from a few miles south of the launch pad and today bring you some of the sights, the sounds, and even a little bit of the physics of that experience.

NASA's MMS spacecraft launches on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida on March 12th, 2015 at 10:44 PM EST. Credit: NASA via flickr

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Monday, March 16, 2015

British Spider Spins Unusual Web

Originally published: Mar 10 2015 - 12:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) – A type of spider commonly found in British retail nurseries has a unique way of spinning its web, according to research by a team of arachnid specialists.

The spider, whose formal name is Uloborus plumipes, starts by spinning silk filaments much thinner than those created by other spiders. Then, instead of relying only on the sticky, glue-like substance lining the silk to ensnare its prey, this spider charges the filaments electrostatically by combing them vigorously with its back legs.

The team at Oxford University's Oxford Silk Group that observed the details of the unusual process hopes to use the understanding of the process to develop improved materials.

Image credit: Philippe Teuwen via flickr |
Rights information:

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Global Warming Experts Predict 50% More Lightning

Every day around the world, lightning strikes the ground about 10 times per second.
That's nearly one million strikes a day!
In the U.S. there are 20 million strikes on average every year, and now David Romps, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California Berkeley, says we can expect to see that number grow in the coming years.

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