Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from October, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Don't fret, it's not to late to find a geeky physics Halloween costume! GeekGirlGifts and Cocktail Party Physics suggest going as Maxwell's Demon or Schrodinger's cat.

If your want a easy costume that doesn't involve a whole lot of effort, throw on all things black and be a black hole.

Or how bout a neutrino? Act neutral and wear a sign that says "I barely have mass".

If you have the time and inventiveness, construct a Mars Phoenix Lander costume - be sure go around telling everyone you've discovered snow.

If you want to make a lasting impression, enter the party spinning rapidly (and stay that way). If anyone asks tell em' you're a pulsar.

For something more contemporary, be the main ring of Large Hadron Collider! Attach a giant hula loop with a bunch of magnets to yourself. You could even figure out a way to circulate "proton beams". If you've had enough partying, just tell your friends a magnetic quench shut you down for the night.…

Hubble Resurrected

Our dear old Hub's Wide Field Planetary camera snapped its first photo (on the left) on Oct 27-28 after nearly a month of dormancy.

The snapshot, taken just a few days after Hubble was resurrected from its offline slumber, shows a pair of gravitationally interacting galaxies called Arp 147. The galaxies lie more than 400 million light years away from Earth, in the constellation Cetus.

NASA and ESA scientists say the image indicates a full comeback, proof that the Hubble has recovered completely. The image is exciting for other reasons too, namely the chance alignment of the two galaxies. Take a closer look, and you'll see that the rose-colored galaxy on the left resembles a "1" and the shimmering periwinkle blue galaxy on the right forms an "0" shaped dense ring of star formation. A perfect 10!

The blue ring was formed after the left-most galaxy pushed through the galaxy on the right, causing a ripple of high density as the two galaxies collided. This excess …

Seeking Antimatter in a Former Salt Mine

In a former salt mine at the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad New Mexico, all that matters is antimatter. In this deep underground cavern (pictured on bottom right) physicists are putting the finishing touches on a new particle detector, the Enriched Xenon Observatory (EXO).

In the spirit of Halloween, think of antimatter as matter's ghostly counterpart, a doppelganger with an equal but opposite charge. Every particle has its own antiparticle ghost-twin, for example the antiparticle of the negatively charged electron is the positively charged positron, all other properties (mass, spin, etc.) remain deceptively the same.

But everyone learns at some point that the universe appears to be made entirely out of matter (lesson learned when I ran smack dab into a glass sliding door at the age of six). Which begs the question, if every bit of matter has an equal but opposite antimatter counterpart, why is there so more much matter around us? Where did the…

Episode 05: The Euclid Alternative

In case you missed it.... here is a snippet from last night's episode of The Big Bang Theory (my personal favorite).

Icarus at the Edge of Time

NPR's Robert Krulwich does an exemplary job of explaining the relationship between gravity and time in this article, while discussing theoretical physicist Brian Greene's new picture book Icarus at the Edge of Time. You can even hear Greene and Krulwich perform a shortened version of the book in the accompanying broadcast.

Laying the foundation of the book in concrete physics, Greene re-imagines the Greek myth Icarus, a boy whose wax and feather wings melt as he flies to close to the sun, ignoring the admonitions of is father. Consequently, he falls into the sea. The boy in Greene's story doesn't quite meet such a moribund demise, but he does return from exploring a black hole (against the warnings of his scientist father) to find that time had passed disproportionally while he was gone, everything he knew had changed.

Highlights from the Blogosphere

"Underground Rivers Frozen in Place"BLDGBLOG A little-known fact about the construction of the Large Hadron Collider.
"Quantum Hyperion" Cosmic Variance Revisiting Einstein's challenge: is the moon still there when we're not looking at it?
"You Have 60 Minutes to do Complex Math or Else You're Dead. Go!" io9 A preview of Fermat's Room, a Spanish thriller screened at the recent Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City.
"Everyday Physics: Suction Cups" Shores of the Dirac Sea It all comes down to deformation and air pressure.
"Science and Politics: The Tale of George Washington's Swamp Gas" The Loom If you're in New Jersey on November 5th, check out the re-enactment of an experiment to prove an hypothesis conducted by Washington and Thomas Paine.
"Storing Energy" Built on Facts The rotational motion of a flywheel.
"15 Uses for Micro Black Holes" Secret Technology #2: Hazardous waste disposal... with catapul…

Fermi Problem Friday

We are one week away from Halloween. Around the world, kids, parents and the undead (aka college students) are preparing their costumes for the big night of trick or treating. Tricks! Treats! That's the best of both worlds.

Now one has to be very careful when choosing a Halloween costume. Nothing would be more embarrassing than spending a week constructing a clever Hannah Montana costume only to find out that your best friend had the same idea! Who is going to dish out candy to two Hannah Montanas? You have to coordinate and play rock paper scissors to determine who has to be Lola.





However, there is one costume that breaks all of the rules. It's almost as if there is a law of physics that states: You can never have enough zombies on Halloween. Two Hannah Montana zombies could bring in up to 4 times as much candy. And this is the good kind of candy like Swedish Fish.

This brings us to the question that Fermi (might have) pondered every year: How many zombies will be roaming aroun…

Think Twice Before you Type

A team of researchers at the Security and Cryptography Laboratory at the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne has figured out how to snatch information from your very fingertips, as long as those fingertips are pounding on a keyboard.

It's eavesdropping taken to a whole new level using electromagnetic signals produced by every pressed key. By analyzing these signals, the researchers managed to reproduce what a target typed.

Now I doubt any computer spy would be interested in Facebook posts- but computer login information and username/passwords for activities like online banking? Now that's much more interesting. The results of the study are troublesome to anyone concerned with protecting sensitive information.

Since wired keyboards contain electronic components, they emit electromagnetic waves. By measuring the electromagnetic radiation emitted by each key pressed, the researchers were able to identify individual keystrokes like code is used to decipher a message.

Usin…

It's a Bird It's a Plane...It's a Sky Crane?

The Mars Science Laboratory's (MSL) aeroshell resembles (almost too ironically) a UFO straight out of Hollywood. At 15 feet wide, it's also huge. In fact, its the largest aeroshell in the history of space exploration.

Check out the intense virtual simulation above to view how the coolest part of the MSL, its novel "sky crane" works. Scientists designed the sky crane to control landing by slowing the spacecraft down to practically a halt right before it touches ground. Almost immediately afterward, the crane will detach itself and fly away.

Scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009, the Mars Science Laboratory will support the Mars Exploration Program in collecting as much data as it can to help determine whether the planet was ever habitable and to continue searching for clues to Mars' past climate and geology.

Fermi Problem Friday

How many times do your bicycle wheels spin around on your way to school?

Bonus question: Is this the same number of times your feet pedal around?




This might be difficult to answer if walk to school or take a train. In either case just cycle your feet around and pretend you are riding a bike. If people look at you funny, just tell them it's a physics project.




This excuse always works in any situation. For instance if you trip on the sidewalk and onlookers start laughing, just tell them you were testing Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. Suddenly they will be impressed.

A New kind of Pulsar

A new kind of pulsar has been discovered by NASA'S Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. The discovery adds to the growing pile ( nearly 1,800) of pulsars cataloged by astronomers.

But this pulsar is different-it beams only in Gamma rays, a property never before observed in pulsars.

Usually, pulsars are found through their radiowavelength beams. This marks the first time an all gamma ray energy pulsar has been spotted. The pulsar lies peripherally in the corpse of the CTA 1 supernova, located about 4,600 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Cepheus.

Scientists believe CTA is only the first of a large population of similar objects. Based on the corpse's age and the pulsar's distance from its center, astronomers believe the neutron star is moving at about a million miles per hour, a typical speed.

A pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star, the crushed core left behind when a supernova explodes and its remnants collapse back together, welding into a messy conglomerate o…

Sniff Sniff.

The smell of space is (according to NASA scientists) unusually redolent, somewhere between a steak joint and an auto body shop. Personally, I think smell is the strangest of the senses. While I enjoy inhaling the scent of a rose as much as the next person, my olfactory system is also fond of gasoline. Weird.

In an attempt to develop acutely realistic training environments for astronauts, NASA has embarked on a smelly mission, by hiring Steven Pearce, a "nose chemist" to recreate the smell of space in a laboratory. Pearce is also the managing director of Omega Ingredients, a fragrance manufacturing company.

Interviewed astronauts say the smell of space is similar to fried steak and hot metal, and the welding of a motorbike. Currently, Pearce has managed to recreate the smell of fried steak and is working on the more difficult hot metal.

If all goes well the final space smell should be complete by the end of the year.

HiP European Fusion

Europe has been bitten by the fusion bug. With ITER currently under construction France, the EU is adding another mega-project to its fusion repertoire, HiPER ( HIgh Power laser Energy Research). Last week the current phase of HiPER was officiated as participating countries signed the necessary legal documents. Although there are just a few key players (The UK, France, and the Czech Republic) participation is global, involving 26 institutions from 10 countries, our own Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in CA among them.

HiPER aims to demonstrate the feasibility of laser driven fusion. By now we've heard enough about the benefits of fusion energy that it has nearly become the poster child of clean, green power. And in many ways, it is. HiPER will use sea water as its main source of fuel while producing zero hazardous wastes (e.g. greenhouse gases and radioactive material).

Laser fusion works conceptually the same way any atom fusing technology would, by fusing two hydrogen nucle…

Expanison Not So Uniform

In 1929 Edwin Hubble showed (to an irritated Einstein) that distant galaxies were moving farther and farther away from the Earth, picking up speed the farther they traveled. It was the birth of Hubble's law, which says that the more distant the galaxy the greater its velocity or redshift.

Scientists concluded that for Hubble's observations to make sense, the universe must be expanding, swelling like a balloon or a loaf of bread in the oven. The beginnings of the Big Bang Theory began to emerge (hey all this expansion had to start from a single point, right?).

There are many hypotheses and much debate over how expansion occurs, but it is generally believed that expansion is the same everywhere, progressing uniformly. That may soon change. Recently, a team of American and Canadian researchers discovered that a certain region of our universe (400 million light years away to be exact, and thats considered 'close to home") is not expanding uniformly but rather unevenly; expa…

Sides of Mercury You've Never Seen

This is Mercury like you've never seen her: the image to the left was snapped by the Wide Angle Camera of MESSENGER'S Dual Imaging System (MDIS) Instrument, at a distance of about 17,000 miles away from the planet.

The particularly bright crater just south of the center of the image is the Kuiper crater (first viewed in the 1970s on the Mariner 10 mission, which imaged less than half of the planet).

The terrain east of Kuiper, toward the edge of the planet, has never until now been imaged by a spacecraft. This is the first the missing portions of Mercury's surface, the portions that Mariner could not capture, have been imaged. The large pattern of rays extending from the Northern parts of the planet all the way to the southern parts make Mercury almost resemble a giant basketball.

Adding to its accomplishments, MESSENGER recently set a record for accuracy on its recent flyby of Mercury's surface. The probe missed its intended distance by a mere 0.6 kilometers-the smalle…

Star-Gazing with Liquid Mirrors

For years, scientists have wanted to put a telescope on the moon. Its lack of atmosphere makes for a clear, cloudless view of the universe.

However, the feasibility of lugging up tremendously heavy equipment into space and the economic cost of doing so are obstacles that have always accompanied the idea, until now.

An international team of researchers may have found a way to build a large lunar observatory on the Moon, using liquid mirror telescopes made of ionic liquids, a special class of organic compounds.

Traditionally, liquid mirror telescopes on Earth have used mercury for its ability to remain molten at room temperature and reflect a high percentage of light. Despite its good qualities, mercury is extremely dense or heavy, making it difficult to launch. Once on the moon, it would evaporate very quickly. Not to mention the price-mercury is very expensive.

Ionic liquids have properties that solve these issues. Scientists often describe ionic liquids as "molten salts". This …

Apollo Asteroid Explodes Over African Sky

Yesterday, the newly discovered Apollo Asteroid exploded over Sudan with the energy of about 1.1-2.1 kilotons of TNT. Earth bound space objects often explode, due to the pressure of slamming into the atmosphere.

Because the burst occurred over such a remote location no photographs were taken ( an obvious artist rendering can be seen to the left).

Apollo was about the size of a kitchen table, huge by asteroid standards. According to scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena CA, similar sized asteroids hit the Earth every few months- but this is the first time a collision was predicted.

Any triumph here belongs to Spaceguard, a tracking system capable of identifying near-Earth objects.

Blaming 'Physicists' for the Crisis on Wall Street

Watch CBS Videos Online

Ah, a cop out if there ever was one, in my opinion. The clip above (thanks to Buzz Skyline for sending me the link) is from last Sunday's episode of 60 minutes, "A Look at Wall Street's Shadow Market". Steve Kroft makes the point that obscure and extremely complicated stuff (ya know, algorithms, models, the "fine print") may be to blame for this swamp of pecuniary mud we're currently wading in.

Note-60 Minutes requested interviews with top executives at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch , Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and AIG. They all declined.

A snippet of transcript:

With its clients clamoring for safe investments with above average return, the big Wall Street investment houses bought up millions of the least dependable mortgages, chopped them up into tiny bits and pieces, and repackaged them as exotic investment securities that hardly anyone could understand.

These complex financial instruments were actually designed …

Nobel Prize for Broken Symmetries

Wow, was I ever wrong in my guess for this years Physics Nobel Prize.
Here's a press release I'm working on about the real winners.******************
2008 Physics Nobel for Broken SymmetriesCollege Park, MD - The 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to three physicists whose insights help to explain the existence of the universe and the properties of matter it contains. Half the prize goes to Yoichiro Nambu (University of Chicago) "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics." Half will be shared by Makoto Kobayashi (High Energy Accelerator Research Organization Tsukuba, Japan) and Toshihide Maskawa (Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics, Kyoto University) "for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature."
The universe would be a bleak and boring place, and might not exist at all, if the laws of nature were perfectly symmet…

Physics Nobel Prize to be Announced Tomorrow

I make a prediction about who will win the Physics Nobel Prize every year. I've never been right in the past, so there's no harm to be done in sticking my neck out again this year.

My perennial favorite candidate is Vera Rubin who discovered that most of the material in the universe is mysterious and invisible dark matter.


Dr. Rubin made her discovery by measuring velocities of stars as they revolved around the outer edges of galaxies. Most physicists and astronomers expected that the stars far from the center of a galaxy should move slower in their orbits than the ones closer to the middle. Rubin found that isn't that case at all. The outer stars move much faster than they should.

There are all kinds of exotic ways to account for this, but the simplest is to accept that galaxies are a lot heavier than we'd assumed based on the stars and other matter we can see. There must be a halo of invisible matter entwined with the normal stuff - or we really have the whole theory …

400 Years Ago The Birth of the Telescope, Oct.2 1608

Its been 400 years since the birth of the telescope- at least according to some scientists and historians.

Nonetheless, the Netherlands is celebrating (aka conferencing) to mark 4 centuries of one of the most influential inventions ever.

Based on several sources, it is believed that on October 2 1608, eyeglass maker Hans Lippershey, originally born in Germany, filed a patent application in Netherlands (or in Belgium, no one is certain) for a device he called a "kijiker" or looker.

The story isn't without polemic. Some claim that Lipphershey's neighbor and fellow eyeglass maker Zacharias Janssen invented an instrument capable of viewing far-off objects up close. Despite the open questions, all of the potential inventors resided in the Netherlands so this year the Dutch are taking credit for the telescope.

In 1609, Galileo Galilei set about improving the telescope and was eventually able to gaze at the stars and moons. His observations offered proof that the Sun and plane…