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Showing posts from May, 2009

Eclipsing Newton

I can't believe I almost let it pass me by, but today is the 90th anniversary of the most ground breaking experiment of the 20th century . On this day in 1919 Arthur Eddington observed the solar eclipse that would ultimately revolutionize our understanding of the universe. A huge part of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is how gravity itself warps the fabric of space-time itself. According to his then brand new theory, a ray of light passing near a massive object will bend around the object. The classic illustration of this is a heavy bowling ball suspended on a flexible rubber sheet. All around the bowling ball, the sheet bends in because of its mass. Now picture a small marble rolling across the sheet, its path taking it near to the bowling ball. It will curve in where the sheet is bent, deflecting its otherwise straight course. Eddington, with the backing of the Royal Astronomical Society, set out to test this theory and embarked on an expedition to the island of P

Press Release About News Media Blindly Parroting Press Releases Blindly Parroted by News Media

Right now science journalism is facing many problems , mostly stemming from an industry being hit with a tough double whammy of approaching obsolescence and the acute market downturn. Across the country numerous science journalism staffs are being cut to save costs, leading to a decline in quality, leading to a decline in readership, leading to a decline in subscription and ad revenues, requiring more cost cutting…and so on. It's a vicious cycle. The sure sign of this decline in quality of the mainstream press are journalists taking press releases about a new discovery and rewriting it, hyping it out of proportion. A recent study was conducted by the Annals of Internal Medicine took a look at this phenomenon in the medical world and found this to be a huge problem. Press releases put out by a university will hype a discovery, which will in turn be taken by journalists unfamiliar with covering science, and be hyped further. It's not just in the medical sciences that are run


Experimentation is the essence of science. Checking fact against theory is truly what makes science great. Sometimes though either the theory hasn't evolved far enough to predict everything, or there's too many variables to accurately predict the result. But you really really want to see what happens, so you go and do it any way. I like to call this the "poke it with a stick and see what happens" scientific method. Such is the tale of the Starfish Prime nuclear test in 1962. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the darkest days of the cold war, the military was testing nuclear weapons all the time. After leaving the old proofing grounds in Nevada , the military started testing them on small islands far out in the Pacific Ocean . After a while the military started itching to see what might happen if they detonated some of these nukes in space. megaton nuclear bomb to a Thor rocket , blasted it into space and pressed "detonate" when it reached 250

Easy as α β γ ?

Sometimes there are two sides to a story. For a long time one of my favorite fun physics stories is about the famous " Alphabetical Paper " of 1948. The brilliant young PhD student Ralph Alpher working with his advisor George Gamow were about to publish a major work about the origins of the elements after the Big Bang. In a burst of inspiration, Gamow invited the physicist Hans Bethe to include his name on the paper, even though he had not contributed to it at all. That way the paper would have been authored by Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, a play on the first three letters of the Greek alphabet alpha, beta, and gamma. It was a delightful pun, and their one page paper serendipitously ran in the April 1st issue of Physical Review Letters . The theory itself was groundbreaking, and helped establish the groundwork for proving the universe began in a proverbial " Big Bang ." The paper argued that if the universe began as a thick soup composed of hydrogen atoms, they would s

Hubble's fix'n for an upgrade.

NASA Shuttle Mission STS-125 is currently performing spacewalks to repair and replace cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope. You can watch it live on NASA TV . Thanks to the internets you don't need one of those old school humongous satellite dishes to watch NASA TV (like when I was a kid). On the average day, highlights from NASA TV will include watching people milling around mission control and drinking their coffee. However, the current repair mission includes 5 spacewalks. The crew concluded the first walk today and plans to conduct one a day for the next four days. Watching some of today's spacewalk really gave me a sense of how life in space is much different from the movies. The first thing I noticed is that astronauts don't actually move in slow motion. This sounds strange and obvious but just watch and see how your astronaut intuition is skewed. Secondly, astronauts are people too. Even though the space walk missions are thoroughly planned, there are always dif

Highlights from the Mile High City

Last weekend over 1250.0 physicists from around the world converged onto the mile high city of Denver Colorado. Some of the greatest minds in the field converged not for the city's legendary buffalo burgers, but the annual April Meeting of the American Physical Society. Ironically it was held this year in May. Maybe some physicists are just more concerned with answering the big questions about black holes and the universe than the difference between months of the year. Anywho, this year's meeting featured many talks on topics ranging from quantum gravity to arms control to philosophy. Here's just the first part of some of the highlights from the Mile High City. The physicists were easy to spot roaming around Denver because of their name tags. Many students presented their work at the meeting during the poster sessions. Here we see a physicist asking a student why there is not a yellow box around a particular equation. While many physicists at the meeting were pres