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Showing posts from February, 2009

Fermi Problem Friday

Fermi Problem Friday Movies movies movies. Movies are fun. You sit back, relax and entertainment erupts right before your eyes. That reminds me, the new Jonas Brothers movie is coming out soon. Oh how I digress. Anyhow, you often feel hungry or sleepy during the film. Hunger is your body's way of telling you that the tummy meter is running on empty. And sleepy is the result of insufficient fuel in the tummy tank. Movies theaters know this about your body and that is why they offer a variety of delicious items: everything from popcorn to Swedish Fish. You don't want to be caught snoring by the significant friend/person next to you. This brings us to our Fermi Problem: How much energy do you get from digesting one piece of popcorn. Assuming you went for all the buttery yummyness. And how many pieces does it take to give you enough energy for the duration of the film. Assume it's not the Jonas Brothers. That might take more. Popcorn being as expensive as it is at theaters an

Bottle Rocket

What you're seeing below isn't the Coca-Cola Company's latest marketing gimmick but may very well be the next generation of spacecraft propulsion . This contraption, made from a glass bottle surrounded by an aluminum can demonstrates how easy a plasma propulsion system could be made. The rocket engine works when nitrogen is pumped through a quartz tube (a glass coke bottle stands in here) and magnets surrounding a metal antenna (the coke can). Inside the tube the magnets and antenna emit radio frequency energies , charging the gas into plasma and the magnetic fields guide it out the back of the engine for thrust. This is called the VASIMR effect. The kicker is the engine is 10 times more efficient than normal rocket engines, because they generate 10 times as much propulsion per weight of fuel. In addition, the nitrogen used here is much cheaper and easier to handle than normal rocket fuel. Already some space probes have used similar processes. NASA's Deep Space

The Best Science Writing

The votes have been tallied and the results are in! Right on the heels of the Oscars, the American Institute for Physics announced the Awards for Best Science Writing this year. Does the idea of a top secret team of physicists hired by the Defense Department, the Department of Energy and the intelligence services in order to solve the government's biggest problems sounds like science fiction? Believe it or not, it's true and it's the subject of the Journalism category winner this year. Ann Finkbeiner's book "The Jasons" chronicles the secret meetings held every year by the nation's smartest minds on everything from nuclear weapons to climate change. A revolution in physics was afoot in 1932, just before the dawn of the nuclear age, and the first glimmers of quantum mechanics . In Copenhagen a new younger generation of physicists met and outlined the foundations of the new quantum theory. Gino Segre's book "Faust in Copenhagen," winner of

How'd They Do That Tuesday: Bow and Arrows

It's said that Robin Hood once split an arrow clean in half and William Tell shot an apple from off the top of his son's head. If these feats of marksmanship don't impress you, than check some of these guys out. Archery has been around since the Stone Age, and is chock full of physics. You may ask: How'd They Do That!? The short answer is: "Years of practice." The slightly longer answer is: "Physics, and years of practice." A bow works the same way a spring does. The moment you start pulling back on a bowstring, potential energy is stored in the flexing limbs of the bow. The instant you let go of the string, all of the stored energy is transferred instantly into the arrow , sending it flying down range. This is why it’s very dangerous to pull back and let go of a bow when with no arrow, called a "dry fire." The energy your arm transferred into the bow has no place to escape to, and stays in the bow itself. Arrows fly pretty fast

Unlocking the Secrets of the Superconductor

High temperature superconductors are a "hot item" of study these days, and scientists at the Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Fribourg have recently announced that they are one step closer to understanding how it all works. When electricity travels through a metal (or "conducts") there is always some resistance in the material that converts a portion of the electricity to unusable heat. The less resistance the less energy lost. However when temperatures get mighty cold, within a couple of degrees above absolute zero , materials tend to lose all of their resistance. Electricity is able to flow through these materials without losing any of their energy, hence the term " superconductor ." Certain copper based materials have been found to superconduct at much higher temperatures (though still only as high as a frosty -130 degrees C), but the reasons behind it have baffled scientists for decades. Last year a whole new breed of high tempe

Physics Across America

Spring break season is fast approaching which means one thing. ROAD TRIP!!! Never fear because physics is everywhere you go. Remember that when you . . . Try something new in Experiment Georgia Hurry to Speed Kansas Recharge in Energy Illinois Get electrified in Kilowatt California It may shock you to learn that there's a Volt Montana I bet you can't resist going to Ohm California Definitely take a look through Telescope Pennsylvania Just don't get too steamed in Boiling Point California Blast off to Mars Pennsylvania, Jupiter North Carolina, Saturn Texas or Pluto West Virginia Are you feeling pulled to Gravity Pennsylvania Catch some rays in Gamma Missouri Don't get caught up too long in Vortex Kentucky What have you heard about Echo Utah I've always felt pulled to Magnet Georgia It can get pretty intense in Bright Star Alabama Connect the dots in Constellation Arizona I hope you don't feel too pressured in Gas City Indiana Families can bond i

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, It's Off to Jupiter We Go!

I have to say, I'm a little disappointed by NASA's announcement yesterday about its next big space venture. The American space agency and its European counterpart will team up for a joint mission to Jupiter , the largest planet, and its moons. Each agency will each launch their own satellite in 2020 to reach the fifth planet by 2026, where they'll split up the observations of the planet and moons. I'm thrilled that we're going back to Jupiter. Of all of the planets in the solar system to visit, Jupiter has so many features that are begging for closer study. The diverse moons around the planet make up its own miniature solar system. Starting out, the largest one, Ganymede , is bigger than the planet Mercury , and thought to have a liquid water ocean miles below its surface. Just as tantalizing for life is Europa , which may also have a liquid oceans miles below its cracked surface of ice. Though unlikely for life, Io is the most geologically active body in the solar

Gentlemen, Start Your Accelerators!

Yeee-Ha! What we have here is a good old physics challenge on our hands! The problems plaguing Cern's Large Hadron Collider may cost it the coveted prize of discovering the elusive Higgs Boson . Last week at the annual AAAS meeting , Fermilab's Tevatron director Pier Oddone said that there was between a 50 and 96 percent chance of discovering the so called "God particle" before the end of the year. It's the showdown of the supercolliders ! The Higgs boson is the theorized elementary particle that gives matter its mass. So far no one has directly observed it, because the only way to "see" it is to slam two heavy particles together at nearly the speed of light and carefully comb through the wreckage. So far no particle accelerator has been powerful enough to see it, but they've been getting close. The LHC should have no problem seeing the little bosons when operating at full speed, but it'll be out of commission for quite a while still. Last fal

How'd They Do That Tuesday: Compasses

The old phrase "opposites attract" gets tossed around a lot around Valentines Day, which got me thinking about forces. Electromagnetism is the original inspiration for the term, what with positive charges attracting negative charges, and north poles attracting south poles and the like. I then figured what a good idea for Tuesday! Believe it or not, we're all walking on the surface of a gigantic magnet. Compasses work because planet Earth itself is encased by its own magnetic field . A magnetic field is created by a moving electrical charge. Electrons buzzing around an atom's nucleus each create a very small magnetic field, which is usually canceled out by a nearby atom. However in certain metals like iron and nickel, huge numbers of these electrons can line up and create a large scale magnetic field. That's how a typical compass needle is magnetized, but how about planet Earth itself? The wild thing is scientists are not entirely certain what exactly causes it.

Roses are Infrared, Ultraviolets are Blue . . .

Valentine's Day is nearly upon us and the folks over at Ironic Sans put together a great collection of scientist Valentines cards. Cards are great, but my favorite things about this holiday (aside from the 75% off candy sales the next day) are the " NECCO Sweetheart " candies that make their appearance only once a year. Over the years I must have seen every last phrase on those little wafer candies, which is why I though it would be a good idea to come up with some new ones. ENJOY! Got some good ones of your own? Post 'em!

HEY! I'm Orbiting Here!

UPDATED: Math corrected from yesterday’s typos, see note at the bottom under “comments.” Also the Colorado based Center for Space Standards & Innovation put out a great simulation of the crash, you can see the video here . UPDATED UPDATE: Well, looks like I wasn't the only one to goof on the collision math at first. Kablammo! Like something out of a Bruce Willis movie, an American and a Russian satellite collided about 800 km above Siberia. The two blew apart into hundreds of pieces after smacking into each other at over 28,000 km per hour. It must've been one heck of a demolition derby up there. Even though there are over 17,000 man-made objects over 10 cm in orbit, this is the first time two satellites have accidentally collided. Two years ago China intentionally shot one of theirs out of the sky. NORAD is constantally tracking all satellites in the skies, so they can predict when the big ones are going to hit. We're interested in the odds of a random crash and it

Capricorn Investments LLC ?

This economic downturn is making people do some pretty crazy things. All across the world, retail sales are slumping, banks are failing and people are losing their houses. However one slim section of the economy that is actually booming amidst this whole mess are the astrologers and psychics of the world. This does not bode well. No joke; while the economy is falling apart all around us, people are looking the motions of planets and stars for financial advice. A recent CNN story reported that astrologists and psychics have been seeing more business, mostly from people seeking financial advice. Statistics following psychic business are a bit hard to come by, it seems no one bothers to track the industry to carefully. However numerous professional psychics have reported giving out a lot more advice on mergers and acquisitions. It's not just in the United States either. In Austria an entire insurance company wants to only hire managers and salesmen born under certain astrological si

How'd They Do That Tuesday: Lagrange Points

Putting together yesterday's post about planet hunting and intergalactic civilizations got me thinking about some of the ideas for colonizing space right here in our own solar system. One of the more outlandish ideas out there is to fly space stations to colonize the Lagrange Points around Earth. In other words: Home, Home on Lagrange. Sorry I couldn't resist. But in all seriousness, what are these points all about? Lagrange points are wonderful features of orbital mechanics . They're five points around the orbit between the Earth and the Sun where a satellite can park itself and remain the same relative spot. No thrusters needed, no orbital corrections, a spaceship can just relax and let gravity do all the work. These spots (labeled L1-L5) move along with Earth around its orbit, so though they don't say fixed in space, they stay fixed along Earth’s orbit. The first point, L1, is easy enough to understand. It's the point exactly between the Earth and sun whe

Life, the Universe, and Exoplanets

Planets outside our solar system are a hot item these days. Last year the first photos of "exoplanets" were taken. Just last week scientists announced they discovered the smallest exoplanet yet , coming in at just two times the size of Earth, while the week before scientists were even able to predict the weather on one over 190 light years away. The forecast; Sunny with highs over 2200 degrees, lows around 900 or so. In late December 2006, the European Space Agency launched their COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits satellite, dubbed COROT . Its primary mission: Find planets outside of our solar system. It's already discovered at numerous planets orbiting far away stars, and its mission has really only begun. NASA's own satellite, called Kepler , is getting ready for launch in early March that will look for small rocky planets like earth. COROT finds these planets by carefully observing the light emitted from stars. It focuses on a region of the sky for days

Focused on a Fuzzy Galaxy

The European Space Agency just released this spectacular image of the galaxy NGC 4921 in the Coma cluster of galaxies. The detail is really jaw dropping especially considering the galaxy is over 320 million light years away. The image is actually stitched together from about 80 photos of both visible and infrared light taken by the Hubble Space Telescope . NGC 4921 is a spiral galaxy , but as you can see in the photos, its arms are clouded and indistinct. This is because of its crowded neighborhood. Galactic clusters can be volatile places, jostling and colliding galaxies into each other. Spiral galaxies tend to have a tough time in these active environs and the fact that NGC 4921 was able to hold onto its spiral shape at all is pretty remarkable. Phil Plait at the Bad Astronomy blog has a great write up about this latest addition to Hubble's remarkable portfolio. My favorite part of the image is the dozens of other galaxies hanging out in the background. The Coma cluster is a s

Beanie Bosons

I found my Higgs boson ! He was behind the couch the whole time. No not the theorized subatomic particle that gives matter its mass, the gray plush toy from Particle Zoo . This little guy is adorable, and he's got a whole menagerie of brother and sister particles. The whole gang's there, everyone from the regulars like electrons , neutrons and protons , exotics like neutrinos and positrons , and even theoreticals and hypotheticals like gravitons , tachyons and my own little Higgs boson. Every particle (and anti-particle) from the standard model of physics is available and adorable. Julie Peasley started making her line of plush particles in 2007. After attending a lecture at UCLA, inspiration hit and she started her line of subatomic stuffed toys. She makes all of them by hand in her Las Angeles studio. Peasley has really put a lot of care in to making each plushie. The best part is how each little guy gives a good idea of what small particles are like. Every plushie comes

This is What a Bad Idea Sounds Like

The University of Idaho is facing a sever budget shortfall and will likely have to trim down some of its offered majors . The administration drew up a list of 41 different academic programs that could be axed, and among them is the physics major. Should the cut go through, the Dean of the College of Science Scott Wood said that he wanted the physics department to focus more on research than teaching. What?! University research is important to be sure, but just as important is training the next generation of physicists. The more people out investigating the fundamentals of the universe, the more likely revolutionary discoveries will be made and utilized. Not to mention, I find it hard to imagine that the university would even be able to keep its place as a cutting edge research facility if it doesn't have a physics major to encourage enrollment. Technology is already central to modern society, and is only going to be more integrated into every day life as time goes on. Some of t

How'd They Do That Tuesday: Rockets

The small family of space faring nations just got a little larger. Iran for the first time launched a small communications satellite into orbit, joining the ranks of the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel and India. But how does a rocket really work you might ask. Well that's what Tuesdays are all about. Newton's first law of motion tells us that in order to get an object moving, we need to exert a force on it. As you can probably tell, thousands of tons of space craft takes a whole lot of force to get moving. That's why when you look at the diagram of a rocket ; the vast majority of it is actually fuel tanks. When the fuel is ignited in the rockets engine, its stored up chemical energy is converted into a lot of mechanical energy that pushes the rocket forward. It's not difficult at all to figure out how much of a push is needed to move a rocket forward. Newton’s second law tells us that Force equals Mass times Acceleration (F=MA). In o

Pigskin Physics

Give me an "F!" Give me an "=!" Give me an "M!" Give me an "A!" What’s that spell!? Newton's Second Law!! Force! Inertia! Momentum! Rah Rah Rah! Alright, so chances of that particular cheer erupting at your Super Bowl party last night were probably pretty slim. But physics is everywhere and the big game is absolutely chock full of it. This article in Saturday's New York Times speculates what Isaac Newton might have to say if he were in the announcer's booth for the Super Bowl. A body in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force, like a defensive tackle. Believe it or not, a really hard football tackle, like the one by Fitzgerald and Breaston trying to stop Harrison in the second quarter, packs more of a punch than a space shuttle launch. "The best hitters accelerate at the last instant. That final jolt of speed allows them to apply a bigger force to their victim," Professor Timothy Gay of the Univers