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Showing posts from August, 2008

Highlights from the Blogosphere

This week's excellent bloggy reads:
"Barack Obama Answers Science Debate 2008" The Intersection Required reading for anyone curious about the candidate's stances on science policy issues.
"Falling From Heaven" Built on Facts Falling bodies obey Newton's laws, even in Milton's Paradise Lost.
"Where are you E.T.? The Fermi Paradox Revisited" Cosmic Ray
"Babies are Quantized" Uncertain Principles
"Everyday Language Helps Students Learn" Sciencegeekgirl

End the Week with a Lawsuit, End the World with the LHC.

Against CERN, that is. According to World Radio Switzerland and The Science of Conundrums, on August 26th, 2008 a group of mostly Swiss, German, and Austrian professors and scientists filed a lawsuit against CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The group argues that the LHC poses a serious threat to the safety of surrounding European Union countries.

I'm not going to delve into the whole miasma of controversy surrounding LHC. But, I will (cheerfully!) describe those darned global-catastrophe-causing micro black holes. Intended to lightheartedly mock, not scare.

Micro black holes are tiny versions of black holes, extremely dense regions of collapsed or dead stars, with enormously strong amounts of gravity that not even light can escape from. Scientists believe they reside all over the galaxy, but are impossible to find due to their small size. These little babies can be made by smashing subatomic particles together with extr…

Bell Labs Ends an Era.

No, it won't immediately cure cancer or result in mega-profit making gadgets.

Nonetheless, a twinge of sadness ensnares the recent announcement that Bell Labs is terminating its basic physics research lab.

This is a lab that produced six Nobel prizes, along with the invention of the transistor, laser, and countless advances in computer science and technology.

Check out WIRED's "Bell Labs Kills Fundamental Physics Research". *Previously defunct link is now working!

All in a Gamma Ray.

Have a look at the image above; you are viewing the first map of the sky made entirely of gamma ray wavelengths! The thin golden-orange streak across what looks like a blue egg is actually gas and dust accumulated in the plane of our Milky Way. These menacing little photons, gamma rays, are the most energetic in the spectrum, and are emitted from the nucleus of certain radioactive atoms.

The gamma rays situated in the Milky Way are caused by cosmic rays, super-fast (mostly proton) particles colliding with interstellar gas. In what once took years, NASA'S Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope or GLAST produced the map in just 95 hours, using LAT (Large Area Telescope), which can scan the entire sky once every 3 hours. GLAST recently got a name change too. In honor of Enrico Fermi NASA has dubbed it the new "Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope".

A harbinger of high-energy physics, Fermi won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for his work on neutrons, specifically artificial radioactivit…

Cow Compass?

Moooooove over. Cows can sense the Earth's magnetic field and use it to orient themselves in a north-south direction while grazing and resting, according to a new study by German scientists.

In what might be oddest use of Google Earth I've encountered yet, zoologist Hynek Burda and his team zoomed in on more than 8,500 unsuspecting cows in 300 pastures all over the globe.

Analyzing the satellite data, the team found that entire herds of cows will face either magnetic north or south as they go about typical sedentary activities like eating and sleeping, irrespective of the direction of the sun and wind.

But what about deer? Turns out they too can sense the giant magnet. Burda and researchers traveled to 241 fields in the Czech Republic, where they observed deer grazing in a north-south direction. Their body imprints left from a night in the snow further indicate that deer are orientated north-south while they sleep.

The origin of geomagnetism still isn't completely understood,…

Fly On, Zephyr.

It's a bit of a strange sight- three men running swiftly, each holding up an arm supporting a thin, toy-like aircraft. With one huge shove, the solar-powered, propeller-driven Zephyr-6 soared 60,000 ft into the sky, where it remained for the next 82 hours and 37 minutes. The UK-built plane has set an unofficial world endurance record for a flight by an unmanned aircraft.

Conducted at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, the Zephyr-6 flight was a demonstration designed to woo the US military. It flew for more than 3 days on pure sunlight, and by night on solar-powered batteries it had recharged during the day. The flight beats the current official world record set by Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk in 2001. However, the achievement is technically "unofficial" because the Federation Aeronautique Internationale ( the world air sports federation that sanctions all record attempts) wasn't involved.

A melange of new technology, the Zephyr soaks up solar power…

Double Your Fun

It's been a very good week for some physics blogs, in terms of posts worthy of highlighting. So today we offer a special "Doubles" series of bloggy goodness.
Cosmic Variance: "The First Quantum Cosmologist" And the answer is... Lucretius?
"The Hidden Complexity of the Olympics" Forget the new gymnastics scoring, how do judges score the Decathlon?
Green Gabbro: "The Igneous Petrology of Ice Cream" Who knew ice cream could be viewed as a form of igneous rock?
"The Metamorphic Petrology of Ice Cream" Apparently there's a scientific explanation for what happens when you leave that pint of Haagen-Daz in the freezer too long.
Built on Facts: What Work Is Illustrated by Olympic weight-lifting.
What Impulse Is Illustrated by Olympic archery.
Dynamics of Cats: "So You Want to be an Astrophysicist" Some advice for those looking to enter the field.
"Scooped" What's the deal with getting the "scoop" on fellow scientists? Stei…

The World's Ugliest Building

Is it just me, or does anybody else think the Beijing National Aquatics Center is hideous?

The idea of covering the building in plastic bubbles that mimic the structure of foam must have sounded cool at one time. And as a physics groupy, I probably would have voted for it if anyone had asked me in advance. Now that I've seen it, I have to say "not so much." It makes me cringe every time the NBC cameras stray across it.

Science-inspired art sometimes turns out well. At other times, it just doesn't work. Compare our own Alpinkat's rap to a music video from Fermilab, for example. I give the thumbs up to Alpinkat, but don't much care for the Fermilab video (to put it gently).

I also love Daina Taimina's crochet math proofs. While at least one physics comic book series looks pretty bad to me.


Reviews among physicists seem mixed on the child-like Einstein statue outside the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington DC. Some love it and some hate it, but I…

2008 is Coolness.

While this doesn't explain why I come into the office every morning with a sweater handy and scarf draped around my neck (thanks to frigid and relentless office air conditioning), it might raise some eyebrows: 2008 looks like its going to be globally, the coldest year of the 21st century.

Meteorological data shows that for the first half of the year, temperatures were more than 0.1 Celsius cooler than any year since 2000. Despite this, 2008 still appears to be about the 10th warmest year since 1850 (there's nothing like a little broad comparison).

In any case, scientists believe the reason for the chilliness is La Nina, twin counterpart to El Nino. Both are extreme natural phases of a continuous climate cycle. They cause massive changes in water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which in turn cool down the entire globe.

Physics plays a huge role in modern climate change. It allows researchers to explore tough (and often controversial) questions surrounding global warming

Worst-Headline-of-the-Week Award

Obama's rise in politics may be spectacular, but it can't be meteoric, despite the title of this article on CNN.com.

Barack Obama: A meteoric rise

Meteors fall, they don't rise. Anybody have an idea for a more physically sound title?

-Buzz

Highlights from the Blogosphere

This week's good reads. 
"The Equivalence Principle" Backreaction Bee explains the equivalence principle.
"Dumping the Particle Beam of Doom" Space Disco The latest LHC end-of-the-world scenario: a fusion propagation wave!
"New Cloaking Results? Not Really, but Interesting Anyway" Skulls in the Stars
Uncovering the science beneath the hype.
"Argoneuts See First Events" Symmetry Breaking Band of scientists on quest for neutrinos cross their first critical hurdle.
"Meet the First Synthespians" io9 A combination of motion capture and cutting-edge computer graphics creates the most believable "virtual human" yet.
"Calculus is Craptastic" Cocktail Party Physics Shooting craps and other games of chance offer insights into the calculus of probability.

Big or Small, Take Your Pick of Black Holes

Medium-sized black holes either don't exist or are very rare, say astronomers of the new study. The smallest known black holes formed from exploding supernovas, and are about 10 times larger than the Sun.

Black holes in contrast, are billions of times larger than the Sun, and reside deep in the core of most galaxies. Middle of the road black holes are generally thousands of times larger than the Sun.

The results are based on a comprehensive analysis of globular cluster RZ2109, using the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton Telescope and the WM Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Black holes are extremely dense regions of space that act kind of like cosmic vacuums, using their massive gravity to suck in nearby surroundings, gulping them into dark orifices.

Researchers first picked up the revealing X-ray signals of an active black hole, then went a step further to determine its size. A chemical spectrum of the cluster placed the black hole at just 10 times the mass of the Sun, m…

Back to the Fusion.

Greetings readers! After a short and sweet vacation, I'm back with a story from the Wall Street Journal, on average Joes who build homemade nuclear-fusion reactors as a hobby ( see, the WSJ isn't alwaysabysmally bland).

Amateur fusioneers like Richard Hull (pictured) spend copious amounts of time in their basement laboratories, tinkering with things like Tesla coils, causing flashes and sparks to spurt out of their homes in an alarming display (at least to their neighbors). Tesla coils are used to generate high-voltage alternating current electricity.

But mainly, these folks pursue their ultimate goal of making usable nuclear-fusion reactors. They even have a "Neutron Club", and techincally anyone can be accepted, under the condition that they must be able to produce a workable homemade reactor that is able to fuse hydrogen isotopes like deuterium. Oh, and glowing is a must. Its gotta glow. So far, only 42 people have achieved the requirement and become official …

Highlights from the Blogosphere

This week's good reads:
"Can I Break Just One Rib?" WWdN: In Exile Wil Wheaton goes roller-skating with his offspring and learns that Newton's laws of motion aren't limited to science class.
"Is Your Breakfast a Sad and Soggy Affair?" The Guardian/Improbable Research column Find out why "crunchiness declines in the presence of a soggifying liquid."
"It's a Sure Bet" JPL Blog Josh Willis talks about climate change, randomness, and why it's a bad idea to bet against global warming.
"Test Your Science Savvy" Science Fair The National Science Foundation created this set of 11 True/False questions. Give it a try!
"We the Particles" Twisted Physics The subatomic particles now have a Bill of Rights.
"The (Multi)Universe(s)" Radiolab Brian Greene talks about the concept of multiple parallel universes.
"Why I Have a Man Crush on the LHC" Huffington Post USC's Marty Kaplan 'fesses up to his true feelings for …

One Hundred Thousand Time's a Charm.

Despite 18 years of orbit and 2.72 million miles traveled, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope continues to dutifully make its way around the Earth.

Yesterday, the Hubble completed its 100,000 orbit in space. To celebrate, scientists aimed the telescope at part of a nebula near the star cluster NGC 2074 (about 170,000 light-years away from the Earth), capturing the dazzling display (see picture on left) on camera.

The Hubble as been around well, almost as long as I've been alive. In fact, many if not all of the pictures of space I saw growing up in the nineties were taken by the Hubble. It is no doubt an icon of American space exploration!

What is so remarkable about the telescope isn't just its nearly two decades of orbit, but the countless scientific discoveries it has made possible; including confirming the existence of black holes and finding evidence for an expanding universe.

Aside from a few dents here and there, the Hubble is still sturdy and functioning. That's quite a…

In Quest for Speed, Olympic Swimmers Use Physics.

In light of the recent, thrilling accomplishments of the U.S. men's Olympic swim team, I thought it proper to focus on just how much physics goes into every aspect of Olympic swimming- from training and pool design right down to those tiny swim suits.

In ultra competitive swimming, flow is everything. Understanding how a swimmers movements or force impacts the water as his or her body gracefully glides and pushes is key to understanding how motion affects flow. Here is where fluid mechanics comes in: to help swimmers measure the flow and force generated in a natural, seemingly unpredictable environment.

This year the U.S. team is equipped with the technology needed to "know the flow", thanks to a fluid mechanics professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Timothy Wei invented a new flow measurement tool designed to help swimmers move faster and more effectively, knocking off seconds from their lap times.

Using technology originally designed for aerospace res…

Highlights from the Blogosphere

"False Alarm for Mars Bug" Cosmic Ray
"The Discovery, Re-Discovery, and Re-Re-Discovery of Computed Tomography" Skulls in the Stars
"Goodyear's Tire Solution" Stock Car Science Good tires can make all the difference. A bit of NASCAR science from the author of The Physics of NASCAR
"The Things I Didn't Believe in Graduate School" Star Stryder
"What Lies Beneath" Cocktail Party Physics Science in the service of art and archaeology
"Lightning Car" Top Gear One of the co-hosts of the BBC's long-running auto show, Top Gear, tests his hypothesis that the body of a car acts as a Faraday cage.

Not So Smooth: Dark Matter in Lumps and Clumps

A team of cosmologists in the U.S. and Switzerland have created the most complex and intricate dark matter computer simulation yet. For a month, they followed what happens to billions of dark matter particles 20 years after the Big Bang, over a span of 13.7 billion years. The simulation provides, for the first time, a dazzling panoply of the dark matter structure of a typical galaxy; all the way down to extremely tiny, detailed scales. To view a bit of the action, check out the video above.

Dark matter doesn't give off light or heat, its invisible stuff that takes up a whole lot of space in the universe. As one can imagine, this makes understanding its composition very difficult. Scientists known dark matter exists because it appears to have mass, and therefore interacts with gravity.

In the past, scientists believed the obscure substance formed in smooth halos in the centers of galaxies. The new findings show that dark mater isn't quite as smooth-it aggregates in dense lumps an…

The Sometimes "Ghostly" Results of Citizen Science

GalaxyZoo is a pretty sweet project. It lets your average Joe, i.e., non-astronomer, take part in astronomy research online by classifying galaxies (Quick! Is that a spiral or an elliptical?).

Turns out there is no substitute for the good old human eyeball. Our windows to the world can spot unusual patterns in galaxies acutely and quickly; a lot better than computers. Perusing GalaxyZoo archives is how 25 year-old Dutch volunteer Hany van Arkel came across a strange image of a glowing, gaseous object with a hole in its center.

This "cosmic ghost" became all the buzz after Hanny posted about the image. The astronomers who created and run GalaxyZoo realized that what she had found was indeed mysterious: no one had any idea what Hanny's Voorwerp ( Voorwerp means "object" in dutch) was. The excitement brewed as talk that she may have found a new class of astronomical object surfaced.

Subsequently, astronomers all over the world peered through teleoscopes and analyzed …

The Kind of Water You Might Not Recognize.

Unlike that bottle of Deer Park you take refreshing sips from, this water is a supercritical fluid- the hottest water ever found on Earth.

While scientists have managed to make both water and seawater supercritical in laboratories, the phenomena has never be observed in nature until now.

Supercritical fluids are highly compressed gases that have both gas and liquid-like properties. This combination gives them special properties that regular fluids don't have. Andrea Koschinsky of Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany along with a team of researchers discovered the unusual water just south of the Atlantic equator.

Because supercritical water is much denser that regular water, it continues to shoot rapidly out of hydrothermal vents (aptly known as black smokers), residing deep down at bottom of the Atlantic ocean.

Very little is known about how supercritical water vents operate, and the extremely hot temperatures don't help things either. Since actively drilling into the vents is c…

Vitruvian Man Unleashed in Powerful New X-Ray Hologram.

Holograms, love em' or hate em', are everywhere. 3-D images of the Vitruvian Man, the famous da Vinci drawing, and the bacterium Spiroplasma milliferum are even popping up at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the FLASH free electron laser facility in Hamburg, Germany.

Researchers at the two institutes created the sharpest, most intense X-ray holograms ever made, using new techniques that made the process thousands of times more effective than previous methods. The resolutions for these holograms are the best ever reported.

The X-ray hologram of the Vitruvian Man was less than two square micrometers (millionths of a meter, or microns), engraved with a nanowriter, an ultra-high resolution lithography machine that can generate an electron beam at extremely high energies, with very tiny diameters on the nanometer (billionths of a meter) level. It required a five-second exposure to the beam and had a resolution of 50 nanometers. The Spiroplasma milliferu…

It's Almost Ready....Cool Pictures of the LHC

Anicent Greek Astronomical Computer a Little Less Mysterious

It's around 150-100 BC, and you (being the ancient Greek that you are) decide to spend the weekend calculating astronomical positions. What do you use? The only mechanical computer around: the Antikythera Mechanism.

Fast forward to the early 20th century, where divers discovered over 30 gears from clock-like mechanism in a bronze case off the Greek Island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete.

Ever since, scientists have been struggling to figure out how it actually works. Physicist Mike Edmunds and mathematician Tony Freeth, along with a team of researchers believe they've finally solved the mystery.

New findings from their study suggest that Greek technology was far more intricate and complex that previously thought. In other words, the Greeks dominated astronomy for a thousand years with this carefully crafted, almost perfect device.

After exhaustive work on the gears, the team was able to show that the mechanism could track astronomical movements with impressive precisio…