Skip to main content


Showing posts from May, 2007

From Channels to Lakes

Peter Agre won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for discovering aquaporins (aka water channels) - the pores in a cell membrane that regulate water flow. Since his discovery (in 1992), researchers have found 13 types of aquaporins in mammals and expect that there are many more. They've also found aquaporins in bacteria and plants. Agre's work has many implications, none of which I'm going to discuss here...but you should read about it sometime because it's pretty interesting. Now that Agre has won a Nobel Prize, it appears that he is moving on to conquer bigger and better (?) projects - in particular becoming Senator of the Land of 10,000 lakes (that would be Minnesota, for you coasters). Agre plans to spend the summer with the voters getting a feel for his chances. Although less well-known to locals than other candidates at this point, I think he figures that if the state can elect a pro wrestler , why not a Nobel winner? The recent opening of the creationi

A new look

Physics Buzz started as an unofficial project by APS staff to explore the blogosphere and write about interesting physics-y things that didn't fit in with our normal outlets. After 9 months we've decided to go semi-official. Don't worry, the only thing that is changing is our look (we wanted to align the blog more closely with PhysicsCentral , our home base). With PhysicsCentral , we communicate the excitement and importance of physics to everyone. We invite you to visit our site every week to find out how physics is part of your world. We'll answer your questions on how things work and keep you informed with daily updates on physics in the news. We'll describe the latest research and the people who are doing it and, if you want more, where to go on the web. So stick with us. It's a big, interesting world out there, and we look forward to showing you around.

Cracklin’ Jets

Why, when military jets zip by over head, is there a crackling to be heard in the roar of the engines? Know what I’m talking about? If not, here’s an F-18 Super Hornet video. It’s most noticeable around 2:55 minutes in. Space shuttles do it too. Super Hornet Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the research, led by Kent L. Gee of Brigham Young University, you’d probably like to know why this matters. Can you imagine working around these planes all the time, hearing crackle-crackle-roar at work every day? Or living in an area that the jet planes pass through on a regular basis? If physicists understand the noise, they can find a way to reduce it, improving life for military personnel and communities whose airspaces are frequented by these jets. Apart from that, who doesn’t want to know about the acoustics of jet engines? Let’s get down to business. A sound, traveling through air, alternately compresses and expands the air molecules, and our ears react to these pressure changes.

Researchers Close in on X-ray Burst Ignition

You’re sitting on the rocky surface of a distant planet, in your climate controlled space-suit, watching the suns rise. That’s right, two suns, and one of them is a neutron star . Its companion is not dense enough to keep its matter to itself, so there is a trail of stardust linking the two suns. The more interesting of the two is the accreting neutron star – a neutron star that is gaining matter. This matter forms a ring around the star as it makes its way toward the surface. Near the surface of the neutron star, the hydrogen-rich matter compresses until the nuclei are forced to higher energies. The hydrogen fuses steadily, creating helium and heat in the atmosphere. Now the conditions are set for a spectacular phenomenon – an X-ray burst. Carbon and oxygen are rapidly converted to heavier elements in the range from nickel to cadmium, releasing extra energy in the form of X-rays. It's a runaway fusion reaction, exploding in the star's atmosphere! An X-ray burst requires

The Mazda 3.14159...

...for the mathematician in you. From Auto Week 's But Wait... There's more , May 7, 2007.

A New Kind of Hard Drive

Inside your computer, data is stored on your hard drive in magnetized form. In magneto-speak, an area magnetized in one direction is called a domain. A domain magnetized to the left becomes a “one” and a domain magnetized to the right becomes a “zero.” The disk must spin while it is read, which makes this mechanical system relatively slow. Once the data is stored electronically, as in integrated circuits, it moves much faster. We can't use electronic systems all the time, though, because the data disappears when you turn the machine off. IBM’s Stuart Parkin patented the concept of a “racetrack” hard drive in 2004. Imagine a string of red and blue beads. The beads are pushed past a sensor. Rather than looking at whether the bead is red or blue, the sensor looks for the points where the bead color changes. Beads and Domains In reality, the system is a magnetic wire with many domains. In between the domains is a domain wall , a region in which the atoms switch alignment. It’s like

Cape Farewell

Text excerpted from writings by Ian McEwan . Featured artists (T-B): Siobhan Davies , Antony Gormley , William Hunt , David Buckland . --- The whole world's population is to the south of us, and up here we are our species' representatives... We are the beneficiaries and victims of our nature (social primates, evolved through time like wind-sculpted rock) merry and venal, co-operative and selfish... ...we will not rescue the earth from our own depredations until we understand ourselves a little more, even if we accept that we can never really change our natures. Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international co-operation, or are we living in an edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning, or the beginning of the end? ----- From the site : Cape Farewell brings artists , scientists and educators together to collectively address and raise awareness about climate change. Created by David Buckland, Cape Farewell has led three expeditions into the

Newbie to the Buzz

Hello physics enthusiasts! Name's Katie. I just started as a science writing intern for the American Physical Society and thus have the privilege of posting to Physics Buzz. I graduated from Michigan State University about two and a half weeks ago after four years studying professional writing and physics. I look forward to relaying physics-related news to y'all (along with commentary that is probably intended to be witty :-) Over and out! -click-

Goddess of love and beauty

A few years ago two friends and I were walking through a dark parking lot on the way to our car. I looked up and enthusiastically pointed out Venus to them. One of my friends followed my gaze and had a definite WOW moment. The other was completely uninterested. He didn't even bother to look up. "Don't you ever wonder about all the things happening up there?" I asked him. "Not really." I'm not sure I will ever understand that reaction. This photograph, taken by Jimmy Westlake , shows Venus and the moon as they appeared to Colorado observers on Saturday (May 19). Jimmy Westlake is a Professor of Physical Sciences at Colorado Mountain College . See more pictures from over the weekend at under "Weekend Planets."

CBS on the big bang

As someone that has a certain affinity for Dawson's Creek , Family Feud , and America's Next Top Model you might not want to take entertainment advice from me, but I have to at least bring up this new show slated to premiere next fall on CBS . The Big Bang Theory From writers/producers Chuck Lorre ("Two And A Half Men") and Bill Prady ("Gilmore Girls") comes a new comedy that shows what happens when two hyperintelligent scientists meet a beautiful woman--and realize they know next to nothing about life outside of the lab. Phrases I found describing the scientists: ...geek squad ...Casanova of Cal Tech ...whiz kid ...gaggle of geniuses ...brainy ...hyperintelligent *Sigh* -Thanks to Physics Babe for the tip!

The Bethe that Got Away (Part II)

Thoughts by Alaina G. Levine ( continued ) A number of years ago, I was working a gig as the assistant to an editor of a major journal. My job was simple: process the papers as they were submitted and follow up with the referees. Aside from an occasional 2am call I made to scientists in places like Russia and Denmark reminding them their reviews were overdue, it was a mostly uneventful, but relaxing, position. But one day, I walked into my office and my life changed. On my desk was a packet that included a type-written paper and a type-written letter. My boss attached a sticky note asking me to copy and file it. Everything was within normal parameters until I glanced at the signature on the letter. My heart stopped as I read it – the letter was from Hans Bethe . To me, the offspring of a scholar of physics history, who knew about Oppie and his crew even as a wee one, this was equivalent to being handed an album autographed by a Beatle (specifically Ringo). The letter was not importa

The Bethe that Got Away (Part I)

Thoughts by Alaina G. Levine Some people collect stamps or model trains. I collect the autographs of Nobel-prize winning scientists. I don’t have many, but my collection is growing. I started seeking the signatures years ago in a fortuitous moment at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair . While doing PR at the fair in 2000, I sat in on a panel discussion with five Nobels. After the talk concluded, I saw in amazement as the kids in the audience rushed the stage, clutching the event program in their sweaty hands with the focused goal of getting the scientists’ autographs.It was pandemonium. It was chaos (in application, not theory). The scientists were celebrities to these children. Not to be left out, and realizing the youth often are an excellent barometer of value trends, I grabbed my program and pushed my way through the crowd. I succeeded in securing what I considered at the time to be the most coveted of the autographs: those of Lederman and Curl . Sure,

The Revolutionary Resistor Clock

Here's another uber-geeky widget I made for your desktop. It's a clock that displays time in the form of resistor color codes . Click the image to download the widget The time being displayed here is 11:06 AM. Don't worry if you can't remember the colors, if you run the widget you can refresh your memory by right clicking the clock and checking the table in the "About" option. Besides being a nerdly clock for experimentalists , electrical engineers and all other solder jockeys, it might be good practice if you have trouble telling your resistors apart without a multimeter . You could always download one of the many binary clock widgets instead, if you're into that sort of thing, but I believe this is the first (and so far, only) resistor color code clock ever. This stuff is addicting. I've made six widgets in three weeks. Most of them do nothing interesting at all. I may have to go into widget detox soon. PS: Now you can get the precision version of

Friday Reads

Some favorites from this week- Rivalry leaves its mark on primate brains (New Scientist) ...t hose species in which there is more social mixing between males and females have evolved bigger brains with higher-level thinking. Ceiling Height Alters How You Think ( ...ceiling height affects problem-solving skills and behavior by priming concepts that encourage certain kinds of brain processing. Urban Unplanning (Discover) ...people will drive more cautiously if they believe they are in a dangerous environment. Clothing Created to Block Flu, Colds (ABC News) How about a shirt that eats smog, letting you breathe clean air? Millimeters Matter (Samsung) Insects of all types get miniature pies flung at them all for science.

FireFly simulator

I've been on a widget building kick lately. My most recent widget is a toy that lets you adjust the way a grid of simulated fireflies interact with each other. (You can download the toy by clicking on the image to the right. But you'll need to get the Yahoo Widgets 4 engine first if you've never used a widget before.) I've built various versions of this thing over the years, starting with programs I wrote in BASIC on the Apple II PCs in my high school programming class, to hardware fireflies made of LEDs and TTL chips in my college lab (I was supposed to be doing experiments for my electricity and magnetism lab, but I got distracted), to Pascal , Fortran and Visual C++ programs - and finally a widget. These days, things like this are described as examples of the emergence of complexity in systems of simple objects. I didn't know that when I made my first one, but I was intrigued to find the pretty patterns that formed all by themselves when I gave the simula

Manufactured helpmates

Humans have long displayed an uncanny ability to make emotional connections with their manufactured helpmates. Even in the face of possible snickering, I admit that there is a stuffed bear in my life. I have old shirts that I won't part with because of the memories. 4 different apartments have played gallery to pictures my college roommate colored for me. I can easily see myself getting attached to a robot. Digital pets like the Tamagotchi or the Furby , designed to be cute, have long caused children to make spooky levels of connection. But children aren't the only ones. The Washington Post has a fascinating article about the relationships humans develop with intelligent machines. To the soldiers they work with, robots can become family. Losing a robot IS losing one of the team. These inanimate objects have been promoted, awarded purple hearts, and grieved for. What's remakable about the battle bots is that humans bond with them even though their designers have made no at

The Trouble with Invisibility (hint: nature says it can't work)

There's been lots of excitement in the past year or so over the possibility that physicists will soon develop a real-life version of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. Check out this Google News search to get a taste of the coverage. The technology relies on unusual manmade metamaterials , with intricate microscopic structures. In addition to cloaking devices, metamaterials are touted as potentially leading to superlenses that could provide distortion-free magnification far greater than any conventional lens. The only problem with these wonderful applications for metamaterials is that I am pretty sure they can't possibly work . Why not? The short answer is that, as far as I know, there's no such thing as an invisible fly. You see, nature (which is to say evolution) is pretty good at making complex structures. The photonic crystals that make peacocks , coleoptera beetles , and Lycaenid butterflies so beautiful are at least as intricate as invisibility-cloak metamateri

Kinetic sculpture racing at its finest

I was bummed this morning to realize that I missed Baltimore's self-proclaimed " Almost Famous Annual East Coast National Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race ." For those of you unaware of this almost famous race, competitors must build a human-powered sculpture that can travel by road, water, and mud. The sculpture must be no more than 8 feet wide, 13 feet high and 35 feet long...otherwise anything goes. After looking at these pictures I am so kicking myself for missing the show. What an engaging display of engineering, art, and creativity! It reminds me of the early days of electricity when Franklin and his contemporaries used their newly discoverey knowledge to perform parlor tricks such as electrifying glasses of wine. Why? I guess because in both cases "increasing science literacy" wasn't a motive behind the event. I believe that when you explore nature you'll always find science, art, and creativity. And what better way to explore nature than to b


Friday reads: Science's way of flip-flopping E equals m c squared? C does not stand for the speed of light, c is for cookie. Plastic sheet delivers wireless power A sheet of plastic invented by researchers in Japan could one day make for tables and walls that power devices placed on them — without any need for wires or plugs. The Boeing 737 stuck in city road Not science related, but still worth raising an eyebrow over. Bumper sticker - good astronomy? You gotta read the whole conversation...this is why meetings with physicists in attendance go very long... Pupils 'are urged to drop maths' The Royal Society of Chemistry said that as maths was a difficult subject, schools feared examination failures which would threaten their standings.

Dark Secrets

He was the greatest scientist of his day, perhaps of all time. But while Isaac Newton was busy discovering the universal law of gravitation, he was also searching out hidden meanings in the Bible and pursuing the covert art of alchemy. ( NOVA ) A passionate alchemist who predicted 2060 as the year when the book of Revelation comes to life, Newton was more than a scientist who got hit on the head with apple and composed the theory of gravity. That well-rounded Newton is the subject of a NOVA special that will air for the first time tonight: Newton's Dark Secrets . Truth is, many great scientists of the past have what today we might call "dark secrets." Marie Curie suffered severe depression, Albert Einstein was a lousy husband, Galileo studied astrology, and Ben Franklin had a weakness for women. But you know what - they were just people like us doing the best they could with what they had. That's why I find their real lives so intriguing. In spite of being messy, c