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Showing posts from December, 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, …


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 …

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.


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 t…

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 limite…

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 Hold…

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.

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

A group of k…

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 fl…

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 aft…

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, pollu…

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 th…

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&#…

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&…

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. …

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. S…

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 un…

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, Th…

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 Agenc…

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. Puttin…

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 qu…

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. Everythin…

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…