Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from November, 2006

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 …