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Our Phavorite Physics Stories of 2006

It's the end of the year, so it's time to reflect on the past twelve months. In case you’re already saturated with 2006 retrospectives, we’ll keep ours brief. These are all our own humble opinions of the special stories, of course.



The Most Scientifically Important Physics story of 2006 . . .NASA's discovery of hard evidence for dark matter.







Runner up to the Most Scientifically Important Physics story of 2006 . . . The (Re)Discovery of Elements 116 and 118.





The Most Fun Physics story of 2006. . .
The Ig Nobel Award for a study of why spaghetti breaks in more than two pieces when it is bent.






Runner up to the Most Fun Physics story of 2006 . . .Bad Basketballs








The Most Over Blown physics story . . .A cloaking device that got the press excited, but will probably never work on anything larger than a dust speck (which is pretty hard to see already).







Runner up to the Most Over Blown physics story . . . The Eggcentric Universe. (It’s one explanation for measurements of the cosmic micr…

How to tell if santa is real

As I was driving today the radio host I was listening to was talking about the results of a mall-santa survey that included questions like "how many of you have been peed on by a child?" (unfortunately that won't be the subject of this post), "how many of the children say they've been good?" etc. The question that caught my attention was this:

Q: How many of you have your beard pulled on at least once a day?
A: 90%

Why do I find this interesting? The radio hosts were talking about how kids pull santa's beard to see if their santa - in the middle of nowhere Illinois or in downtown New York City - is real.

It got me thinking about how people test whether something is real, which we have to do all the time in physics and in life. The tools we use to make these judgments develop and change over a person's life, at least they have over mine, but it's interesting to take a moment and think about what your tools are and where they've come from.

In my (p…

Adopting Physicists and Mac & Cheese

Why did you become a physicist?

Do you enjoy mac and cheese?

How does particle physics contribute to future advances in the United States and the world as a whole?

Are you an outdoorsman?

Ever want to ask a physicist one of those questions? One of the projects I'm working on for the American Physical Society is called Adopt-a-Physicist and I thought I'd tell you a little about it today because it's just that cool! Don't worry, I'm not soliciting anything - it's a totally free project that is already underway.

This program is designed to show high school students what it's like to be a REAL physicist - by giving them a chance to interact with physicists one-on-one via online discussion forums. Participating physicists include researchers at all kinds of labs and companies, computer programmers, doctors, science writers, and many others.

Classes that participate in this program "adopt" up to three physicists (a physicist is defined as anyone with a bach…

Erasing the Day?

Sorry it's been a week since we last posted. That doesn't mean there haven't been any good physics stories or deep thoughts on physics - since we all know physicists work even on their days off - it just means we've been busy with turkey and family and Hawaii (yeah, I wish that was me).

The Palo Alto Research Center Incorporated and Xerox Research Center of Canada are working together to create erasable paper - paper that be reused many times, according to a New York Times story. Apparently office workers today use paper mainly for daily tasks, such as making notes or printing emails for quick reference, and rely on computers for long term storage.

I know that I'm constantly throwing away or recycling post-its and notebooks full of random notes that have contributed to a finished product safely stored (I hope) on a network drive. So, says Xerox, why not make paper whose ink fades in 16 hours? Then you can reuse it over and over. Not a bad idea, as long as you don'…

Giving thanks for science

Listen to the text-to-speech Robo-Podcast.

With the thanksgiving holiday approaching, many of us will soon sit down to worship our food (note the Over the Hedge reference) with family or friends. Whether you eat turkey or have one of the non-traditional main dishes, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the science your feast represents and give thanks for the many advances in science that have led to the 20 lbs turkey and the ability to store leftover potatoes and gravy throughout the week it takes to consume them.

My favorite food at thanksgiving dinner is the heap of turkey, gravy, potatoes, and stuffing all mixed together that makes up my first course. I used to prefer apple pie over pumpkin, but pumpkin has really grown on me in my old age. Yum, I'm getting hungry thinking about it. Anyway, imagine preparing thanksgiving dinner for all the relatives over a fire instead of a state-of-the-art Maytag or GE. Or making your pie with real pumpkins instead of the gooey mix from the …

Terraced Droplets

Liquid droplets are usually rounded, as I am sure you know. But when the droplets are made of certain types of long molecules, they turn into terraced pyramids instead.

The molecules in this drop have different structures on either of their ends. The end of one molecule is attracted to only one end of a neighbor molecule, and repelled by the other. The molecules behave a little like magnets, except that it's a chemical attraction that lines them up instead of magnetic fields.

Because of the interaction between the molecules' ends, they form drops built of layers - leading to these pretty physics pictures.

The molecules in a single layer are lined up with each other, but are lined up in the opposite direction of the molecules in the layer immediately above or below.

If there is only enough material in the droplet to for a single layer, it turns into a pancake like the picture below.

I'm not sure what makes the rays that extend out all around, but it sure is cool.

In case you…

Wireless Power

Listen to the text-to-speech Robo-Podcast


You've got a cell phone, a wireless laptop and maybe a Blackberry. You are the very picture of a wirelessly connected person on the go - until your batteries run down.

Wouldn't it be great if you could recharge all your electronics without having to plug into a charger?

A group of physicists from MIT thinks so too. They're proposing a design for a wireless power transmission system that could make power cables and battery chargers things of the past. What's more, the researchers believe the power source could run buses or possibly even nano-robots tooling around inside your body.

Marin Soljacic and his MIT colleagues presented their idea at the Industrial Physics Forum meeting going on this week in San Francisco. It created quite a stir in the press, leading to stories in major newspapers and dozens of techy websites.

The system Soljacic is proposing doesn't broadcast power the way an antenna does. Radiating energy out to space…

Fabulous Fisics Fotos

Every year the American Association of Physics Teacherssponsors a physics photo contest for high school students. This year they partnered with Lexmark International, Inc. Here are some of my favorites...


Magnetic Distortions
I love this picture, taken by Bahoa Pan of Cranbrook Kingswood School and awarded honorable mention in the competition. The horseshoe magnet was placed on a CRT computer monitor to illustrate how a magnetic field deflects charges. Read Bahoa's description here.






Bending Water
Look closely - see the stream of water attracted to the balloon? This picture of a charged balloon attracting water molecules, taken by Matthew Claspill of Helias High School, was a second place winner. I've done this demonstration before with a charged comb and I admit that it's pretty neat, but this picture is awesome! I'm using a balloon next time.





Demonstration of Newton's 1st Law
Kevin Rosenquist of West Chicago Community High School took this first place picture. He filled…

Twining Vines

Listen to the text-to-speech Robo-Podcast

Have you ever wondered how the vines in your yard manage to work their way up a pole or a tree? The question puzzled Darwin and remained a longstanding mystery - until it was solved in a paper published in Physical Review Letters earlier this month.

The answer is summarized in the latest edition of Physical Review Focus. I have to tell you though, I have a hard time following the article in my attempt to understand exactly how the model works.

There's one thing I understand from the Focus story - the theory can tell you the largest diameter stick you should use to hold up vines in your garden. Specifically, if you measure the diameter of the curls that a vine's tendril makes when it is not wrapped around a support, then you should make sure your supports are not more than 3.3 times larger than those curls in cross section. Otherwise, your twining peas will droop and your morning glories, will lie ungloriously on the ground.

Hot Nanotech

Toothpaste that automatically coats, protects, even rebuilds tooth enamel; nanoscopic electronics; and maybe, someday, tiny robots capable of performing minor surgical procedures within the human body . . .

These are just a few of the cool technologies that are the focus of the AIP Industrial Physics Forum meeting in San Francisco this week.

Check out Jennifer Ouellette's reporting on the meeting in the Physics Today blog.

Cosmological Constant Conundrum

I was browsing the online archives of physics papers today when I stumbled across an intriguing paper by Abraham Loeb of Harvard.

Loeb claims that a search for planets in dwarf galaxies could test, and possibly debunk, a common explanation for the puzzling measurement of the cosmological constant, which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Einstein initially proposed the cosmological constant, as a part of his theory of general relativity, to explain why the universe appeared to be static. When Edwin Hubble showed that the universe is actually expanding, Einstein dropped the constant from his theory, calling it the greatest blunder of his career.

It turned out later that Einstein might have been on the right track for the wrong reasons. The universe is not simply expanding, but accelerating as well. As a result, physicists resurrected the constant and found that it must have a value around 0.7 to match our observations of the universe.

Although it is a tidy explanation of …

Mercury Waves Hello

Yesterday (Nov. 8), people in the Americas, Hawaii, and around the Pacific Rim set up their telescopes (with solar filters of course) and watched Mercury pass directly in front of the sun. Cool! I didn't get to see the transit, but thanks to the internet there are all sorts of great pictures available today.

In this picture (taken by Howard Eskildsen in Florida) you can see a sunspot in the upper left and the nice round shape of Mercury on the lower left. Spaceweather.com has a gallery of images that is being updated all day.

Mercury passes between the earth and the sun about 13 times a century - if you missed it this time your next chance will be May 9, 2016. Mark your calendar now!


2003 Transit of Mercury

Stop Faking It! II

Earlier this year I posted about registering for a Stop Faking It! workshop. Well, last week I attended the workshop as part of the National Science Teachers Association Area Conference in the lovely city of Baltimore - it was fabulous! Actually the whole conference was. I was impressed with the variety of sessions and the quality of nearly all of the sessions that I attended.

This workshop was led by the amusing and energetic author of the Stop Faking It! materials, Bill Robertson. Bill took the 40 of us K-12 educators through force and motion concepts using the learning cycle model. We had a great time playing with chairs, ping pong balls, and balloon rockets; but the real fun was the audible "ah-ha" moments when the science behind these (sometimes commonly used) activities sunk into our brains for the first time.

Most of the sessions at the meeting were aimed at helping teachers teach science concepts to students, but Bill's workshops (and books) focus on helping teache…

I Vote for Science!

The 2006 US elections are just about here, and gizmo looks almost as stressed over it as I am. Maybe we should both cut back on the coffee for a bit.

"I vote for justice!" is the battle cry of SuffraJet, a rocket propelled, equal voting rights advocate and member of the Decency Squad, from the too-short-lived cartoon The Tick. I assume everyone who goes to the polls this Tuesday is voting for justice, at least their own interpretation of it. We could argue all day over how to vote for justice, so my battle cry is "I vote for science!"

I had hoped that the newly established, nonprofit Scientists and Engineers for America (geez, don't you hate those vague "up with goodness" organization titles that seem mandatory these days) could help me by compiling information about candidate positions on science issues. But as you can see for yourself, their page listing key races is blank. So I had to figure it out all on my own.

I'm nonpartisan and registered in…

For Once, Beryllium Outshines Diamond

Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories used the speed of sound to determine the shock melting pressure of diamond – and found it to be remarkably high. Not exactly the result researchers hoping to use diamond in inertial confinement fusion (ICF) fuel capsules were hoping to hear.

ICF is a technique that uses high-powered lasers to detonate the outer layer (called the ablator) of a small fuel capsule. This creates an inward-traveling shock wave that raises the temperature and pressure at the center of the capsule to fusion-igniting levels.


The ablator must be made of a material that can absorb the x-ray energy emitted in ICF but that also has a low atomic mass. Diamond and beryllium have been identified as prime candidates for use. Although diamond is attractive from a manufacturing and fabrication point of view, this research shows that it’s probably not the right choice for ICF applications.

The experiment showed that shock waves stronger than 10 million times atmospheric pressu…

Physicists Reveal Fundamental Flaws in NBA's Synthetic Basketball

Synthetic NBA basketballs introduced this season — and despised by many players — are less lively, more slippery when damp, and bounce more erratically than the traditional leather balls, according to a preliminary study by University of Texas at Arlington physicists.

When Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and other superstar NBA players griped about the league’s new synthetic basketball, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban contacted James Horwitz, Chairman of the University of Texas at Arlington Department of Physics, to request a study of the properties of the new and old balls.

Horwitz responded setting up a UTA Physics investigative team, designating Professor Kaushik De as UTA Physics “MavBalls” project leader. According to the UTA physicists’ tests and preliminary results, the players’ complaints may be justified.

De, Horwitz, and their students have found:

* That the new balls bounce 5-8% less high than typical leather balls used in past seasons, when dropped from a little …

Fastest Waves Ever Photographed

Pictures of the fastest moving waves ever photographed were presented this morning at APS Division of Plasma Physics meeting in Philadelphia. These shots are more than your typical pretty pictures – they represent a major advance in wakefield accelerator technology, a technology that could make tabletop high-energy particle accelerators a reality.

The matter waves, which are oscillations moving through a plasma, are known as wakefields because they are created in the wake of an ultra-intense laser pulse. The waves travel at 99.997% of the speed of light and generate electric fields exceeding 100 billion electron volts/meter.

The ability to create huge electric fields makes wakefields a promising method for shrinking the size of accelerators from miles long (like those at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, FermiLab and CERN) to tabletop. Small accelerators would allow universities and hospitals to take advantage of the research and medical applications afforded by an accelerator wi…

Tie One On

What do Mothers Against Drunk Driving, neckties, and microscopes have in common?
The Cocktail Collection of men's neckwear by Stonehenge, Ltd. of course!

Think about it - how better to market neckties to men than with a line featuring colorful images of crystallized beer (left) and scotch (right)? Now, turn that into a partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a catchy line such as "The only way to ‘tie one on’ before driving." Genius!

I am a little late in voicing my appreciation for this as the ties debuted in the early 1990s - but hey, I was only 12 at time.

Michael Davidson, a biochemist-turned-microscope artist, took the images for the ties through an optical microscope. His company (Molecular Expressions) now has a whole line of beer images, as well as images of vitamins, pesticides, birthstones, and all kinds of other things that adorn items from clothing to greeting cards (visit the Galleria).

In addition to being colorful and fun, the images are a powerful r…

Smart Music for Smart People

Writer/song writer Jonathan Coulton took some time off of his book tour with John Hodgman to play some tunes at a conference for science writers I attended this weekend in Baltimore.



All things considered, good music is hard to find (how many bands form for every one that gets a music contract?), and so is funny music. How great is it when you get to hear songs that are both good and funny? Coulton is one of the rare musicians who can weave sophisticated, sexy, and funny lyrics into a tune you'd actually want to play just because it sounds good. (Are you listening Weird Al?)

His selection of tunes seemed tailored to appeal to the sort of people who go into science writing, primarily evoking images of supervillains, nerds and sysadmins railing against the iniquities of a world where their unique talents and delicate sensitivities are perpetually trampled by the unenlightened masses.

My favorite line of the night was from Skullcrusher Mountain, a ballad that gives listeners a glimpse …

A virtual education?

(My apologies to those that saw the early version of this - I hit publish by mistake...)

The New York Times recently published an article on virtual science classes - in particular virtual science labs. The motivation for the discussion was the College Board's investigation into whether high school classes that use virtual labs can be AP classes.


The argument for accepting AP virtual lab classes is emotionally pulling: it gives students -- in rural high schools that don't have access to advanced lab equipment or that are taking classes online because their local high school doesn't offer them -- the opportunity to take AP classes. In addition, the article points out, students in online schools often earn high scores on the AP exam.

But I'm not sold on their argument. After all, the issue is not really about equal opportunities, but about how prepared students are for college classes. And college classes have physical labs. I think that half of the learning in science take…

Tongue Display to Prevent Buttock Sores

A display device that transmits crude images to the tongue has been adapted to alert people suffering from sensory loss that they may have remained seated in one position for too long.

The system, developed by medical physicists at the Institut d'Informatique et Mathématiques Appliquées in Grenoble, France, includes a Tongue Display Unit (TDU) and a pressure sensitive pad placed under the buttocks. The TDU is a square array of 36 electrodes that can apply patterns of low voltage signals to the tongue.

The continuous pressure on one portion of the body that occurs when someone lies or sits still for long periods can lead to dangerous pressure ulcers, commonly called bedsores. The TDU in combination with the sensor pad is an attempt at sensory replacement - substituting one sensory signal for another - to reduce the incidence of pressure ulcers in people who are partially paralyzed or have lost sensory responses below the waist.

Although the system has only been tested in healthy sub…

Student Happiness Overrated?

I always liked math - I was even on the math team in high school (although only for the cookies!), but I admit to having tortured geometry and trig teachers with the ever popular question:

"What does this have to do with real life?"

As a student I felt that the classes I took should be relevant to life. And I really appreciated teachers that made the materials engaging and fun. But did any of this really make my education better??

A recent study compared 8th grade math students across the world and found that countries that ranked in the top 10 in terms of math enjoyment all scored below average in math skills, while countries that ranked in the bottom 10 on the enjoyment level all excelled in skill level.

Read the above paragraph again: the study found that across countries math enjoyment is inversely related to performance.

"Countries with more confident students who enjoy the subject matter - and with teachers who strive to make mathematics relevant to students' daily…

Black Holes that are neither Black nor Holes

Stephen Hawking showed some time ago that black holes might actually emit light known as
Hawking radiation, not from their bottomless interiors of course, but from the event horizon that marks the point of no return as you approach one of these monsters. In other words, black holes probably aren't black.

Now it seems collapsing masses that aren't black holes quite yet can bend space much as true black holes do, and give off the signature black hole Hawking radiation.

From a distance, such a thing would look just like a black hole, except that it wouldn't have a hole at the middle.

OK, OK, I can guess what you're thinking. Doesn't the lack of a singular point mass at the center mean it's not a black hole?

Hey, it still passes the duck test. After all, whether there is a hole at the center or not, I don't think any person or probe will ever be able to visit one and get back intact to tell us about it.

Carlos Barceló, Stefano Liberati, Sebastiano Sonego, and Mat…

Crochet Math

A few months ago, we were fortunate enough to have a display of crochet art by Daina Taimina in the lobby of the American Center for Physics. The pieces sat in glass cases surrounding our rotunda. When I first saw them I had no idea what they were supposed to be, although some reminded me of the wood ear fungus on trees just outside the building. In fact, they were crochet examples of hyperbolic planes.

I confess that the whole idea of hyperbolic planes is a bit beyond me (the wikipedia page didn't help much, although now I know the word hyperparallel), even though the artist herself explained it to us at the art opening. But looking at Taimina's pieces certainly gave me an intuitive feel for the math. I only wish we had been allowed to pass them around to touch them and stretch them out a little.

I guess I'll have to make my own hyperbolic plane crochet toy to play with. Fortunately, the instructions are available in the book Taimina wrote with David Henderson. It's on …

dinner-party conversations...

I was paging through a book on temperature by the physicist Gino Segre today and noticed the first comment under the "Praise for A Matter of Degrees" section:

"Segre's informal style reads like a dinner-party conversation with a physicist." - The Washington Post

It got me thinking - what exactly do people think a dinner-party conversation with a physicist is like? Was the Washington Post's comment a compliment or a dig at the jargon-laden words we throw into even informal conversations?


I was shoe shopping at the mall with some friends a few years ago, having fun flirting with the salesman. He asked me what I was studying and I dropped the p-word. Big mistake. The conversation died on the spot. "Oh" he said, and then avoided me the rest of the time that I was in the store. Apparently he wasn't too interested in having a shoe-store conversation with a physicist, much less a dinner conversation.

I and many of my physicist friends have had the experi…