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Showing posts from May, 2008

Think Toilet Trouble on Earth is Bad?

Try communal living in orbit, with a single toilet servicing an entire crew at the International Space Station. What happens when the toilet breaks? Astronauts resort to the primordial space waste system: plastic bags. But plumbing help is on the way, in the form of the seven-member Discovery shuttle crew, who will bring spare parts, particularly a 1.5 foot-long pump, delivered by airplane speedily from Russia, where the toilet was made. The astronaut's toilet uses air (a fan) to funnel waste matter into space, using vacuums designed specifically for the task. The Discovery shuttle, along with the much-needed toilet parts, is set to launch at NASAKennedySpaceCenter, scheduled for liftoff May 31 at 5:02 p.m. EDT. The Discovery crew members also plan to do other repairs, like fixing a paddle wheel that rotates on one of the stations solar wing panels, and replacing nitrogen tanks.

Anonymous Donor Bails Out Fermilab

Thought this was kind of amusing, kind of sad, and kind of good news all in one, so I figured I'd post.

An anonymous donor has given $ 5 million to keep Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) in operation. Located in Batavia Illinois, Fermilab is the only particle physics laboratory left in the United States. As a government agency, the lab can't directly accept the gift, but the money will be filtered through the University of Chicago, who will then contract the lab to do more work.

Bailing out national physics labs is apparently not a new phemenonon. Back in 2006 Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York received $13 million from a billionaire to continue running its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

In any case, the money will allow Fermilab to stop the temporary layoffs and unpaid leave employees have been experiencing, although 140 layoffs are still planned. The money issues surfaced when Congress cut Fermilab's 2008 budget from $ 372 million to 320 mi…

Weighing Our Galaxy

How do you measure a galaxy you're stuck in the middle of? You can't exactly, but you can get some pretty good estimates. Astrophysicists used a large sample of data from stars in the galactic halo to calculate that the Milky Way, earth's own galaxy, weighs slightly less than 1 trillion solar masses. Since a solar mass is equal to the mass of the sun, our galaxy weights about 1 trillion times as much as the sun.

Turns out that the Milky Way (despite being 1 trillion solar masses) is actually skinnier than previously thought. Less weight means our galaxy has less dark matter. It also means that the Milky Way is productive in converting its original hydrogen and helium into stars.

Our galaxy is made up of overlapping spiral disks, each of which contains a number of stars totaling 100 billion. What we know about the Milky Way is constantly changing; its size and shape can only be pieced together a little at a time as technology improves. Gaps in knowledge abound, but a close es…

Falling at Supersonic Speeds: Weightless or Not?

There are many stereotypes of the French, but a relentless ambition to fall towards earth at dangerously high altitudes isn't one of them. Michel Fourier, a retired French army officer intended to do just that, by sky-diving from a small compartment suspended beneath a helium-filled hot air balloon.

Aside from breaking numerous records, he would have been the first human to break the sound barrier by falling at supersonic speed. Unfortunately, his balloon detached itself while being inflated and cancelled his mission.

There is an interesting error found in the print version of the New York Times articles on Michel Fourier, that was removed in the online version:

"An article on Saturday about Michel Fournier, the retired French army officer with plans to sky dive from a balloon gondola 25 miles above the earth's surface, misstated the point during his journey at which he expects to experience weightlessness, and misstated the altitude at which his parachute was designed to op…

A Step Closer to Bottled Martian Water?

Perhaps we're a long way off from gulping down bottled Martian water after a bike ride, but after NASA's Mars Phoenix lander has done its job, we'll know a lot more about water on Mars than we did before.

Phoenix landed on Mars Sunday evening (artist's rendition pictured on the left) around 8pm, to much applause here on earth. As Phoenix sped into the Martian atmosphere, its gravitational pull caused the spacecraft's speed to double to around 13,000 miles per hour.

The lander is the first to be in located in the unexplored northern polar region of Mars, where it will spend a stationary 90 days, digging through Martian soil with its robotic arm. Since ice is layered beneath the top soil, scientists will be able to analyze Martian ice and soil for the first time, thanks to the Phoenix's handy chemistry labs onboard.

While Mars is arguably one of the most popular, attention receiving planets, I'm not sure I'd want to spend several months there collecting subs…

If You Can't Stand the Heat...Get out of the Sun

For the past 30 years, NASA scientists have been trying get close to the sun. Dangerously close. Finally (with the help of congress), plans to launch the Solar Probe mission in 2015 are underway.

The mission will fly within 4.3 million miles of the sun, through its corona or atmosphere, one of the last unexplored regions of the solar system. The corona is several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and how it's heated remains a mystery. Scientists hope the Solar Probe will provide some answers. In addition, the probe will study how solar wind is accelerated, by studying the rapid flow of particles it continuously blasts into space.

If being barraged by radiation and immensely hot temperatures doesn't sound fun to you, it's probably not fun for most astronauts either. Researchers are designing a carbon composite heat shield that will be able to protect the 992 pound spacecraft from 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures.

The Solar Probe will collect data useful to scient…

"I Have Something You Can't Have, Ha Ha!"

All right, so these Brazilian beetles probably aren't flaunting their diamond based photonic crystals around intentionally, but watching the weevil L. augustus'iridescent green scales shimmer in the light would make any researcher envious.

Especially when diamond structured photonic crystals are needed to create super fast optical computers, and creating the crystals synthetically hasn't worked (despite millions of dollars, complex instrumentation and numerous calculations).

Optical computers use photons in visible light and infrared beams to communicate data and perform digital computations much faster than today's computers, which run on electrons. Right now, electrons travel around on transistor switches on metal wires, storing and processing data, at about 10% the speed of light. Data carried through optical fibers has to be converted from light back to electricity before that information can be accessed on a computer. Optical computers of the future will consist of …

Death of a Star: In the Right Place at the Right Time

The chance of witnessing two dying stars explode almost at the same time: 1 in 10,000. The chance of witnessing a double dose of supernovae with the correct type of telescope: really, really, really unlikely.

To top it off, there is no way to predict when and where deathly star explosions will happen, and only 1% of stars die in a supernova anyway. The rest fade away into white dwarfs, exhausted and completely out of nuclear fuel.

Nonetheless, Alicia Soderberg, a researcher at Princeton University, managed to beat unbeatable odds when she witnessed a supernova explosion from start to finish, while viewing the leftovers of a supernova in a nearby galaxy.

Soderberg happened to be gazing through NASA's Swift gamma-ray burst satellite,and picked up x-ray signals. The swift satellite is special because it can view X-rays. This is important if you want to spot a supernova: they can only be viewed in the X-ray wavelength.

Research published today in Nature sh…

Flights of Fancy

It's been an interesting week in aeronautics. Between "Jet-Man" Yves Rossy's minimalist airplane flight . . .



. . . and an equally impressive 45 second glide by a flying fish somewhere off the coast of Japan.


Both feats look a lot more fun than my last flight to St. Louis. Coincidentally, today is the 81st anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris in his plane The Spirit of St. Louis. Lucky for him he didn't have to wait in the St. Louis airport for two hours before take-off, and I'm pretty sure his luggage arrived on time. On the other hand, he didn't have an in-flight movie to keep him entertained during the 33 hour trip.

Twice in One Night??

Shroedinger's Cat made two appearances on prime time TV last night. Uncalm already mentioned the first reference on The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon used the infamous cat quandary to help Penny decide if she should go on a date with Leonard (...the cat's alive... whee!!). Over on the Fox network, the nerdy "squint squad"(a sometimes affectionate term for the scientist characters) on Bones needed our favorite cat to help a team member understand the confusion over a crime scene. In typical Bones fashion, this shout-out to "geek-lore" was dropped in so seamlessly, that I had to hit the quick rewind on my DVR (the PhysicsBabe could not survive without her DVR).

Cam: "It's a pickle. The platform is a crime scene, but we need to access it to investigate the crime."
Angela: "A cake-and-eat-it-too situation."
Zack: "Is it a cake or is it a pickle?"
Hodgins: "It's Schroedinger's Cat."
Zack: "That makes sens…

Season Finale, Romance and Quantum Mechanics

In the season finale of the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon uses Shrödinger's cat to "console" a worried Penny over her decision to go on a date with Leonard. He compares Erwin Schrodinger's 1935 thought experiment to Penny's chances of having a romantic relationship with Leonard: "either the cat is dead or alive".

Of course, Shrödinger's cat was created as an attempt to show the absurdity of particular views on quantum mechanics at the time, collectively known as the Copenhagen Interpretation.

The thought experiment, roughly speaking, goes something like this: A cat is placed in a sealed box with a flask of poison. There is a 50/50 chance of a quantum mechanical system triggering the release of the poison and killing the cat.

Here's where it gets tricky. There is no way of knowing what happens to the cat unless the box is opened. If we open the box, we are taking a measurement of a certain state, and this act in itself causes the cat to be either dead o…

Angry Suns and Daughters

The sun seems to have an anger management problem. From time to time violent outbursts of gas occur in the outer surface of the sun. These "solar temper tantrums" are thought to be caused by the reconnection of magnetic fields with differently organized atoms (opposite polarity).

The first 3D image of a jet of gas propelling out of the sun's surface (pictured) has recently been constructed. Researchers used NASA's twin STEREO spacecraft to view the sun from different perspectives.

Turns out the jet has a helical shape, like a screw or a spiral staircase. Spirally jets are good news for theorists, who propose that the sun's violent outbursts are caused by twisted loops of magnetic fields that rise up from the sun's surface. These magnetic loops are thought to abruptly break apart and reconnect with nearby fields, kind of like how kids (or a good portion of adults) snap legos apart and reassemble them.

The two identical observatories that make up STEREO are design…

Spaceroach Birthdays

A "pet project" of Russian space scientists has recently experienced the joys of motherhood.

Born in space, 30 cockroaches (dubbed spaceroaches) spent 12 days in orbit before returning to earth. The roach babies are descendants of grandmother cockroach Nadezhda (meaning "hope, and is actually the original derivative of my name, Nadia. Guess I should be flattered.).

The first in history to be conceived in space, in an orbiting laboratory named Foton-M, Nadezhda's children, despite maturing at a faster rate than normal, created spaceroaches that show no "freak" characteristics.

Obviously being stuck in orbit must be romantic, experiencing weightlessness as you slightly escape the pull of earth's gravity, constantly falling around the earth, and the earth tugging down at your spacecraft.

Olympic-Sized Physics (Part one)

There is very little I enjoy more than sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching the Olympics. Not only do I get to revel in the fact that, not being a world class athlete, I can eat such things as potato chips, but I also get to see tons of physics in action. Really in action.

With the Olympics coming up I felt it might be nice to have some posts on the physics of Olympic sports. I am biased and unapologetic about it. I am a swimmer by training, a cyclist by default and a runner by necessity. So those are the sports I'm going to talk about in this series.

The physics of swimming is a very involved subject (for a comprehensive guide, see Swimming Fastest by Ernest W. Maglischo) so it is easiest to focus on one aspect, and in this case we will look at the construction of a pool. You may hear announcers describe pools as being "fast" or "slow" but what does that mean? Isn't it all just the same water? The way the pool is designed can mean th…

Leptons and Bosons and Quarks, Oh My!

CafePress can be pretty sublime. Here some products I found that might make you laugh (or at least smile appreciatively).










Schrodinger's cat is dead" t-shirt. Everyone's favorite thought experiment....










"Honk if you passed P-chem" bumper sticker. I'm partial to this one, since I recently passed P-chem













Alcohol and calculus don't mix: never drink and derive t-shirt. I always thought math and beer went well together...






Carbon Dating t-shirt. Alright so this is a little cheesy...




My other car is made of dark matter bumper sticker. One of the better bumper stickers



Resistance is futile coaster. Obviously everyone needs this coaster


I'm not lazy, I'm overflowing with potential energy sweatshirt. Clever, clever



Ohm-m-m-m-m-m-m electrical engineering meditating bumper sticker. For some reason this made me laugh

Robots may not rule the world yet . . .

. . . but they seem to have conquered Detroit.

Well, not all of Detroit - just the symphony. Watch Asimo, the robot built by Honda, command his (or is it her?) glassy-eyed minions to perform "The Impossible Dream" in a Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert last night. Pretty soon I'm sure we'll all be taking orders from Asimo's kind.

Is it just me, or is it an odd choice that a Japanese company primarily known for building cars would have a robot direct a symphony in Motor City? After all, lots of displaced auto workers point to Japanese competition and robots on the assembly line as reasons for their financial troubles.

Personally, I think those grumbling auto workers are wrong - economically speaking, we all benefit from labor-saving technology and global competition. Still, Asimo in Detroit seems like a risky decision.

In the UK, Texting is More Expensive than Receiving Scientific Data from Space

From the I-can-c-ur-house-from-here-LOL department:

In the UK, sending text messages is more expensive than receiving scientific data from space. Nigel Bannister of the University of Leicester says that sending text messages from cell phones costs more than downloading data from the Hubble Space Telescope (pictured).

According to NASA, the cost of sending data from the Hubble to earth is £8.85 ($17.23) per megabyte (MB). Comparing this value with the average 5p (10 cents) cost of sending a text message in the UK, Bannister calculated that texting is at least 4.4 times more expensive that than sending data from Hubble.

The amount given by NASA doesn't include the cost of the ground stations and the time of the personnel along the way, it takes £8.85 get each MB of data from Hubble to the first point of contact on the ground, but not further. Because Bannister had to estimate how much it costs to send data from Hubble to the end user (known as the data archive which scientists can acc…

Was Copernicus Wrong?

Admit it, sometimes you think the world revolves around you. In fact, it's possible that the whole universe revolves around you, and a new analysis may be able to confirm your ultra specialness once and for all. Don't go getting all full of yourself, until you read the post below by our newest Physics Buzz blogger, who we call Uncalm.
-Buzz

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus stated that the earth is not in a special, central place in the universe. As observers, humans on earth have no advantage over other places in the universe.

But was he wrong? Is the earth actually located in the center of a matter-free bubble, a billion light years long, and enclosed by a massive dense shell of material?

If so, dark energy, which is invisible (like dark matter) and thought by physicists to pervade all of space while causing the universe to expand faster, may not exist. The force of gravity would cause galaxies inside the bubble to speed towards the earth, creating the illusion that the univ…

Epsiode 16 "The Peanut Reaction"

This is the first in our weekly look at the world's greatest physics sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. (It's the greatest 'cause it's the first.)
-Buzz


In last night's episode of the Big Bang Theory, Penny and Wolowitz decide to throw a surprise birthday party for Leonard. Assigned the task of keeping Leonard out of his apartment until the party, Wolowitz willingly bites into a peanut buttery piece of food, knowing that he will have a severe allergic reaction and Leonard will have to stay with him at the Hospital. The perfect diversion.

Amid the craziness, The Feynman Lectures on Physics were mentioned, a copy of which Leonard receives as a birthday present from Wolowitz. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton, and Matthew Sands is considered a classic introduction to modern physics. Printed in a dozen languages, with more than 1.5 million copies sold in English alone, it is one of the most popular books on physics ever written.

Less technic…

"Political Scientist" Takes on New Meaning

Perhaps no physicist has come closer to becoming the ultimate politician as Albert Einstein, when he was asked to become the second president of Israel in 1952. He declined of course, but decades later more and more scientists are plunging into the political scene.

A suspicious public, misleading media coverage, and lack of public debate has caused a growing number of scientists to advocate for "evidence-based decision making" in public policy, rather than the influence of popular emotion or intuitive appeal. Democrat and physicist Bill Foster (pictured), who recently replaced Dennis Hastert as House Speaker in March 2008, says that evidence-based based decision making has been unfairly criticized and portrayed in a negative light.

This past weekend, over 70 scientists and engineers gathered at Georgetown University in Washington, DC for a workshop on how to get elected to public office. The event was held by Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA).

Among the attendees was D…

Greetings

Hey all! The name is Nadia, and continuing the tradition of science writing interns here at APS, I'll be blogging my heart out on the Buzz. I just graduated (literally, yesterday) from AmericanUniversity in Washington, DC with a degree in Biochemistry and minor in philosophy. However, I don't hide under my bed at the mere mentioning of physics, and I will do my best to bring you high quality interesting and amusing posts. I'll be signing in as uncalm, which is pretty self explanatory if you know me, and if you don't, lets just say I have a tendency towards increasing entropy.-Nadia

Recovered Columbia Shuttle Data, and other Physics News Briefs

Data from a hard-drive that was aboard the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 helps explain why the act of shaking a material can quickly transform it into something completely different.


Scientists around the world are scrambling to unlock the secrets behind a new group of superconducting materials.


Placing enough carbon filters around the planet could reel the world's atmosphere back toward the 18th century.


With startup of the Large Hadron Collider scheduled for this summer, the 10 US LHC bloggers bring you news from the LHC’s front lines.


The high-energy Omega laser is giving scientists a better understanding of the evolution and structure of Jupiter, Saturn and extrasolar giant planets.