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Showing posts from January, 2007

Fight for your rights

"Protest"

What comes to mind? Maybe civil rights, gay rights, abortion legality, animal rights, immigration, war, poverty, religious freedom, environmental issues, physics...Wait, did that just say physics??

Most Americans know they shouldn't take their freedom of religion and freedom of the press for granted (even if we still do), but I didn't realize I was taking my ability to study physics for granted until recently.

I know what you're thinking. Photoshop. Although this picture would be a clever edit, this is real life. The picture and an excerpt from the news broadcast (see the full 10 Meg clip on Nepal News) show university students protesting in front of Nepal's Ministry of Education and Sports, holding signs that read "We want to study physics" and chanting:

Leader: We want...
Group: Physics!
Leader: We want...
Group: Physics!

Kinda crazy. Surface level I have to admit that I find it amusing. Pretty amusing actually, although the deeper issue is no…

Ball Lightning Made in a Brazilian Lab

A group of physicists in Brazil have managed to create luminous balls of burning silicon that behave much as ball lightning has been reported to behave.

Click the photo to see a brief video of artificial ball lightning.

Although the glowing balls fall to the floor rather than floating, as ball lightning reputably does sometimes, the hot blobs duplicate other typical phenomena such as

- Following erratic paths, randomly speeding up or slowing down

- Breaking into smaller balls

- Bouncing off of the ground and obstructions

- Scorching cloth and other objects they contact

The researchers, who hail from the Universidad Federal de Pernambuco and the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, created the artificial ball lighting by touching an electrode to a wafer of pure silicon and heating it with a high electrical current. When they pulled the electrode away from the wafer, it created an arc that spewed out a cascade of burning silicon blobs roughly once in every thirty attempts.

The experiment …

Getting back to my senses

A couple days ago I came across an article in Wired News about Luciana Haill. I think she's my new hero. Luciana records the activity of her frontal lobes by wearing a sweatband embedded with EEG monitors, which explore brain function by measuring voltage differences between different parts of the brain. This data gets fed to her computer via Bluetooth Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyser interfaces and, through a waving of the hand, is output as music.

Apparently Luciana became interested in the brain after a bout with Viral Meningitis, which eventually led to her interest in neurofeedback. Seriously, you can look at a graph of brain waves in a book or on a monitor, but listening to them this way is an entirely different experience.


I got a little uncomfortable when the talk started about how this technique is used in hypnotherapy and "invokes a real-time feedback loop between the conscious and subconscious" (this site), but I fully admit that I've only done a superf…

Want to live longer?

Win the Nobel Prize.

Forget the fountain of youth, winning the Nobel Prize can increase your lifespan - at least according to a study performed by Professor Andrew Oswald and government economist Matthew Rablen from the University of Warwick. They compared the lifespans of over 500 male Nobel Prizes nominees for physics and chemistry and found an average lifespan of 76 years. But, they found, those that won the prize tended to live about 1.4 years longer than nominees that didn't win.

Oswald attributes this to status: "Status seems to work a kind of health-giving magic. Once we do the statistical corrections, walking across that platform in Stockholm apparently adds about two years to a scientist's lifespan." (the gap widens to about 2 years when winners/not-winners within the same country are compared)

This study raises many questions in my mind. If status has that much influence on longevity, how do I raise my status?? Or that of my aging parents? Maybe insurance comp…

Smelling Space

Some people have unforgettable noses. Jennifer Grey (pre-surgery), Barbara Streisand, and Sarah Jessica Parker all make my list. Celebrity cosmetic surgeon Anthony Youn recently told Jane magazine that the most popular celebrity nose requested is HalleBerry’s. Of course our noses do more than define our faces; they allow us to explore a whole other dimension of reality. I won’t go into the physics of smell, although you can a recent development here, instead I’m going to wonder out loud – why don’t we incorporate smell into science education? It might seem like a silly idea at first. I mean, who talks about the smell of a cell or the smell of space? Well, as I’ve recently learned, more than one person has discussed the smell of space. Don Pettit, an Officer on the International Space Station wrote this in an article for NASA, It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as "tastes like chic…

Touching the Cosmos

Most astronomy books for the public are full of gorgeous, glossy pictures or star charts that help people navigate around the sky. Such books are so commonplace these days that it’s hard to find a Borders or Barnes and Noble that doesn’t have at least one on the “bargain books” shelf. But Noreen Grice’s astronomy books are not your typical books – in fact you may have to visit a library or order your own copy to get your hands on one. But it’s worth it, believe me.

Like many books, Grice’s books feature pictures of celestial objects and explanatory text. All the books are general introductions to their subject (stars, universe, sun) and don’t contain any new information or formulas. What is so unique about Grice’s books is that they don’t just let you see the universe; they let you touch it.

Grice’s books were developed for blind and visually impaired people. The motivation behind her books – allowing visually impaired people to explore the heavens – is inspiring and a story worth rea…

One Dimensional Thoughts

I spent last weekend exhibiting for the American Physical Society at a joint meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers and American Astronomical Society. Freebies are one of the main reasons conference attendees come to the exhibit hall and I certainly don’t blame them.

In the hall teachers load up on free posters, lesson plans, pens, luggage tags, stress balls, calendars, and even laser pointers - all decorated with the logos of publishers, non-profits, and other companies. At some of the larger meetings teachers roam the hall with crates on wheels to hold all of their goodies and bring extra suitcases to carry them home.

One of the things that impressed me at this meeting was the type of goodies the astronomy booths were giving away. I picked up some beautiful and very high quality posters and full calendars filled with images of planets, galaxies, and other cosmic objects. I found myself getting caught up in wonder as I paged through them, as was, I suspect, the inten…

show me the money

2006 began with the promise of lots of new funding for basic research and science education, but ended with discouragement and disillusionment for many people in the science community.

With all of the talk about keeping America competitive in the global market there is relatively little to show for it as the new congress takes over. In fact, if the 110th congress passes a continuing resolution, as anticipated, for all areas of government except for the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, science research will not only be unable to support many of the newly proposed programs, but many already existing projects will be in serious trouble.

I realize that making congressional decisions is much more complicated than I imagine it to be, but I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that despite President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, and the Council on Competitiveness’ Innovate America re…

Science Sense

Sense About Science, a charity that promotes "good science and evidence for the public", released a new leaflet today: Sense About Science for Celebrities. It turns out that politicians aren't the only ones that make rather interesteing statements about science - other celebrities do too! Okay, that was harsh and not in the spirit of the leaflet. My apologies.

Anyway, Sense About Science is encouraging celebrities to check the facts before they speak out on issues like organic foods, healing by touch, and vaccines - because many of them hold the same misconceptions that the average person does.

The leaflet quotes statements made by celebrities naked chef Jamie Oliver, Madonna, and many others that show a misunderstanding of science or conclusions at odds with the evidence. The leaflet then quotes professionals in the fields related to each statement - nutrition, medicine, plant science, toxicology, etc - explaining why the celebrity's thinking is wrong.

For example:
Caro…

Vampire Physics

Got an undead enemy to deal with? Break out the garlic, the stakes, and your scientific calculator.

Battling vampires, werewolves, or skin-eating demons is as much about physics as the occult, according to the fascinating new (nonfiction!) book The Physics of the Buffyverse, by Jennifer Ouellette.

The book is about the physics concepts illustrated in various episodes of the cult TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm not the world's biggest Buffy fan, although I've seen and enjoyed an episode or two. But even with my relative lack of in-depth Buffy knowledge, I enjoyed reading the Buffyverse book thanks primarily to Ouellette's sketches of the show's scenes and plots to put it all in context, as well as her ability to creatively speculate on ways that a Buffyverse physicist might explain it all.

One of the most fascinating things about the book (beside the fact that it covers physics - which is just about my favorite topic) is that Ouellette makes it clear that the wr…