Thursday, December 07, 2006

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 microwave background, but nearly nobody thinks it’s the right one.)

Invention Most Likely to Lead to a new Comic Book Superhero (or Supervillian). . . Radioactive scorpion venom for brain cancer therapy.

Invention most likely to become a Comic Book Supervillian Weapon . . .
The Paser

Most Controversial Experiment . . . Sonofusion Bubbles Up and back down.

Worst Physics Miscalculation . . .
Germany to win 2006 World’s Cup of Football. Italy actually took the cup.

Worst Pending Physics Miscalculation . . . Physicists Predict Stock Market Crashes

Biggest Physics Cat Fight of the year . . . String Theorists vs. Loop Quantum Gravity Theorists

Let us know if you have any suggestions for the year's most notable physics stories (even if you have to make up your own categories, like we did). I'll be happy to add it to the list, if you make a good argument. And if you really hate one of our choices, let me know why I should take it down
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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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 (personal and teaching) experience intro physics students start out kinda like babies in that they often believe things because of the "NASA effect." In other words, "I know the moon is bigger than the earth because NASA says so" or more commonly "...because the book says so." Just as many of us believed in santa because our parents told us he was real.

As I got older I started testing things myself (how hot the stove was, what happened if I didn't clean my room, what I really thought about religion, etc.), but even the methods I use to test things has changed...when I was 5 yrs old I decided whether santa was real by pulling on his beard. If I had to decide now I'd probably carry out some additional tests...check his drivers license, ask to meet his wife, give him a punch in the stomach (not to be mean, to check for a pillow), dna tests, etc. Of course I don't have to decide now; I make that decision a long time ago when I pulled on santa's beard.

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