Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reflections for a New Year

The triumphs of space travel can often be overshadowed by its tragedies. In a week that should be the celebration of some of the greatest feats of exploration, a dark cloud hangs over NASA. The future of the agency and the next generation of spaceflight have come under serious scrutiny. In addition the team investigating the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 released their report yesterday detailing the final moments of its crew. It's a tragic reminder that there will always be risk associated with space travel.

But this week also marks the anniversaries of two tremendous milestones for NASA. Forty years ago one of its most successful and uplifting missions to the moon concluded, while five years ago its most triumphant mission to explore Mars began. Looking back on these accomplishments can be a real inspiration for the future.

Five years ago on January 3rd, the first of two robots, Spirit, landed on the surface of Mars. Twenty-one days later, its twin Opportunity, touched down on another side of the planet. Each about the size of a small refrigerator, the two rovers immediately set about exploring the local regions of Mars looking for any potential signs of water. Their six wheeled chassis proved adept at maneuvering around the planet's rocky surface. Very quickly they started turning up evidence of Mars's watery past in soil samples, mineral deposits and rock formations.

What makes the rovers so incredible is even after five years on the planet, they're still going strong and making new discoveries. Not bad for a couple of machines only designed to last three months. In that time the two rovers traveled more than 21 km over the surface of the planet, climbing a mountain and descending into several craters in the process. Together they've beamed back over a quarter million pictures and over 36 gigabytes of raw information about environmental conditions. The two rovers have just survived the planet's winter, and NASA's team hope to keep using them throughout the next Martian year.

This past week also marked the fortieth anniversary of one of the most memorable and daring manned missions in the history of the space program. In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to orbit the moon. The mission successfully demonstrated the new Saturn V rocket could deliver people to lunar orbit, paving the way for Neil Armstrong's moonwalk the following year. Just as importantly, the Space Agency was able to overcome the Apollo 1 tragedy the year before and continue towards its goal of landing a man on the moon.

The symbolism of the mission helped close out a difficult year on an upbeat note. Events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention and the continuing Vietnam War had pushed the country nearly to the breaking point. Apollo 8 became the year's last act and had a tremendous impact back on Earth. On Christmas Eve the crew read selections from the Book of Genesis in an appeal to world peace. They also brought back the famous photograph of Earth rising over the barren lunar landscape. For the first time around the world, people could see in living color the pale blue dot of our home planet, in all its fragility. It soon became one of the most reproduced images in history because of its poignancy.

After his return to Earth, mission commander Frank Borman received a telegram with a simple message for his crew. It read, "To the crew of Apollo 8. Thank you. You saved 1968."

This past year has been far from easy for either NASA or the nation as a whole. Looking back though, it's clear that the determination to explore and the hope for greater discoveries in the years to come have always been a tremendous source of inspiration.

Happy New Year to all.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008


If you thought wiring up your speaker system was tricky, try connecting everything when the wires you're using are about 1/2000th the width of a human hair. Machines this small fall in the realm of nanotechnology; electronics that are a less than one ten-thousandths of a millimeter in size. That's really tiny.

Yesterday scientists announced that they have developed a method to efficiently solder two wires together using a filament much smaller than the size of a cell. Dubbed "nanowelding," this new process is a major step forward for the field, making it much easier to build usable circuits for these tiny devises.

The new method works similarly to normal sized methods of soldering circuits together. A piece of wire is laid across two terminals while a small electrical current runs through the wire. The current melts the wire, forming a bond that is both strong and can conduct electricity. To show off the new technique, technicians formed the word "NANO" and the Chinese symbol for "human being" out of gold wires only 55 nanometers in diameter.

Nanotechnology is a subject with a lot of promise across a variety of fields. One of the areas its small size shows the greatest amount of potential is in medicine. If machines can be made smaller than a cell, it's possible they could be used to target infections and tumors on a microscopic level. Consumer electronics can also benefit tremendously from the field. Electronics can be designed to take up less room, weigh less and use less energy. Just think how small cell phones could get!

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Eyes on the Sky

There are lots of programs on the internet for anyone with a desire to start exploring outer space. Some are really impressive while others just aren't worth your time. I wanted to take some time and see what was out there, and which ones were worth while.

I started out poking around on Google Sky a bit over the last few days, and I have to say, it really feels incomplete. As a sort of update on the impressive Google Maps, the relatively new Sky feature is not living up to all it could be. On the one hand it does a good job of incorporating a tremendous range of actual photos to create a full 360 degree map of the night sky. There's nothing more impressive than being able to pick a famous cosmic locale like the Eagle Nebula and zoom right into a jaw-dropping photo of it. Another website integrates these kinds of photos just as well, and comes with a great user friendly tour of the cosmos. Still, there's something about both of them that feels a little sterile.

Stellarium is a must have tool for any aspiring astronomer. Just knowing where to point your telescope on any given evening is sometimes the hardest part of getting started. Stellarium tracks all of the major celestial objects, including stars, planets and nebula, and then displays them like you were standing looking up at the night sky. By setting any time, date and location on earth, you can accurately predict exactly what will be overhead on any given night. It's so accurate it's often used by actual planetariums to project the night sky onto their domes. One word of warning is Stellarium can take a decent amount of computing power to run, so just make sure you have something pretty beefy under the hood.

What if you would actually want to travel to the locations you see? Celestia is a three-dimensional real time simulation of the galaxy, featuring a catalogue of over 100,000 stars and other cosmic bodies. You've got total movement throughout the universe to travel to any celestial body your heart desires. It's an amazing tool, one that gives a real sense as to how big space truly is and how far apart things are. One great aspect is there is a strong online community of people always making new features and points of interest for the program. You can download everything from the Hourglass Nebula to the Voyager Spacecraft. There’s even a section for fictional space ships like the entire Star Wars battle fleet or my personal favorite, Spaceman Spiff.

The universe is an exotic and wonderful place, and with these free tools you can start exploring its mysteries.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Apocalypse Soon?

The other night I went to see the new remake of the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (you might say that that's my own fault, and you would be right). It was chock full of wacky science, plot holes and a performance by Keanu Reeves that make cabbages look downright emotive. However the most troubling part of the whole experience came before the movie even began. The teaser trailer for the upcoming film "2012" flashed across the screen, and I nearly walked out.

I never thought I would see a movie advertisement that actively disparaged real science outright. But there it was, in big white letters.

The film's overall premise sounds like your typical end of the world faire. A group of people have to struggle to survive against the oncoming apocalypse which includes storms, volcanoes and glaciers. I would expect the same kind of attention to scientific detail that you see in a movie like The Core, but really nothing to rustle any feathers. 2012 refers to the year that the Mayan Long Count Calendar runs out, and apparently is the harbinger of Armageddon. Last time I checked, when any of my calendars run out, the world doesn't end, I just have to buy a new calendar. But it sounds like a half decent excuse to see major metropolitan areas get leveled on screen for the umpteenth time.

The problem is that there are a lot of people who really believe the end is going to come in 2012, and they've been using a lot of very bad pseudoscience to "prove it." This is where things start getting ugly. The only actual information in the trailer is a few sentences spliced between scenes of destruction. They read:

"How would the governments of our planet prepare six billion people for the end
of the world? They wouldn't. Find out the Truth; Google: 2012"

When I typed "2012" into Google, the film's webpage didn't appear until the 7th page, and even then because of poor marketing, the only thing on it is the trailer. I had to wade through pages and pages of wild theories "proving" how the world will end in four years time. These sites claim everything from pole changes to rogue planets, cosmic rays, asteroids, little green men and possibly Elvis will bring about the end of the world. Some of these have a rudimentary base in science, but there is no evidence that any of them are going to actually happen, much less destroy the planet. When the trailer tells people to find out "the truth" and points them here, it adds a lot of undeserved credibility to these wild conjectures.

I'm not going to take time to dispel every wild allegation on the internet. There's too many of them that are either completely groundless or twist actual physics into something absurd. The folks over at the National Astrobiology Institute have been inundated by questions about it, and over the last year Universe Today published a stellar series of articles that set the record straight.

The real trouble with the marketing of "2012," it tacitly encourages very bad misinformation about physics in the public mind. The film's tagline adds to the paranoia and discourages real rational thought. We went through this kind of silliness a decade ago with the Y2K scare, it wasn't particularly fun then, and isn't today.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Shuttle For Sale, High Mileage, One Previous Owner

What better present is there for you favorite interplanetary nerd than the Space Shuttle Discovery? NASA announced that it's putting its whole orbiter fleet up for sale, just in time for the holidays. No joke, just delivery might take a little while.

NASA's fleet of three remaining Space Shuttles, Atlantis, Endeavor and Discovery, are due to retire in 2010, and NASA just opened the bidding to any institution which can display and take care of them afterwards. They're estimating each shuttle to go for at least $42 million after cleaning, transportation and refurbishing costs. If that chunk of change is a bit too steep, they'll be selling the engines by themselves for only around $400,000 apiece.

NASA has already guaranteed the Smithsonian one of the orbiters (even though they already have one), leaving the others up for grabs. The bidding will be left open until Saint Patrick's Day next year, but anyone interested should get their requests in soon. Supplies are limited and this is guaranteed to be a hot item.

If you've got some extra cash and a display space as big as a Boeing 707 laying around, give the nice folks at NASA a buzz. Mostly I think they're looking for a more dignified fate than that of the old unused Russian space shuttle, Buran. At the end of the Cold War, Russia unveiled its own reusable orbiter which looked suspiciously like the American Space Shuttle. After the Buran's one unmanned test flight in 1988, the Russians locked it away in storage until a roof collapse destroyed the vehicle in 2002.

The lesson being; if you do end up with Atlantis Discovery or Endeavor, make sure building inspectors give your display hall the OK first.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Keeping it Real with Physics

The political channels are abuzz with word of another physicist tapped for a top position in the Obama administration. Word leaked out yesterday that John Holdren (an APS Fellow even!) will likely be named as Barack Obama's top science advisor. Much like Steven Chu at the Department of Energy, Holdren began his career as a researcher and technician, before branching into policy and environmental work. This really prepares Holdren for the challenges ahead, giving him firm grounding in both the practical aspects of energy technology and the political nature of advising proposed legislation.

Holdren has a long history of tackling the scientific challenges facing the nation. He began focusing on the world's ecological and energy concerns early on, publishing books and papers about them as early as 1971. Today he is leading the nation's scientific efforts to tackle energy and conservation issues as the director of the Woods Hole Research Center.

I find it very promising that Holdren was the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006. The AAAS has been one of the leading organizations that promote the public understanding of science and sensible legislation in Congress. Both Holdren and the AAAS recognize how crucial accurate research is to understanding the world around us. Without their kind of work to promote public knowledge there would be no way to intelligently address huge science issues like global warming and energy consumption.

Now, as the likely Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Holdren will be the President Elect's chief advisor on all science related concerns. I think given his background, the office is in good hands.

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The Physics Factory at the Discovery Science Center

After 5 weeks on the road performing physics demonstrations to groups of kids, the Physics Factory concluded their Summer tour at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, CA.

Above: An anonymous member of the Physics Factory demonstrates angular momentum on an inclined plane. Below: Christina Pease defies gravity as she whirls water over her head with her Greek waiter's tray.

Every Summer the Physics Factory packs their physics bus full of exciting science demonstrations and heads out on the road. The group traveled from Tucson, AZ to Edmonton, Canada and back down the west coast this summer. There are many organizations all over the country similar to the Physics Factory that bring spectacular physics demonstrations to your community. You can find them on the website Physics To Go.

Here are some of the highlights from the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, CA.

young and brave future scientist tests the water in the Greek waiter's tray to see if it's real.

A group of kids about to be shocked at how well they conduct electricity.

Physics equipment returning to it's home on the Physics Bus.

And finally, the staff from the Discovery Science Center became victims of the vacuum bag. Look at the smiles of terror on their faces. The screaming, I mean laughing girl on the left, Julie Smith, took these fabulous photos. Actually, she probably didn't take this one. That credit goes to her intern.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Einstein Controversy

Albert Einstein's legacy as one of the greatest academic minds the world has ever known is deservedly earned. His groundbreaking work in the early part of the twentieth century fundamentally changed the way scientists look at the universe. To this day, his formulation of the General Theory of Relativity is considered one of the greatest intellectual achievements in modern history.

While researching yesterday's post I came across an old controversy that seemed to cast doubt on Einstein's legacy. In 2003 PBS broadcast a made for TV special entitled "Einstein's Wife" insinuating that he collaborated extensively with his first wife Mileva Maric without crediting her work.

When it first aired, the documentary sparked a tremendous controversy, one that raged until 2006 when PBS's independent ombudsman issued a lengthy and critical assessment of the controversial program. He concluded that ultimately the TV special and accompanying website was "a factually flawed and ultimately misleading combination of film and Web presentations."

Historians and other experts consider the majority of "Einstein's Wife" to be way off the mark. Even the leading Einstein scholars featured in the program have refuted its conclusions. Robert Schulmann and John Stachel are both former editors at the Einstein Papers Project, which seeks to publish the complete works of Albert Einstein. Gerald Holton is a professor emeritus at Harvard on of the history of science and author of several volumes on the life of Einstein as well. These three experts recently sent me a copy of their joint statement about the controversy in hopes of greater accuracy in future biographies. Their complete text is as follows:

2008 Letter for APS Central blog

Albert Einstein's stellar scientific reputation, especially strong among reputable physicists, has historically tended to obscure a small number of dissenting voices, but perhaps never more so than currently. In particular, one aspect of his early adult life has been the subject of controversy in recent times, namely, the claim that his first wife Mileva Maric made significant contributions to his momentous 1905 papers, a role she herself never claimed, or so much as hinted at in any of her correspondence.

To her great credit, Maric overcame personal difficulties and institutional obstacles before gaining entry to the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic, but thereafter she failed to obtain the diploma for teaching physics and mathematics for which she and Einstein studied, largely due to her low grade in math (and adverse personal circumstances on her second attempt). Historians of physics who have carefully examined all surviving documents and credible evidence have concluded that her contributions to Einstein's early scientific achievements did not go beyond that of a sympathetic sounding board, though rather less actively so than his friends Solovine and Besso. (See: )

Nevertheless, tendentious presentation of misleading material by proponents of the thesis that Maric collaborated with Einstein on his momentous 1905 papers has produced a superficially plausible case. This campaign reached its apex in the PBS co-production "Einstein's Wife," first broadcast in 2003. We, as Einstein specialists, were enticed into being interviewed for what we were misled to believe was another made-for-TV documentary on Einstein. Our complaints when we found that the final product amounted to a perversion of the historical record were ignored.

The issue was reignited in early 2006 by a complainant to the PBS Ombudsman who documented that "Einstein's Wife" and the accompanying PBS website and school lesson plans were replete with errors. PBS refused to acknowledge it was in breach of its editorial policies on accuracy, but support for the complainant from the Ombudsman eventually led to a rewriting of the website material in October 2007. Unfortunately the revised website continues to propagate a story containing serious factual errors. (See: )

The current situation is that PBS has ignored a recommendation by its own Ombudsman that the film be disowned and the website withdrawn. It is especially to be deprecated that for some five years schoolteachers were able to download the PBS "Einstein's Wife" lesson plans, which were little short of a brainwashing exercise. (See: )

With several films on Einstein's life currently in production, we feel it is important in the interests of historical accuracy to reiterate that there is no substantive evidence that Maric made significant contributions to Einstein's pioneering work in physics. More specifically, the widely circulated notion that she was a brilliant mathematician is without credible substantiation, and is inconsistent with her academic record in this subject at University level.

None of this is intended to detract from Maric's vital role in providing support for Einstein at a crucial stage of his career. On the contrary, it is demeaning to her memory to impute a scientific role on the basis of tendentiously misleading contentions that do not withstand scholarly scrutiny.

Gerald Holton
Robert Schulmann
John Stachel

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Was Einstein's "Greatest Mistake" Right After All?

The old story about Albert Einstein's erroneous cosmological constant used to sound something like this:

Once upon a time in 1917, the young Einstein made his most notorious mistake. He needed to figure out why the pull of gravity didn't cause the universe to collapse. His equations kept saying the universe should have ended long ago, but every observation proved that it didn't. As a result he introduced a concept a called "the cosmological constant" into his equations to counter the effect of gravity and keep the universe static. The problem was that the constant was bunk and Einstein knew there was no evidence for it, other than the fact the universe still existed.

Then in 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe wasn't static but actually expanding. The repulsive force from the Big Bang over 15 billion years ago countered the force of gravity and Einstein's fudged cosmological constant was discarded forever. Thus the universe lived happily ever after.

Recent observations have added an interesting epilogue to the story which shows that some kind of cosmological constant may yet exist after all.

It all began in 1998 when a team of astronomers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made the inconvenient discovery that the universe actually accelerating while it expands. This isn't supposed to happen. Issac Newton's laws of momentum state that an object can only accelerate when being pushed by an outside force. The catch is that without Einstein's constant, there isn't supposed to be any outside force any more. The Big Bang sent everything in the universe flying apart and the force of gravity was supposed to gradually slow that expansion. Instead, things seem to be speeding up.

There has to be some massive unseen force throughout the cosmos making it expand ever faster. Physicists call this exotic force "dark energy" because while it can't be seen directly, its effects can be observed. Scientists know still don't know what dark energy actually is or where it comes from, but they've been measuring its effects on distant galaxies and stars. Recent measurements made using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory show that dark energy has been a constant force throughout the history of the cosmos.

A constant force in the cosmos? A cosmological constant perhaps?

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Carbon vs. Carbon Dioxide

Some elements of the periodic table can be very fickle sometimes. Take number six, carbon, as an excellent example. When one atom of carbon is bonded with two atoms of oxygen it becomes carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming. However when carbon atoms are bonded to other carbon atoms and rolled up into microscopic tubes, they could actually be used to help fight global warming.

Carbon nanotubes are long thin molecules of pure carbon that exhibit some rather remarkable properties. Each atom of carbon in the tube is bonded to three others in a sort of rolled up honeycomb pattern. This makes the tubes very strong but still very lightweight, perfect for strengthening buildings using less material.

One out of this world idea is to use nanotubes to build a proposed "Space Elevator." Scientists have suggested it could be possible to drop a cable of nanotubes from a geostationary satellite in orbit, and run an elevator between it and the surface of Earth. If built, pollution spewing rocket launches could become a thing of the past, but the engineering needed is many decades away.

What's really exciting about these nanotubes as far as global warming is concerned is not so much their structural potential, but their electrical potential. The nanotubes can not only conduct electricity, but can also be transparent so light can shine through. This is exactly what solar panels need to help convert sunlight into electricity. Small scale tests have already shown that a film of transparent carbon nanotubes on a solar cell can up its efficiency tremendously.

Technicians are continuing to refine the production of carbon nanotubes. As their production gets easier, it's very possible that these thin molecules will revolutionize everything from energy production to building construction.

One last way that carbon helps to combat greenhouse gasses can be found at your local bicycle shop. Over the last few years, bikes are more commonly made out of carbon fiber, essentially the nanotube's lower tech cousin. These fibers are made with less-pure carbon filaments woven into a fabric and injected with resin to form a stiff shape. Carbon fiber bikes can be as strong as steel ones but weigh much less, making it easier to leave the car behind and ride to work.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

A Stellar Year for Physics

Time Magazine just released its annual collection of top ten lists. Among the editor's rankings of "Late Night Jokes" and "Fashion Faux Pas," they put together a list of the "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of 2008." Physics dominated the field, taking five of the category’s ten spots!

I do have one caveat though. The term "discovery" is being thrown around pretty loosely here. To me, a "discovery" is observation or determination of something for the first time. I think Noah Webster would be on my side here. Time's list really should be called the "Top 10 Science Things that Happened in 2008."

Take their number one "discovery," the completion of the Large Hadron Collider, as a perfect example. This is a hugely important science experiment and tremendous engineering accomplishment, but it's not a "discovery." If it were, it would be as if hikers along the Franco-Swiss border just happened to find the gigantic completed facility by accident. Its discoveries will come later, after the machine is repaired and back up and running.

But I digress. Time does a good job highlighting some of the important physics stories of the year. Close on the heels of the top spot is the Phoenix Lander's actual discovery of water ice in the Martian polar ice caps. Water ice shows that the ancient history of the Red Planet was likely a lot wetter than previously thought.

Slot number four goes to China's continuing space program, Again, not really a "discovery." China already knew space was there, they just stepped outside for a stroll. Behind door number six are the first photographs of extrasolar planets. This was huge, on November 13th two separate teams working independantly released the first photos taken of planets orbiting stars that aren't our own (Time omits that yet another team released an infrared image from a third star two weeks later).

Rounding out the physics entries at number seven is UC Berkeley's further development of an "invisibility cloak." Using nanotechnology, scientists were able to engineer a fabric that could literally bend light around it, making it appear to disappear. Of course a Harry Potter style cloak is still decades away, but the proof of concept has been established.

So there we have it, the physics stories Time Magazine thinks are the years most important. I'm not sure they got everything though. Not only did this year mark the first time an extrasolar planet was captured on film, but also the first time an electron was photographed as well!

Any others that might have been missed?

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Earthquakes and the Financial Crisis

Physics may be the key to preventing financial meltdowns like the one we're facing now.

The problems that have brought our economy crashing down, according to at least one leading econophysicist, stem in part from the fact that economists don't really understand the odds of major crashes like the Great Depression or our current recession. Physicists, on the other hand, know lots about it.

You see, the economy bounces around in much the same way that natural systems change. The classic example is earthquakes: really devastating earthquakes are much more frequent than we used to think. Understanding how likely big earthquakes are is crucial when it comes to designing buildings that'll be safe in places like San Francisco and Tokyo. If you underestimate the odds of big quakes, lots of people will die.

The same is true of the economy. If you underestimate the likelihood or size of a major crash you probably won't do what's necessary to prevent it, and you certainly won't be prepared to deal with a crash when one comes along.

Many economists assume that booms and recessions are like a grades that students get on school test. When a test is well designed, a plot of the grades is a nice, smooth curve (often called a bell curve or normal distribution). Most student get Bs, Cs and Ds, and a few get As and Fs.

If you plot earthquakes, the curve is different. There are more As (major earthquakes) than you would expect. Physicists call it a "heavy-tailed distribution" because there are more earthquakes at the outer areas of the curve than there are in the normal distributions typical of class grades.

The red line in the graph here is a heavy-tailed distribution. It's not terribly different from the black line that traces out a normal distribution, which may explain why people historically have realized it, but the modest difference leads to much larger risks. (The blue curve is a short-tailed distribution, but don't worry about that for now.)

Building codes in earthquake-prone places take the heavy-tailed distribution into account to make sure we can keep damage and injuries as low as possible. Now that we now know that booms and busts in the economy also make up a heavy-tailed distribution, we should be as careful handling our money as San Francisco architects are with their sky scrapers.

What does that mean in the real world? The solutions are complicated, but I'm sure economists can figure them out if they take heavy tails into account. (I have a few suggestions, but I'm not an economist so I'll keep them to myself.)

It's ironic that some people have been trying to make physicists and mathematicians the scapegoats for the recession, as Uncalm noted in her blog post back in October, when they are probably the best people to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future.

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Physicist in the House!

Physicists got a major shout out from President-elect Barack Obama yesterday when he nominated Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy. In the past there have been many career politicians, lawyers and engineers who have held the post, but this is the first time that a physicist has been named to the position. Not only that, this is the first time ever that a Nobel laureate has been nominated to any cabinet post.

Chu, along with two others on his team, shared the prestigious award in 1997, for a series of experiments that cooled gaseous atoms to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. In the mid 1980s the team shot six laser beams at each other between a pair of magnetic coils, capturing atoms in the center. This created what they called an "optical molasses," trapping the particles inside at speeds slow enough to study their structures. In normal room temperature, gas atoms are so energetic they zip around at speeds around 400 km/hr. Chu's team tricked the atoms to slow down to only about 25 cm/s, without freezing into a liquid or solid.

Since taking over the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, Chu has focused primarily on seeking alternative and green energy sources. Chu's nomination is promising because it shows a real focus on scientific research and development to address the nation’s energy issues. As the department's head, Chu will oversee the nation's energy policy as well as its nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons and an array of National Research Labs.

So it looks like the Department of Energy is taken care of, now if only we physicists can get a Department of Matter up and running as well.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Defense of Students

The news media is doing what it does best: This week they've been running with the bad news and hardly mentioning the good. Yesterday the results of 2007's Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were released, comparing U.S. 4th and 8th grade students with their peers in over 35 other countries. The results weren't optimal, but stories like this one in the Washington Post tended to focus on the bad news rather than the good. The big story that got missed: The winners of the country's most prestigious science and math competition were announced on Monday.

The TIMSS report shows that over the last decade, math scores in the United States have jumped considerably, while science scores have remained largely unchanged. The United States didn't top any of the rankings, but remains comfortably above average. Much of the math improvement came as a result of the stronger emphasis placed there by the Department of Education over the last several years. If there was a similar renewed focus on the sciences, there's no question the U.S. could work its way even farther up the ladder.

The United States is chock full of extraordinarily talented math and science students who will be at the forefront of their fields in only a few years. The Siemens Competition is where these great minds shine brightest. Though the press coverage surrounding the winners was much more muted, it shows that the sciences are still very strong in the country. The winners represented the cutting edge of nearly every scientific discipline from optics to genetics to algebra and beyond. The research done by these high school students is on par with some of our nation's best professionals.

Though some of this work seems intimidating, it's important to remember that discoveries can really be made by anyone. A fun example is a group of college undergrads in the Netherlands unexpectedly discovered an entire planet last week. They plugged a search program they crafted into the OGLE Database of stars, and were amazed to discover the tell tale signs of a massive planet orbiting one of them.

Discoveries like this can come from anywhere because today's students will be tomorrow's experts. The drive to explore and understand the world is fundamental not only in the United States but throughout the planet. The somewhat mixed results of the TIMSS report shouldn't necessarily be seen as a condemnation of American students or their school system, but as an opportunity to get involved and challenge them to achieve. Broadening the appeal of science in schools everywhere is critical to help bring the country into the 21st century.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Three...Two...One...One...Happy New Year!

December 31st will officially be one second longer than a normal day. A whole second! When will it end? The keepers of the national atomic clock just announced that they will be adding on an additional leap second to the last day of the year. Maybe it's just an excuse to keep their New Year's parties going as long as possible.

The atomic clock at the Naval Observatory in Washington DC is the official time keeper of the country. It works by measuring the frequency of microwave radiation emitted by the element cesium-133. This is the gold standard for clock accuracy (the cesium standard really) the whole country bases its measure of time off of it. The trouble is it's more accurate than the planet's rotation itself!

The revolving Earth is a pretty good time keeper, but because of the laws of motion, it isn't perfect. The planet is little by little slowing down, so every now and again the time keepers have to add a second to the atomic clock to keep everything synced. Starting in 1972 they've included a leap second every few years or so, most recently in 2005.

One second of variation may not seem like a lot, but to sensitive measurements for GPS systems and the like, it can make a world of difference.

Even though the official clock needs tweaking from time to time, it's hands down the most accurate way to see how much longer until The Tonight Show. Hundreds of systems sync up with the official time (likely your cell phone for one) and it may be possible one day to buy your very own atomic timepiece. Experts have been working on miniaturizing the massive atomic clock in the Naval Observatory to a system that could fit on your wrist. Of course, it may be years before Rolex has its own Cesium line, but the implications are tremendous. Atomic-age accuracy for cooking a three-minute egg is just the beginning.
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Monday, December 08, 2008

Not the End of the World as We Know It (I Still Feel Fine Though)

The fact that you're reading this sentence proves the world hasn't ended. That may sound obvious, but only a few months ago some scientists declared such a dire catastrophe was right around the corner. Doomsayers said that when the Large Hadron Collider switched on, it would create black holes that could engulf the Earth. When the LHC first started up in September, it was clear that the end of the world was not nigh. Unfortunately before scientists could really begin probing the mysteries of the universe, the enormous particle accelerator broke down.

Investigators into the September accident issued their final report on Friday, identifying exactly what went awry and how to fix it. It turns out that an unexpected buildup of helium gas damaged 53 of the accelerator's 1200 massive electromagnets. The report also recommended a better early warning system to prevent future accidents like this one. Unfortunately it will cost over $20 million to fix and remain out of commission until at least June.

The LHC uses these magnets to fire subatomic protons at nearly the speed of light around its 17-mile-long track. When the energetic protons collide with each other they reproduce on a very small scale the conditions of the universe moments after its creation in the Big Bang. These collisions should generate a variety of new elementary particles, hopefully including the elusive Higgs-Boson. Sometimes known as the "God Particle," the much sought after Higgs-Boson is thought to be responsible for giving all matter its mass, even though it has not yet been directly observed.

Fears about world devouring black holes are massively misplaced, literally. Any microscopic black holes created in the accelerator won't have enough mass to consume a speck of dirt, much less planet Earth. Plus they're so small they would evaporate out of existence immediately after being created. Planet destroying black holes, like the one at the center of our galaxy, are only powerful because they have the mass of a star much bigger than our sun compacted into a space smaller than an atom. The LHC won't be playing around with anything remotely that big so when it starts up again come summer, the world can still sleep soundly.
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Friday, December 05, 2008

My Favorite Physics Books

The holidays are fast approaching, and nothing makes a better present than a good book on physics. Just a taste of my favorites are:

The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick & Art Huffman
If you know someone who thinks a superconductor is the guy directing the National Symphony Orchestra, they need this book! It's by far, the most accessible and enjoyable introduction to the world of physics there is. But don't let its cartoony style fool you; it's as thorough and in-depth as any textbook, just much funnier.

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time & The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking
On its surface, advanced cosmology can seem denser than the stuff neutron stars are made of. Fortunately Steven Hawking wrote The Illustrated A Brief History of Time to effortlessly guide us through the chaos. This update to his runaway classic is a sumptuous visual tour of our strange universe of black holes, quantum mechanics and curved spacetime. His most recent book, The Universe in a Nutshell, picks up where his earlier work left off, explaining the latest on string theory and supergravity. I don't want to spoil the ending, so I'll just say that things get rather out of this world.

Classic Feynman ed by Ralph Leighton
A funny physicist? Surely I can't be serious. This collection of the irrepressible Richard Feynman's greatest hits runs the gamut from the comical to the technical and even the philosophical. Throughout this collection of his essays and anecdotes, he skillfully breaks up all the tech talk with hilarious accounts of his many adventures as the Manhattan Project's notorious "Safecracker." As a bonus, the hardcover comes with an audio CD of his funniest lecture to UCSB. "Lecture" may be the wrong word; "standup act" sounds about right.

Two-Fisted Science by Jim Ottaviani et al.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of physics are the discovery makers themselves. Two-Fisted Science is a unique comic book of short stories about the people behind the science. Spanning the ages from Galileo to Einstein to Feynman, we gain personal and political insights into the most interesting personalities in science history. Chapter three's imagined brawl between mathematicians Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over the invention of calculus is so off the wall, has to be seen to be believed.

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson
Does a team of America's leading nuclear scientists designing a giant interplanetary spaceship driven by exploding hydrogen bombs sound like science fiction? It really happened. During the early days of the Space Race, a lineup of former Manhattan Project scientists were certain they could reach Saturn by 1970. In a way it makes NASA's current Orion spacecraft, due to return to the moon in 12 years, sound quaint.

Let me know about any other gems I may have missed.
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Red Planet Return Rescheduled

NASA announced yesterday its upcoming mission to look for life on the Red Planet won't take off for another two years. Because of "testing and hardware challenges" the Mars Scientific Laboratory fell behind schedule and will miss its October 2009 launch date. The next time Mars will be close enough for launch won't be until the fall of 2011.

The car-sized rover is NASA's best chance yet to find evidence of Martian life, so I can't blame them for wanting to make sure everything works. They've invested $2 billion on the rover, an awful lot to gamble on any untested hardware. Especially considering how Mars missions have a terrible habit of going very wrong.

It's spooky, over half of all missions to the Red Planet have ended in failure. Some call it the "Mars Curse." In 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter accidentally crashed when mission control sent it orbital measurements using feet instead of meters. Oops! Four years later, the European Space Agency's lander, Beagle 2, disappeared behind the far side of the planet, never to be heard from again.

Even so, the successes outshine even the most troublesome failures. The twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been trucking around the planet's surface for nearly four years and are still going strong. Not bad for a pair of robots whose designers only expected to last three months.

To help prevent future delays, NASA announced it will team up with the Europeans and pool their resources for any upcoming Mars landings. One of the major goals now is to design a landing craft that can actually return a sample of Martian soil to Earth. Manned landings are still decades away, but each new mission brings us tantalizingly closer to people actually walking on Mars.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Powering the World Using Natural Motion

In the search for alternative energy sources, scientists are moving to harness the natural motion of air and water everywhere.

Take the promising field of piezoelectrics for example. When piezoelectric materials are jostled by something even as mild as a sound wave, they produce a small amount of electrical current. Experts think that with more development, they can use this energy to power hand held electronics without needing batteries.

Research into this phenomenon has been charging full speed ahead. Scientists at the University of Houston recently found that the electrical sweet spot producing the most efficient charge occurs when a piezoelectric filament is about 21 nanometers long. To put that into perspective, if you lined up 4,000 of these filaments next to each other, it would be about the width of a human hair.

The amount of power each filament produces isn't much, but since they're so small, a lot can be wired together inside a cell phone or laptop, no problem. Putting a series of them next to a phone's mouthpiece could power it by converting sound waves into electricity.

Self-powered phones may be years away, but technicians are working on harnessing a different kind of natural motion on a much grander scale.

The ocean is constantly flowing and churning, the perfect source for capturing large amounts of energy. Portugal already has a small power station that converts surface waves into electricity. A brand new design just released by and engineer at the University of Michigan, has long buoys swaying to and fro on the seabed, capturing the force of subtle underwater currents.

Neither of these watery power plants need anything more exotic than old fashioned electromagnetism to work. Much like a traditional power turbine, the swaying buoys induce electricity by moving a large magnet within a coil of wire.

Because water is constantly flowing all over the world, this kind of power source would be abundant and completely renewable
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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Unbreakable Quantum Encryption Cracked…Sort Of

The road to developing a perfect secret code has hit a small snag. Many experts believe that quantum mechanics is the key to completely secure communication. But a team of physicists now claims that it should be possible to intercept the super-secret messages without anyone knowing.

All you need is a properly tricked out 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 traveling 88 mph. Of course, a good old fashioned wormhole back in time works in a pinch.

Todd Brun has come up with a way for eavesdroppers to listen in on quantum coded messages using time travel.

Both traditional and quantum codes need the right translation key to decipher them. If the wrong key is used on a traditional code, the eavesdropper only has a garbled translation of the original message, and no one's the wiser. Using the wrong key on a quantum code actually changes the content of the original message.

The very act of reading a message written with quantum particles, like an electrons or photons, changes its outcome. Likewise, if a quantum code is measured using the wrong key, it will alter the enclosed message; alerting the sender someone has been listening in.

Brun says that if you were to garble a quantum message by sneaking a peek, all you need to do is travel back in time and undo any changes- which may be at least theoretically possible, according to some physicists. Sending the altered message to the past through a wormhole (or DeLorean) the message can interact with its earlier self and be restored to its original form.

"You might say it is a weakness of quantum cryptography," quantum algorithm developer Charles Bennett told Science News, "But if there were wormholes, people could go back in time and do worse feats of mischief than reading secret messages,"

He may have a point there.
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Physics is Cool

Greetings to all. The name's Quantum and I wanted to take a minute to introduce myself to the loyal readers of Physics Buzz out there.

Starting today I'll be the newest contributor here at Physics Central to help publicize the most buzz-worthy news of the physics world. Why am I so pumped to be able to sign on with the team?

Because physics is cool. Really cool.

Physics is one of the fields of study that is constantly changing and evolving. Scientists are always discovering new things from the astronomical to the quantum level. Each discovery brings us closer to a complete model of what is going on in the universe. Whatever this ultimate picture may turn out to be, one thing is for sure, science fact is already stranger than science fiction.

Sometimes physics is criticized for being too insular, too stodgy and completely incomprehensible for anyone without an advanced degree in rocket science. It's true that science can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Everything from switching on your TV to riding a bike is full of physics, concepts everyone can relate to.

It's exciting to be here in the middle of such a dynamic field. Being able to see both how physics affects our lives today and where it's going in the future is electrifying. You'll read here about the most interesting, cutting edge and earthshaking science stories all based on one simple premise:

Physics is cool.
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Monday, December 01, 2008

NASA and DOE Form Joint Dark Energy Mission

Tinged with a science fiction-esque name, the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) will be the first of its kind, solely focused on solving many of the puzzles surrounding the nature of dark energy.

Formed in a collaborative effort by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), JDEM will feature a space observatory designed to precisely measure the universe' s expansion rate and growth structure.

The data will help physicists understand dark energy; how it works and (most importantly) what it is. JDEM observations will also assist scientists trying to figure how galaxies form and acquire mass.

A few things are known about dark energy (although, excuse the pun, we remain mostly in the dark). Dark energy made a de facto appearance in 1998; startling astronomers who were expecting to calculate the rate at which the Universe's expansion is slowing down. Ironically, they discovered that the expansion of the Universe is actually accelerating and that dark energy is at the heart of the cause.

Since then, researchers have gathered that the Universe is made up of about 4% atoms, 22% unknown stuff (similarly termed "dark matter"), and the rest, 74% is expansion-accelerating stuff, what JDEM is interested in.

There are a few tricks for detecting the effects of dark energy. Tracking the growth of galaxy clusters by analyzing how gravity distorts light can tell astronomers a thing or two about the stuff's influence, as dark energy maintains a firm grasp on clusters while gravity makes them grow. Another method involves counting clusters at different times in the Universe's past, in order to mold together a sense of how much the Universe has burgeoned.

In the coming years, JDEM will make even more precise, space-based measurements that may transform our understanding of dark energy as merely "stuff", to something tangible- or at least definitive.
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