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Showing posts from September, 2008

Mars Lander Detects Snow and Minerals

If you haven't heard already, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has detected snow falling from Martian Clouds. Unfortunately Phoenix never got to test its robotic arm snowman building abilities; the snow vaporized before it could reach the ground.

Two minerals were also discovered in soil samples scooped up by Phoenix, calcium carbonate (the stuff chalk is made out of) and clays. The findings are importance because liquid water is needed to create both substances, suggesting that the red planet was once capable of sustaining life.

Phoenix's on-board instruments, the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) were used to identify the minerals. The high-temperature release of carbon dioxide from the soil sample was matched by TEGA to a temperature known to decompose calcium carbonate and release carbon dioxide gas.

Calcium carbonate acts as a natural buffer, and a solution buffered by calcium carbonate contains a spec…

Smooth Salin': A Tranquil Solar Wind

The solar wind isn't blowing the way it used to. In fact, cosmic gale is at its lowest in 50 years, according to recent predictions made by solar physicists at NASA headquarters. The prediction comes after an analysis of eighteen years of data from the Ulysses satellite, the first satellite to study the regions of space above and below the sun's poles and take samples of the solar wind and solar magnetic field.

Originating from the sun's torrid outer atmosphere or corona, the solar wind is made up of streams of charged particles ( electrons and protons), blowing off the sun at high speeds in all directions, like a permanent gust of wind blowing streams of leaves off a giant tree. Interactions among streams of particles cause changes in speed and direction as they move away from the sun.

Scientists say the solar wind is blowing about 20-25% less hard than it was 10-15 years ago, during the last solar minimum or period of least solar activity in the sun's solar cycle, and …

Highlights from the Blogosphere

"A Surreal Playground"
Chaotic Utopia Karmen points to a nifty online game called Vector Park, where users can, for instance, practice hanging various objects to be balanced on hangers.
"Everything is Relative in the Magic Closet" Uncertain Principles Chad's dog Emmy has a few questions about special and general relativity.
"The Most Spectacular Failed Scientific Experiments" io9 In science, failure is often how we make progress.
"The Begats of Physics" Built on Facts Phun with physics genealogies.
"How to Charge an iPod with an Onion and Gatorade" The Perfect Silence It's all about the electrolytes...
"On the Topic of Unstable Equilibrium" Swans on Tea Some painful reminders of what happens when you fail to keep the center of mass above the supports.
"Hook's Law: Peter Pan Must Walk the Plank" Shores of the Dirac Sea In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, an explanation of how much a wooden plank will bend given the weight of…

Fermi Problem Friday

Enrico Fermi was famous for his pioneering work in atomic theory. He won the Nobel Prize for his work on radioactivity with neutrons that subsequently led to the discovery of nuclear fission. Fermi posed a certain type of question, now called a Fermi Problem. The solution of which is impossible to determine an exactly but can be approximated by deductive "thinking outside the box" reasoning.
The classic example is "How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?" While this may seem impossible at first, you can estimate the solution through a series of steps. You can estimate how many people live in Chicago. Then guess what percentage of those people own pianos. Pianos need to be tuned after so many years. Finally putting all together, you can reasonably estimate how many piano tuners there are in Chicago.

Every Friday we hope to pose a new Fermi Problem and get your solutions. Along with your solution, send your reasoning. Feel free to be creative (that's the poin…

Politricks and Science

Via Cosmic Variance, 61Nobel Laureates in science (physics, chemistry, and medicine) recently signed an open letter endorsing Senator Barack Obama for president.

According to the Scientists and Engineers for America Action Fund (SEA), this is the largest number of Nobel laureates to ever publicly throw their supports towards a presidential candidate, more than either Al Gore or John Kerry, although Kerry did get 48 signatures.

Go With the (Dark) Flow

In light of the housing slump, our tanking financial institutions, and a halted economy, it might be a bit relieving to know that something, (even if it ain't money) is flowing.

'Dark flow', as scientists have dubbed the phenomenon, is made up of patches of matter in distant galaxy clusters, that appear to be moving through the universe at extremely high speeds (nearly 2 million mph), and in a uniform direction.

Researchers believe the gravity of some object(s) outside of the observable universe is pulling on the matter, causing the high-speed motion.

The discovery could help scientists probe what happened to the universe before inflation, a general term for the theory that the observable universe expanded very rapidly right after the Big Bang, blowing up from a very small region to the size it is now (imagine a bubble the size of a proton swelling to the size of a basketball, in less than a fraction of a second).

The new findings may provide clues to what is happening beyond …

Take over the LHC

Since the real Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be shut down until April of 2009 or longer.... here's a fun game called the LHC Project Simulator, that lets you run your own particle collisions from the control room. You can also make your own discoveries and listen to video clips of students questioning scientists about the LHC.

Forget Rockets, Think Elevators.

I've never been a huge fan of elevators (I got stuck in one when I was about 7, and apparently still can't get over the trauma...), but the prospect of hopping into a carriage and gliding up to the stars is tantalizing. The idea is more than just sci-fi reverie; in a few weeks an international group of researchers, engineers, physicists and potential astronauts will gather in Japan to draw up a proposal and timeline for building the world's first space elevator ( an artist's impression of the platform of the proposed space elevator is shown above).

According to the Times, the Japan Space Elevator Association (JSEA-I'd link, but the site is in Japanese) says the elevator would run on 22,000 mile long, flat, ribbon-like cables, and would cost about a trillion yen, or $9 billion. The Japanese say the price tag is fairly cheap-considering the amount of research and advances in materials science and engineering that the project requires, not to mention the planning and c…

What is a pirate's favorite bathtub physics demonstration?

Arrrrrrrrrchimedes Principle!
Everyday is "Talk Like a Physicist Day" here at the American Center for Physics. However, we do make a few exceptions: April 1st is "Talk Like a Chemist Day", Feb 30th is "Talk Like a String Theorist Day" (which is yet to be observed), and our favorite is Sept. 19th "Talk Like a Pirate Day". Avast! Today we leave our diffarrrential oparrrators and arrrgon tubes to the lubbers and shout like a pirate.
Many years have passed since the days physicists brushed sails with pirates. Talk Like a Pirate Day allows us to remember the adventurous times when discovering our universe took us out to dangerous waters swimming with pongos and rogue waves. In 1699 Edmund Halley embarked on such an adventure to measure the mysteriously elusive magnetic north and south poles. He discovered a method for determining a ship's position while at sea. While we use GPS today to find our way, Halley had only the stars and a compass. One s…

What do Hollywood and ITER have in Common?

Both believe in fusion! I recently attended a Capitol Hill briefing on the ITER, the international fusion energy experiment.

For the record, ITER once stood for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, but since the general public tends to get freaked out over anything "nuclear", the name was dropped (MRI anyone?), but the acronym stuck.

One of the first slides in the excellent presentation by Dr. Ned Sauthoff, Director and project manager of the U.S. ITER project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, showed images of Dr. Otto Octavius, the main villain in 2004's Spider-man 2. "Hollywood says fusion is a part of our future," he began.

Fusing the atomic nuclei of two light atoms results in a release of energy. ITER will fuse deuterium and tritium together to create 10 times the amount of energy originally needed to make the nuclei stick together.

The comic's notorious mad-scientist desperately wants to overrun the world with cheap fusion power. Unfortunatel…

Highlights from the Blogosphere

"What (Not) To Say When You Meet a Physicist"Swans on TeaResident: "If I let you in, you'll teach me physics!" Burglar: "No, ma'am, I just want to ransack the flat." Resident: "Alright." (opens door)
"Nobody's Ever Taught You Anything" Sciencegeekgirl
"McCain: Planetariums are Foolish" The Perfect Silence Oh, no, he didn't! In defense of planetariums.
"The Singularity is Far" Shtetl-Optimized Scott Aaronson takes issue with Ray Kurzweil's future predictions: "If the singularity ever does arrive, I expect it to be plagued by frequent outages and terrible customer service."
"At 8:03 My Brain Exploded" Twisted Physics Comedian Brian Regan on what it was like watching The Elegant Universe on NOVA.
"Spherical Cows" Uncertain Principles They're everywhere in the physics blogosphere!
"The Republican War on Intelligence" Skulls in the Stars In defense of reason and expertise.

MAVEN to Search for Lost Martian Atmosphere

MAVEN or the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft, is NASA's latest $485 million plan for a 2013 mission to the red planet.

The spacecraft will take the first direct measurements of the Martian atmospheric gases, upper atmosphere, solar wind, and ionosphere; a hefty package of information that will provide new details into Mars' climate history. The spacecraft's eight instruments will take measurement for one full earth year, or roughly half a Martian year.

Scientists know that there was once water on Mars, sustained by its denser atmosphere. As the planet underwent significant climate change, most of the Martian atmosphere was lost. Investigating current atmospheric loss may help researchers understand how Mars got to its present state, with an atmosphere that is no longer capable of harboring water.

In the fall of 2014, MAVEN will use its propulsion system to travel around Mars in an egg-shaped path called an elliptical orbit, 90 to 3,870 miles above the planet…

Large Hackable Collider?

"We are 2600 - don't mess with us". This quaint little message was recently left by hackers on the Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment (CMS) website at CERN. CMS is one of four large dectectors that analyze data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

CERN's computer security team has pointed out with alacrity that the hack was minor and relatively harmless. CERN spokesman James Gillies even stated that it appeared the hacker(s) were "making the point that CMS was hackable".

I'd wager this is the case- why else would you hack into the most complex physics experiment ever built? Besides, its not likely hackers would be able to understand any CMS data anyway. Seriously, try explaining this.

Regardless of the level of intended sabotage, CERN says the LHC accelerator was never at risk. The hacked computer was used only to monitor CMS and wasn't connected to any major control systems.

The LHC is designed to churn out half a gigabyte of data every second, tantamou…

LHC Web Cam

CLick the image to open the web cam and see the Large Hadron Collider in action.

As you might have guessed already, searching for the Higgs is not quite as exciting as I would have hoped. Mostly, I like to watch the CERN personnel puttering around between runs.

-Buzz

Spaced-Out Internet

Interplanetary internet-the concept sounds like something out of a science fiction movie.

Or less far-fetched if you have no trouble conjuring up images of astronauts on manned missions to Mars, chatting with ground scientists on instant messenger and updating their facebook accounts.

These scenarios could happen sooner than you think. Interplanetary internet is now being tested in space, using the Bundle Protocol developed by the Delay-Tolerant Networking Research Group.

Bundle works by packaging data into blocks of information that are then stored and routed forward between nodes via transport technology. The process reminds me of colored beads sliding along the wire of an abacus, where each bead is a bundle of information being transported in a stop-and-go manner.

This is the first time the Bundle Protocol worked successfully in space, using the UK-DMC satellite built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. The satellite transfered a bundle of remote-sensing image data to NASA's Glen…

What CERN and Kid Rock have in common

At CERN today, we had not only the LHC start-up, but also Media Day. 250 or so journalists registered for access to the Globe -- a large, spherical, wooden building that housed Internet access, live feeds from the Control Center, and a talk by the current and many former Director Generals. They could also take shuttles (just the mini-bus kind -- this ain't a Dan Brown book!) to the four major experiments and the Control Center itself (pictured).

I couldn't help thinking...man, that'll be a real bummer if they don't manage to get the beam all the way around. A very public failure indeed. And, judging by LHC head honcho Lyn Evans's first reaction to their success -- relief rather than triumph -- I suppose that many of the physicists and the technicians on the accelerator felt the same way about it.

Personally, I think this Media Day, while important to bring attention to the LHC, is some evidence of the arrogance that physicists are known for. They've never do…

Hey, We're Not Dead

In true nerd fashion, folks here celebrated the Large Hadron Collider's world premeire the only way we knew how, with a proton beam ignition party.

After staying up all night and witnessing (in real-time) the first particle beam sucessfully make its way around the 17-mile loop of accelerator, there we sat as the sun came up, in our pjs, amid remnants of mimosas, donuts, bagels, waffles, chocolate chips and whipped cream, when we realized, hey, we weren't dead! Shortly followed by, hey, the LHC works! A few of us lost bets on that one.

In any case, a night of sing-a-longs, gorging on food and drink, and sporadic chants of "CMS and Atlas are one of a kind, they're looking for whatever particles they can find" was fitting tribute to a historic and exciting event.

CERN scientists shot two beams of protons in one direction around the LHC, a ring-like tunnel running under the French-Swiss border containing over 1,600 superconducting magnets.

The magnets allow scientists t…

Fear and Loathing of the LHC on the Today Show

It's not all fear and loathing, but Matt Lauer and the news team at NBC seemed to enjoy a bit of early Halloween fun but telling scary stories about the Large Hadron Collider. It's clear from all the giggling that they're not really very worried. (Look for our own Alpinekat's hip hop video near the end of the piece. She's sooooooo famous now!)



This version of the story, from the more sober NBC news hour, is less of a fright fest, but still gives one fringe LHC fear mongerer a bit more air time than he deserves.

"Two Neutrons Walk into a Blackhole . . ."

Genius, cranky, frumpy, difficult, brilliant, dreamer, old and, usually, white. Stereotypical descriptions continue to pervade how the rest of society, from children to adults, think about physicists. Aside from the token genius and dreamer attributes, few characteristics associated with physicists are favorable. But that's about to change. Today's physicists might soon be given a new adjective: freakin' hilarious.

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) are taking improvisational comedy classes, in the hopes that mastering the art of humor will allow them to effectively communicate to a slightly panicked and overwrought public that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will not end life as we know it.

When they aren't theorizing, performing complex equations or discovering new particles, the 25 physicists that make up the CERN comedy class are tossing around props, performing monologues and scenes, and cracking lewd jokes (hence the title of this…

Highlights from the Blogosphere

"You Aren't Famous Until There is a Lego Model of You: Lego Hawking"Talk Like a Physicist Really, it's Hawking rendered in Lego. I kid you not.
"Science is Rational, Scientists are Not" Gene Expression Rising above our human foibles.
"Polarized, Non-Politically" Swans on Tea Tom explains why your iPod's LCD screen looks funny when viewed through polarized sunglasses.
"Stress Makes Them Bi" Swans on Tea More from Tom on stress-induced birefringence.
"Whirled Music" Sciencegeekgirl Demonstrating the physics of whirlies.
"Self-Correcting Quantum Computers" The Quantum Pontiff His Holiness weighs in with an in-depth look at his chosen field of research, in four-part harmony. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.
"How is the Universe Going to End?" io9 Five possible fates await our universe... none of which involve the LHC.
"Brian Cox Calls 'Em Like He Sees 'Em" Bad Astronomy And here's why (once again) the LHC wil…

The Next Big Bang.

TV + the LHC, what could be better? From Cosmic Variance, a new program " The Next Big Bang" premieres Sepember 9th on The History Channel, chronicling everything from the Large Hadron Collider's history to its novel design. It starts tomorrow, September 9th. So watch it!

The Colbert Report...in Space?

In other extremely important and relevant news, Stephen Colbert is headed for space- in DNA form. His DNA will be digitized and sent to the International Space Station via Operation Immortality.

As you might be able to infer from its name (or not), Operation Immortality is, according to its website, "a project to collect and archive the very best of what humanity is and has accomplished".

Programmer and video game designer extraordinaire Richard Garriott has the task of carrying into a space a digital time capsule, containing DNA samples from entrepreneurs, celebrities and athletes, as well as messages from people around the world.

Scheduled for take off in October 2008, Garriott will be setting some records, as the world's 6th space tourist and as the first offspring of an American Astronaut to go into space (his father is Owen K. Garriott, a former NASA astronaut who spent time in space in the 1970s and 1980s).

While Operation Immortality doesn't appear to serve any us…

Quarky New Particle.

Particle physics is notorious for its funny-sounding jargon, and "quark" is no exception.

Physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory have discovered a new particle, Omega-sub-b. The particle is made of three quarks (two strange quarks and one bottom quark).

Quarks are fundamental particles that join together in different combinations to make more familiar particles like protons and neutrons. Omega-sub-b is about six times heavier than the mass of a proton. It was discovered by Fermilab's DZero experiment, using the tevatron particle collider.

Quarks are gregarious, they're always found in combination with other quarks and never alone. As you can imagine, this makes obtaining measurements of individual quarks particularly challenging.

Omega-sub B is especially exciting because it contains a bottom quark, providing scientists with key information into how quarks form matter, a process not yet completely understood. Scientists have now observed 13 of the 20 diff…

Close Up of a Black Hole.

Scientists recently aimed three radio telescopes at center of the Milky Way, zooming in for an unprecedented close-up of the supermassive black hole, believed to be located at the center of our galaxy.

By combining the radio signals researchers formed a single mammoth-sized radio telescope, almost as wide as the continental United States. The results of study add to a growing pile of evidence that a huge (4 times the mass of the sun!) black hole resides in the Milky Way's center.

They were able to obtain sharp detailed images, right down to the black hole's surface or event horizon, a region of space where the inward pull of gravity is so strong nothing (not even light) can escape it. Researchers focused on Sagittarius A a bright, intense source of radio waves. Scientists believe that Sagittarius A feeds off black hole activity, and may provide clues about the hole's position.

At very high resolution, researchers observed the relationship between Sagittarius A and the bla…

Particle Accelerators, New Wine Daters?

I love wine. Although I tend consume the cheap, boxed variety, a quality vintage always has a home in my glass.

It seems French scientists, along with The Antique Wine Company (a London-based wine dealer), have found a new use for particle accelerators. They've developed a method to authenticate wines with a device originally designed to smash atoms at nearly the speed of light.

According to the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the technique determines the age of the glass of wine bottles, by analyzing X-rays emitted when bottles are placed under ion beams produced by a particle accelerator.

The test is far more comprehensive than current radioactivity tests (performed on the wine itself), which cannot identify vintages prior to 1950. It also appears more convenient, as the test can run without opening the bottle or tainting the wine.

Vintage wine bottles are something akin to fingerprints; a mark of the time period they were made in. Distinct ways of manufacturing a…

Rumors of Dark Matter.

Rumor has it that scientists have discovered dark matter through an orbiting observatory called PAMELA. Aside from a few physicists given a sneak peek at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden, the results largely remain shrouded in mystery.

PAMELA researchers dropped some clues with an initial announcement, stating that their experiment has seen a surplus of positrons, the antimatter counterpart to the electron.

This abundance falls in line with current dark matter theory; the number of positions found "exactly matches" what dark matter particles would produce if they were annihilating each other at the center of the galaxy. It will be interesting to see what kind of reception their results receive when published.

For the record, PAMELA stands for Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics (what a mouthful eh?). It's the first satellite sensitive enough to comb through antimatter, or antiparticles in space, with the goal of detecting dark matter.