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Showing posts from November, 2008

A Sweet Thanksgiving for Our Galaxy

Sugar. A variant on the sweetest ingredient in many a sumptuous holiday feast, glycolaldehyde has now been found in a star-forming region of space far from the galactic center called G31.41+0.31, about 26,00 light years away from Earth.

Directly linked to the origin of life, glycolaldehyde is an advantageous find for researchers seeking out habitable planets.

A team of international researchers used the powerful IRAM radio telescope in France to observe G31.41+0.31 with high angular resolution and at different wavelengths. This allowed the researchers to view astronomical objects with extreme sharpness and fine detail. Several observations confirmed the presence of glycolaldehyde at the core of the region.

The simplest of monosaccharide sugars, glycolaldehyde (the prefix "glyco" indicates the presence of a sugar on a non-carbohydrate substance) can react with the substance propenal to form ribose, the backbone of ribonucleic acid (RNA). Although deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is …

The White Asparagus Triangulation

Check out this clip from last night's Big Bang Theory: Leonard reminiscing about his budding physicist childhood (and being generally awkward).

Mysteriously Speedy Dolphins: Gray's Paradox Solved

Remember Gray's paradox? In 1936 the eponymous British zoologist James Gray couldn't reconcile his observations of dolphins swimming at speeds of over 20 miles per hour with his calculations, which demonstrated that dolphin muscles simply weren't built to produce enough acceleration to overcome drag. He ended up blaming this drag violation on dolphin's skin, postulating that it must have drag-reducing properties.

Fast forward decades later to this year's Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) Division of Fluid Dynamics in San Antonio, Texas, where professor Timothy Wei of Rensselaer School of Engineering announced that he and a team of researchers had solved Gray's paradox- and no, skin has nothing to do with the speediness of these adorable sea mammals.

Wei and his team are the first to provide solid evidence illustrating that dolphins actually do produce enough force to overcome drag. "The scientific community has known this for a while, …

Operatic Atom Bombs

I'd wager the average person rarely (if ever), spends a Friday evening indulging in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, but operas aren't always long-winded scenes of voluptuous, ornately dressed characters bellowing incomprehensibly.
Producer John Adam's Doctor Atomic is a two-act opera about the making of the Atom Bomb, the nuclear weapon that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II.

The setting is the summer of 1945, in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where J. Robert Oppenheimer and a team of scientists gathered to build and test the bomb for the first time.

The opera focuses on renowned physicist Robert Oppenheimer and his scientific and moral dilemma surrounding the Los Alamos project-with lots of science thrown in. Created from various sources ( including declassified government documents), the text or libretto of the opera is littered with discussions on uranium and plutonium, the TNT equivalency of the bomb, and whether or not …

A Communiqué on Weightlessness

Take a look at the painting on your left. "The artist climbed 23,000 feet in a specially modified plane to work on the piece while weightless," this article purports.

Pause. Now wait a minute. Now cringe.

The terms "weightlessness" and "zero gravity" are constantly thrown around haphazardly, in part because there is a vague misconception surrounding what it means to be "weightless".

The notion that one can experience weightlessness by being high enough above the earth's surface is disingenuous. Weightlessness is not caused by distance from the Earth but by being in orbit!
The International Space Station is 250 miles above the Earth, where gravitational attraction is just 10% less than on the Earth's surface- so how could one experience zero gravity at a mere 23,000 feet (around 4.5 miles) ?Astronauts at the International Space Station experience weightlessness because they are orbiting the planet, not because they are above it. It is being…

Anti-Matter Goldmine

Billions of anti-matter particles were recently let loose at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Using a short-pulse laser, a team of researchers figured out how to produce anti-electrons or positrons faster and in greater density than ever before in the laboratory.

Image credit: Matt Chisholm

While positrons were the only form of anti-matter produced in the experiment, not all anti-matter particles are positrons. Every particle has its own corresponding, oppositely charged anti-particle (check out last month's post on anti-matter).



The researchers struck gold; literally. By shooting a laser through a gold sample the size of the head of a push pin, approximately 100 billion positron particles were generated, shooting out of the sample in a cone-shaped plasma "jet".

Accelerated and ionized or charged by the laser, electrons plough through the gold sample, hitting gold nuclei along the way. The electron-gold nuclei interactions serve as a catalyst to create positrons, kind…

The Lizard-Spock Expansion

I missed last night's Big Bang Theory, but check out the highlights here (I'm told Howard runs the Mars Lander into a ditch).

Planets Orbiting Stars Orbiting Planets Orbiting Stars Orbiting….

Multiple planets orbiting a star other than our own sun- a dizzying thought that has been confirmed for the first time by images from the Gemini North telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Kea.

A group of researchers produced novel pictures of a small solar system comprising three planets (two of which are shown in the image above) orbiting a star called HR 899, about 130 light years away from Earth. The pictures are extraordinary because until now, distant planets orbiting stars had never been directly and visually observed. Most other star orbiting planets have only been observed indirectly, when their path of orbit lay between Earth and their host star, or through gravitational effects.

According to calculations done by the researchers, all of the planets weigh roughly 7-10 times more than Jupiter. They orbit a ginormous star too, about 1.5 times heavier and 5 times brighter than our sun. Despite the differences, this fledging solar system is similar to our …

Fermi Problem Friday

Ironically, the Fermi Problem Task Force was unable to post a Fermi problem last week because we traveled to Fermi Lab for the 2008 Congress of the Society of Physics Students. I highly recommend a visit and tour of Fermi Lab if you are ever near Chicago. However, with further ado, allow me to present this week's Fermi Problem:


I was riding my bike to the Physics Central headquarters yesterday morning while it was raining. By the time I arrived, I was wearing more water than clothes. During this wet cycling endeavor, there were two thoughts bouncing around in my head:

1. I realized that I was very thirsty.
2. I also wondered (this is the Fermi problem) how many rain drops could I catch in my mouth throughout my 15 min ride?

As usual, leave comments with your creative deductive solutions.

Synchrotrons and Society in the Middle East

I've never thought of synchrotrons as peace making entities, capable of establishing comity between the populations of fractious Middle Eastern countries, but at least two scientists, American Herman Winick and German Guss Voss do.

Eleven years ago, they founded the SESAME ( Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) in Amman, Jordan with the goal of bringing together scientists from across the Middle East to a single facility.

Their vision of Palestinians and Israelis, Turks and Cypriots, Iranian and Egyptians collaborating on experiments has almost come to fruition, were it not for a pesky particle accelerator. The 124m in circumference accelerator is the last component, the key in the door, the final piece of the puzzle to get SESAME up and running. The only setback? A funding shortfall of 15 million euros.

In a quote from the BBC article, technical director Dr. Amor Nadji said, " We are scientists; I am a scientist, you are a scientist…

Overlooked Physics: The Mysterious Drinking (Dipping) Bird

With all of our brain power working on grand experiments like the LHC and pondering big questions about black holes, we occasionally run into some seemingly simple mysteries. For instance, how does a dipping bird work? Or will a slinky perpetually slink down an ascending escalator?








Please send us explanations and videos of you tackling these elusive mysteries. Who knows, we may post it up on the Physics Buzz Blog.

Shock-ing Recipe for New Planets

Shock waves, the explosive booms associated with jets that send us quailing with our hands clamped over our ears, may be a key ingredient in the formation of new planets.

Just because aircraft can move faster than the speed of sound, doesn't mean sound waves can. Since the aircraft can't just toss aside fettered sound waves, they end up "piling up" against each other as the aircraft plows through the air. The result is an immense wave pressure or shock wave.

Some scientists theorize that shock waves emerge when high-speed swirling disks of gas collide into each other, and eventually lump together during the first few million year's of a planet's formation.

Surprising evidence for the theory has recently surfaced in tiny quartz-like crystals called cristobalite and tridymite found near five baby stars just beginning to form planets, and detected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Known to reside in meteorites and comets that land on Earth (and even in vo…

Scientific Citizenship

The blog has awoken from a light slumber (any soporific virtues science may have certainly doesn't stem from this exciting, hip outlet). Anyway, these past few days I was at Fermilab in Batavia IL for the 2008 Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Congress, along with 550 other attendees.

This year's theme was "scientific citizenship". Civic scientists aren't holed up in isolation in their labs performing calculations and experiments and ignoring the rest of the world. They are actively supporting both scientific and non scientific causes and involved in local and maybe even national politics. Most importantly, they are visible in and accessible to their local communities.

Turns out Einstein was a renegade civic scientist when it came to race, as I discovered in a lecture by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, co authors of the book Einstein on Race and Racism.

History has largely concealed Einstein's anti-racism activist persona, but these two authors dusted off hundreds of…

Highlights from the Blogosphere

Perhaps you might be aware that the US held some sort of election last week. The science blogosphere found a handful of interesting angles to that news-dominating event:
"Resources for Teaching about Voting and Mathematics" Sciencegeekgirl
"Nanobama" Bioephemera
"Obama Takes Lead in Galactic Polls" Science After Sunclipse
"Help Me, Obi-Wan" Swans on Tea
"CNN Holograms? Not Really" Skulls in the Stars
For other science bloggers, it was business as usual:
"Ten Things You Don't Know About Black Holes" Bad Astronomy
"Dude, It's Physics" Swans on Tea The Physics of Surfing, Part I and Part II
"Dr. Atomic: A Brilliant Luminescence" Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge
"The Clock That Breeds" The Loom
"The Divincenzo Code" The Quantum Pontiff Physics gets its own YouTube thriller
"Dance Like a Monkey" Uncertain Principles And finally, Chad Orzel meets his Donors Choose target and must deliver on …