Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Guest Post: Coriolis Fail

This is a guest post by astropixie, one of our intrepid SPS interns, who contributes to the educational physics site Physics To Go

When I was sixteen, I visited Australia. The first thing I did once I checked into the hotel was fill up the sink in the bathroom, throw a gum wrapper on the surface, and drain the water, watching to see which direction the wrapper would spiral downward. If it went counter-clockwise, everything I learned from public school and television would be vindicated. If not, I intended to blame the shape of the sink and continue to live in my fantasy world—a world where the turn of the Earth affects the water in my sink but curiously disregards almost everything else in my daily life.

Those familiar with the Coriolis force will know that I was a moron in high school (and can rightfully wonder what I am doing writing for a physics blog today). But it is not my fault. For some reason, my eighth grade science teacher told us with certainty that this experiment was trustworthy and repeatable. As we huddled around the sink and watched the water swirl the opposite direction from what we expected, she told us that the sink needs to be a perfect circle. Otherwise the sides will cause interference. How convenient.

I'm the new Physics To Go intern, and I'm obviously a giant nerd if the first thing I did when I got to Australia was attempt a doomed physics experiment. As you might gather from the first half of my screen name, astropixie, I'm obsessed with astronomy, so I'm majoring in physics in college. The second half of my screen name comes from an obsession with fairies, which comes from an obsession with Shakespeare. Yes. That's right. I'm also an English major. Stop giving your screen that weird look—it's actually a useful skill set for my new position. Physics To Go is a collection of physics resources as well as a biweekly magazine—every two weeks the homepage features new outstanding webpages from the collection, grouped around a certain topic in physics. I help maintain Physics To Go by looking for and cataloging informative sites to post on the homepage. My internship is awesome. And I realized my internship was awesome after looking into the Coriolis force for a new homepage.

One upcoming homepage will be on the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ (pronounced "itch"), an interesting weather region near the equator which is caused largely by the Coriolis force. While the turn of the Earth won't prod sink water one way or the other, it does affect the direction of trade winds in the northern and southern hemispheres. When these different patterns meet in the middle, it creates a belt of turbulent weather.

Anyway, looking at all these websites about "fictitious" forces made me relive my folly. I had many concepts in my head exactly backward or at least seriously confused for far too long. I finally feel like those mysterious terms at the end of equations from dynamics class have been resolved in my head thanks to these sites on the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force, which I would never have found if I weren't putting together a page on the Intertropical Convergence Zone. (Be sure to see how you can pretend to demonstrate the Coriolis effect with the sink "experiment" from Bad Coriolis if you’re sinister like that.)

Now you know why my internship is awesome: I'm learning new things while helping others learn, too. Right now I’m working on multiple homepages at once: the ITCZ page, a page on quasicrystalline patterns found in Islamic mosque art, a page on atmospheric scattering, and I just finished a homepage about the Crab Nebula, which is on the site now. It doesn't get any better than that.

(By the way, my results in Australia were inconclusive. The gum wrapper kind of spun sadly in place before coming to a soggy rest by the drain. I couldn’t tell which direction the water was going without something floating on it. I didn't have any more gum to run more trials. Soap bubbles went everywhere with no trend. And don't ask why I never tried to do the "experiment" on my own in the northern hemisphere. It only occurred to me to try it in Australia.)

By astropixie

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Monday, June 29, 2009

A day at the International Submarine Races

Last weekend, travelers at a rest stop in Minnesota became alarmed when a group of college kids pulled up in a U-haul truck, carefully unloaded a large, sleek object from the back, and set to work on it with power tools. About the length of a person, it was painted white and resembled a torpedo. Fearing the worst, someone called the police.

"They thought it was a bomb," said Alan Orthmann, a junior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Washington. As a cop car pulled up to the rest stop with sirens blaring, Orthmann and his classmates had the unusual task of explaining to the police that the object wasn't a weapon at all. It was a human-powered submarine, on its way from Seattle to the 10th International Submarine Races outside of Bethesda, Maryland, and it wasn't quite finished.

For the last two weeks between finals and the cross-country trip to the competition, the team had done nothing, said rising junior Kees Beemster Leverenz, besides eat, sleep, and work on the fiberglass vessel.
"We've been going on about 4 hours of sleep," he said. "This week we've been bringing [the sub] out of the base every night to work on it."

When I caught up with the team on the last day of the race, held for the 7th time at the Carderock Naval Surface Warfare Center, they were the sort of cheerful that comes from being very, very tired. Their submarine, the Beluga, was propped on a carpenter's horse, and the team was waiting for the glue to dry on some buoyancy foam before they could give the vessel another shot in the water.
"We've all spent way too much time together," Orthmann added. What keeps the team from going nuts in each other's company? A steady supply of energy drinks, burritos, and laughter. "If we're in a bad mood, we know it's time to eat," he said.

The scene around them was like a very bizarre tail-gate. Trailers, trucks, tents and subs from twenty-three universities (and one high school) from across the US and as far away as Mexico, Canada, the UK, and Venezuela crowded a parking lot. Volunteers barbecued hot dogs while competitors traded power tools, advice, and friendly banter; several teams were performing last-minute repairs on their home-made subs. Meanwhile, in the eerie greenish water and half-light of the Tow Pool, wetsuit-clad students readied their vessels for the timed race.

When you see how small and sleek the submarines are, it seems incredible that anyone can fit inside. The pilot, clad also in a wet suit and equipped with scuba gear, places his or her oxygen tank in the fiberglass belly of the submarine, then lies prone on top of it. With his or her head in the submarine's pointed nose, feet clipped into bicycle pedals that drive the vessel's propeller, and hands gripping the rudder control and the release bar of an emergency buoy, pilot and sub sink several feet below the surface and the hull fills with water.
"Stay with the boat at all times, and don't panic," advises Nate Leibolt, a 16-year-old high school student who occasionally pedals the Scuba Doo, a creation by a local team of high school students, college kids, and Carderock civilian employees. "It's not hard to pilot, and really fun."

Usually used by researchers to test scale models of Navy ships, the 20-foot-deep Tow Pool had been rigged into a submarine race track. A "speed trap" wired to a poolside mission control captured the subs' top speeds just as they're nearing the 100-meter finish line, and Navy divers waited at the end to wrangle the vessels to a stop. The joke is that pilots who can evade the Navy divers win a special award (none did). Competitors in dry clothes or wet suits still dripping from a recent dunk perched along the pool's edge, while teachers, parents, and volunteers rushed about.
"It's 1 pm and I've eaten part of my sandwich, so that's a really good day," joked Kurt Yankaskas, a Navy ship designer and five-time submarine racing judge. He told me his son and daughter were in the pool, operating the underwater cameras; the competition shows live video of the racing subs on large screens. "The most rewarding part is seeing the kids progress and be successful," he said. "Their siblings here, and we've lit the spark in some of them, too."

One of the most successful teams was Florida Atlantic University, who held a narrow lead with a top speed of 6.298 knots, or a little more than 7 miles an hour. Charlotte George, an ocean engineering student who had helped create the fins on the Talon 1, told me about the physics of the subs. The torque from the propeller causes a cylindrical hull to roll slightly, but fins and a slightly non-cylindrical body keep it from tilting too much. Additionally, George said, "We want as little drag as possible. We have a vinyl sticker on our hull, and if it's bunched up even a tiny bit we cut it so it's flat. It's like a swimmer shaving their legs to get that little bit of speed." A purely horizontal sub also helps; an upward or downward tilt increases the surface area cutting through the water. This all depends on getting the buoyancy just right.

"The more neutral [the sub is] the easier it is to control it," George said. By counteracting the pilot's buoyant wet suit with weights, and the weight of the submarine with buoyancy foam, the team achieved a ship that stayed wherever they placed it in the water. But Bath University was having a harder time; air exhaled by their pilot was getting trapped in top of the hull, causing Sulis, named after the Celtic god of the sea, to float to the surface nose-first. So far the team had been unable to complete the 100-meter-long course, so they borrowed a drill from the
University of Washington team to make air holes.

"This is all very experimental," said Gavin Bishop, a rising senior majoring in mechanical engineering at Bath. But the seat-of-the-pants fix, the culmination of more than a thousand man-hours of design and construction, won them last-minute success; on their final run they were able to clear the course.

"It's been stressful, because we've taken time out of our studies to do this," said Alessandro Dos Santos of the University Simon Bolivar team, who had journeyed all the way from Venezuela to compete. Their sub, which hadn't passed the initial safety tests all week, cleared the course in the last few hours of the competition. They weren't going to win, but they had succeeded. "I like to get my hands dirty," he said. "I don't care if I don't sleep or eat, I'm having fun and doing what I like."

Update: Congratulations to students from Florida's Springstead High School for snagging the first prize in overall performance for their sub, Sublime. For full results of the races, visit the official International Submarine Races website.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

The day I met an astronaut

Okay, I admit it. When I found out that I was standing just a few feet away from Megan McArthur, late of the Hubble repair mission, I freaked out just a little bit. That's the awesome thing about astronauts—they're perhaps the only scientists who have the same effect on people as celebrities do.

Despite the fact that she was being assailed by space fans and eager interviewers, Megan was calm, down-to-earth, and happy to talk to whoever came up to her, whether it was a college kid, a reporter from CBS, or this humble blogger. It's like NASA screens their astronauts for niceness and poise in social situations.

Megan told me that she was first inspired to be an astronaut when she heard a speech by fellow astronaut Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space.

"She told me you have to pick something that you love to do and do it well," Megan said. For her, that was oceanography. After majoring in aerospace engineering at UCLA, she earned her Ph.D. at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and stayed on as a research scientist. While leading sea-floor expeditions and volunteering at the Scripps aquarium, "I kept the idea alive," she said. She applied to join NASA in 2000. As Sullivan had predicted, Megan's passion for her work made her stand out from the crowd of applicants.

On the recent mission to upgrade the Hubble, Megan's first journey, she logged 13 days in space. "We were so well-prepared that everything was very similar to the simulations," she said. "Except looking at the earth go by." She also emphasized that the mission's success depended on hundreds of engineers who had two feet firmly stuck to Earth. "When things didn't go exactly as planned, the team in space and the team on the ground found the solution," she said.

I had to ask Megan if she was scared during the no-turning-back moment of blast-off. "When we were sitting in the launch pad, no one was feeling fear," she said, even when the warning siren blared through the shuttle cabin, announcing that a piece of equipment had shorted out. Rather than panic, the astronauts calmly got to work fixing the problem. "We had trained so much, we were just focused."

The most important trait an astronaut must have? Neither fortitude, nor bravery, nor even space-welding skills, Megan said, are as crucial as "the ability to be a good team member. No one person can do this alone."

Her advice to aspiring astronauts? The same advice Kathy Sullivan gave her sixteen years ago. She pointed out that NASA hires scientists and engineers, oceanographers and astrophysicists and doctors, but they all have one thing in common—passion. "Figure out what you love to do," she said. "You'll never be really good at it if you don't love it."

So where exactly am I casually bumping into space explorers? Stay tuned for Monday's post to find out.

In the photo: Intrepid SPS intern Leslie Watkins hangs with space rock star/really nice person Megan McArthur.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

To go green, you need (private) green

Yesterday about a hundred people—reporters from Fortune and the New York Times, Environmental Protection Agency suits and employees of green non-profits, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists—crowded into one of the ballrooms of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. In the hotel's main conference room, a much better-attended conference for business executives was taking place. But in Ballroom A, the flash of expensive suits was offset by a certain feeling of virtuousness. Sure, the people were there to make money, but they were also out to change the world.

It was the press conference for the Gigaton Throwdown, a project started 18 months ago by cleantech venture capitalist Sunil Paul with support from the Clinton Global Initiative. A team of academics and consultants compiled a 140-page report analyzing what it's going to take to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 9 billion tons (or 9 gigatons) by the year 2020. The authors analyzed nine key clean energy technologies: biofuels, building efficiency, concentrating solar power, construction materials, geothermal power, nuclear power, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, solar photovoltaics, and wind power. They asked this question: in ten years, can we scale up these technologies to provide more than half of the world's demand for energy, each reducing the equivalent of one gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions?

The answer, they found, is yes, at least for 8 of these 9 techs. (Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles fell by the roadside, since scaling up would require that every new car manufactured in the next ten years be a hybrid.) The authors argued that transforming the viable 8 from fringe energy providers to major players "could add 5 million direct jobs to the global economy, strengthen energy security by reducing dependence on foreign oil, and abate more than the total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions currently projected to be necessary for 2020 climate stabilization goals."

Good news, eh? You, like me, probably thought we were already doomed, what with the Maldives disappearing under the rising water line and climate-change-induced mass migrations already beginning. But the picture isn't entirely rosy.

While the audience oohed over a PowerPoint graph of new jobs created by gigaton-scale cleantech, a sweeping upward rainbow, a battle was—and still is—raging nearby on Capitol Hill. Tomorrow, Congress will vote on what might be the most influential climate-change legislation we've seen Waxman-Markey Bill. Toothless it may be, compared to what we need to top out carbon dioxide concentrations at the IPCC's projected "maybe-we-won't-be-totally-doomed" 450 parts per million. (Secretary of Energy Steven Chu thinks we'll overshoot that, if we're lucky, by 100 ppm.) But the bill will introduce a cap-and-trade system in an attempt to rein in carbon emissions, and provide funding for research into clean technology. It's a step forward.

While the Gigaton Throwdown is firmly in favor of Waxman-Markey, it does not hug trees; neither does it eat granola. In a way, it's shrewder and more realistic than most green campaigns I've seen. The most vocal panelists were Silicon Valley venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, and their point was clear: if we want clean energy technologies to increase in that broad, hope-inducing rainbow, private investment must triple by 2020. And the biggest obstacle in the way, Paul said, is policy.

According to Paul, 8 trillion dollars of investments are sitting on the sidelines, "waiting for the appropriate market signal," he said. "Right now the rules of the game are designed for fossil fuel industry."

Case in point: shrinking gas prices might seem like the recession's silver lining, but they're only hurting the chances of clean energy sources that are more expensive up front. "The price we pay does not take into account the harm fossil fuels do," Paul said. He also cited how the on-again, off-again production tax credit has crippled the American wind power industry. As Josh Green puts it in his article in theAtlantic:

Plotted on a graph, the history of clean-energy production in the United States resembles the blade of a saw, rising and falling each time subsidies came and went. Japan, Germany, Spain, and Denmark show smooth, upward-sloping yield curves, a reflection of consistent government policy.
Martin Lagod, managing director and co-founder of Firelake Capital Management, made this very point. "Uncertainty can be lethal," he said. "We won't invest if we can't see a way to compete without subsidies."

Will Coleman, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Mohr Davidow Ventures, pointed out that investment works on a 10 to 20 year time frame; policies that change with a new president or Congress can yank the rug from under budding companies. And this big green bus isn't going anywhere if it's not profitable.

"This project puts out a sense of the capital needed," Coleman said. "You have to get private investment involved."

Well, the businessmen have spoken. Stay tuned for tomorrow's vote.

[Image courtesy of Gigaton Throwdown/Drew Wisniewski.]
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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Connecting People with Science

Attention all aspiring bloggers and writers.

Have you ever gazed transfixed at the intricate crystal of a snowflake and thought about its molecular structure. When you look up to the stars, do you start picturing immense orbs of hydrogen gas burning trillions of miles away? Do you ever think about the net forces acting on your bicycle while you pedal around town? Do you have a love of science that you just have to share with the world?

You're not alone! Science is fascinating and everywhere you look and something you just can't keep to yourself. But spreading the word and getting people to listen about the amazements of science can be hard.

It's ironic that today's society hinges on science and technology, but at the same time much of the public feels woefully disconnected it. Yesterday the National Academies held their annual communications fair with speakers from a huge variety of scientific and communication fields, who all work to help bridge that gap between the public and science. The speakers' backgrounds ranged from a political consultant to a Hollywood film writer and the head of the Exploratorium in San Francisco among others.

The talks were illuminating. What was really interesting was how even though the backgrounds of the speakers differed greatly; everyone had basically the same message: In order to make people interested and care about science, you have to make it relevant to their lives somehow. This includes more than just tacking a sentence one the end of an article about how the latest discovery could be used to cure a disease or make computers faster.

Kelly Stoetzel, producer of the hugely popular TED Talks, said simply, "What we really encourage our speakers to do is to tell a story or make it personal."

James Kakalios, a physicist from the University of Minnesota and author of The Physics of Superheroes said that starting out with something people are familiar with is a great way to help get people engaged. "When people are eating their superhero ice cream sundaes, sneak in some science spinach."

In fact one whole panel of the event was devoted to science in the movies. Moderated by Airplane director Jerry Zucker who is also a member of the newly founded Science and Entertainment Exchange, the speakers all talked about bringing in a more positive portrayal of science into Hollywood.

"We really had to do something to turn things around…to create more positive images for science," Zucker said, "We're trying to have more positive images of science in film."

The way science is portrayed in film has a tremendous effect. Ann Simon, the science consultant for the TV show The X-Files, said that Agent Dana Scully in the show has been a tremendous influence on many of her students.

"She used science to get at the truth…she wanted real evidence," Simon said, "They were portraying scientists in a positive light and I hadn't seen it before."

People connected with Agent Scully, because she was something so new. Studies have shown that when asked to picture a scientist, people most commonly conjure up images of workaholic, socially inept, nerdy male loners, exactly what the character of Agent Scully was not. People could connect to her character and be inspired in ways that just aren’t possible with Jerry Lewis's absent minded professor.

The next time you read or see a story about science that really moves or inspires or interests you, stop for a second and ask yourself "why?" What was it you connected with in whatever you just experienced?

One of my all time favorite books is First Light by Richard Preston. It's the true story of teams of astronomers who study the skies at the Palomar Telescope in California. It's an oldie but a goodie. What really sets the book apart is Preston really gets to know each and every astronomer he meets. He talks about their discoveries, but also their motivation, their drive, why they do what they do. He also writes about their odd habits, their quirks and their personal stories. As readers we get to see the scientists as real people and by the end of the book, I feel like I've met every one of them.

So that's how I connected with my favorite science book. Post what some of your favorite science stories are, and what you connected with in them.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The (Non)persistence of Memory: Part II

Yesterday I talked about a storage device that could, in theory, preserve data for a billion years. Making somewhat of a bigger splash in the news is the cover of the latest issue of literary rag Opium. Haven't heard of it? Not surprising, unless you frequent independent bookshops with exhaustive edgy litmag selections, but you may soon. The cover for issue 8 has garnered attention from Wired, Gizmodo, UK newspaper the Independent, and even NBC, and has turned into a sort of twitter meme. At first glance, though, it's not clear why:

"TIME" in faint blue letters? Is that really worthy of such a flurry in the internets? Only time will tell—it's the first word of a nine-word story that takes a millennium to read.

How does the clever cover work? Opium's website explains:

The cover for issue 8 is printed in a double layer of black ink. The overlayer is screened back for the nine words, making the letters fractionally more vulnerable to ultra-violet light. The quantity of ink for each word is different, so the words will appear one at a time, when exposed to sunlight, over the next thousand years.
But will it last? Paper itself is remarkably endurable: the world's oldest printed book, a copy of the Diamond Sutra in the British Library, is well over a thousand years old and still in good condition. If you're planning on buying a copy, be sure to keep it on a clean, dry windowsill. You should probably store the instructions on the care of your magazine on a long-lasting hard drive when they do finally hit the market.

In a way, the thousand-year-long story is the bizarro, art-world twin of the ultra-enduring storage device. The cover is the brainchild of Jonathon Keats, a conceptual artist who's caused a stir over the years with his unusual projects, all related to or inspired by science. He's painted radio telescope data, tried to engineer God in a petri dish, and copyrighted his brain. The hard drive preserves today for all eternity, but Keats's story, which attempts to span a dozen lifetimes with a fragile medium, works in reverse. It epitomizes the future's inaccessibility; only via the slow passage of time will it reveal itself.

Unless, of course, an inquiring mind in possession of a high-intensity UV light source decides to give in to curiosity. Not quite as elegant a solution as immortality, but probably effective. I can't decide whether that would be the perfect response to Keats's infuriatingly elusive artwork, or if it would spoil all the fun.

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Metamaterial Masquerade

Optical cloaking is a potential application of metamaterials that's gotten lots of attention lately, and is almost always mentioned in the same breath with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. But what if you prefer a shapeshifted disguise over outright invisibility?

Now there's a metamaterial solution for you too. APS Physics this week features a synopsis of recent research into a potentially viable shapeshifting application of metamaterials.

The article is a synopsis of a paper published yesterday in Physical Review Letters. Oddly enough, Sirius Black is not listed as one of the authors.
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Monday, June 22, 2009

The (Non)persistence of Memory: Part I

In my daily trawl of the internets, two items caught my eye because of how strange and wonderful they were. One comes from the realm of contemporary art, and the other from the realm of physics, but they're remarkably similar. Both have to do with time, and lots of it, so I thought they were worthy of two blog posts. I'll start with the physics.

Ever wonder how future civilizations are going to know about our world? So much of what we say and do is recorded digitally via mediums that become obsolete at an alarming rate. (This website suggests creative uses for old VHS tapes.) On the other hand, the people who carved these symbols on tortoise shells had the right idea—simple and low-tech, with a life span of 8,000 years and counting.

The downside, of course, to these tried and true methods is that you can't fit that much cuneiform on a stone tablet. On the other hand, terabyte drives are affordable and compact. But unlike Mesopotamian tablets, Egyptian papyri, and 10th century bibles, today's hard drives won't stand the test of time. Not only are they physically fragile, you can't guarantee that someone will be able to read them in thirty years, not to mention a thousand. Check out this chilling article from Popular Science on the archival challenges posed by the digital age That's why I'm having my favorite emails carved onto marble slabs.

Luckily for the archaeologists of the future, physicist Alex Zettl and his colleagues at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National lab have devised a remarkably simple solution. That not only beats out affordable terabyte drives for data storage density but also, he claims, could preserve data for up to a billion years. Beat that, ancient Sumerians!

The idea is remarkably low-tech, except it's based on those little guys that always seem to make the news—carbon nanotubes. The basic idea is take a one-atom-layer of graphite—the stuff in your no 2 pencil—and wrap it into a cylinder. The resulting tube is less than a 1/50,000 the diameter of a human hair, but can stretch for several millimeters.

Back to our billion-egarian hard drive. To create a bit, Zettle and colleagues inserted an iron nanocrystal into a tube. An electric current causes the speck to shuttle to one end of the tube ("1") or the other ("0"). C arbon nanotubes are some of the most resilient materials in the world, and Zettl says theoretical models show that the little nanocrystal , once placed, will stay put for "in excess of a billion years." These oddly mechanical bits are so tiny, Wired writes, that "you could store data from nearly 25 DVDs in the space of a postage stamp." In contrast, says the LBNL press release, the carvings at the ancient Egyptian temple of karnak store about 2 bits per square inch.

Measuring the resistance of the tube reveals whether the electromechanical bit is a 1 or a 0. So as long as our descendants know about electromagnetism and binary, our data should be accessible to posterity. Great idea, but I can imagine additional difficulties; archaeologists will need a device that quickly reads the resistance of Zettl's drive, and software that converts the binary to my facebook status from June 22, 2040 ("Hanging out with my grandchildren on my yacht. So glad I decided to move to Greenland before global warming really set in.") So far Zettl and company have looked at theoretical models and created individual bits, not an entire hard drive, but the physicist says a working device could be feasible in a couple of years. Authors at Wired and ScienceNow reporting on the advance tellingly complained that they didn't realize their tweets and facebook wall messages were going to last so long.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which a contemporary artist takes on the short story format with a little help from physics.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

You may now use Newton's Third Law to kiss the bride

Here's the scene: the bride's wearing a futuristic wedding dress, a celebrity minister is performing the rites, and a small group of queasy-looking family members and friends are in attendance. Where are we, a Las Vegas rent-a-chapel? No, we're aboard G-FORCE ONE, the only commercial microgravity aircraft, and it's the world's first "weightless" wedding.

Tomorrow about 24,000 feet in the air above Cape Canaveral, Florida, Erin Finnegan and Noah Fulmor will tie the knot in the presence of seven guests and space tourist Richard Garriott while experiencing free-fall on the "Vomit Comet." Cake will not be served.

There have been some great posts on this blog in the past on the many misconceptions people have about experiencing weightlessness. No, astronauts at the International Space Station don't float because they're far from the surface of the earth; gravity's influence on them is only reduced by about five percent. So simply flying high in a plane won't get you there either. For that hair-streaming, Apollo-13 thrill you're going to need several thousand dollars and a whole lot of free-fall.

In order to deliver that floating feeling, the vomit comet (reminds me of a car I once had) takes a parabolic trajectory--think a roller coaster ride with lots of drops. The plane pulls into a steep, 45 degree climb, during which the force on the happy couple and guests will be a teeth-gritting 1.8 gs, then reduces thrust before tipping downward to achieve 20-30 seconds of free-fall out of every 65 seconds. During this time feel free to tumble around, chase your champagne around the cabin, and suppress a second visit from your breakfast. (I hope they decide to film it, because the kiss is going to be hilarious.) Then the plane gently levels out before climbing again. Here's a very scientific video exploring the effects of weightlessness on a teddy bear:

And if you don't have 5 Gs just lying around, NASA provides opportunities for students to experience microgravity on board their own vomit comet in the name of science. This excellent video by Rochester Institute of Technology chronicles the adventures of a team of college students who set out to find if printers work in zero-g:

Wait a sec, wait a sec: if free-fall is all you need to feel like you're floating in space, why didn't the astronautics-crazed couple don't just have an ordinary sky-diving wedding?Unless they planned to sky-dive from the stratosphere, all that air rushing by would definitely exert a force on the lovers, ruining the sensation of weightlessness.

The good news is, there's a cheap, easy way for the average joe to simulate the lives of Mir cosmonauts, which we can see illustrated below:

That's the high-tech method NASA doctors use to decide the long-term affects of extraterrestrial environments on the human body. Human guinea pigs (they're paid 160 bucks a day) at NASA’s Human Test Subject Facility in Galveston, Texas lie at on a hospital bed tilted at 9.5 degrees for six days at a time, so that the force along the length of your body is about 1/6 your weight (your mass times gravity), or the force you'd feel if you were standing on the moon. I see a market for simulated lunar weddings.

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"You know, Mr. Secretary, some people prefer golf."

In between arguing for climate change legislation and being profiled in Rolling Stone, Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu is somehow finding time for his first love: physics. This week's issue of Physical Review Letters includes a paper on atom interferometry authored by Chu and colleagues at UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (where Chu served as director), and Stanford. Atom interferometry uses matter-light interactions to make incredibly precise measurements, with applications in everything from airplane navigation systems to detecting the ripples in space-time predicted by general relativity.

Awesome hobby, Secretary Chu. I only hope the other Secretaries don't make fun of you for being a geek.
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

So you want to be a wizard?

Hogwarts acceptance letter lost in the owl post? Never fear! Consider, instead, a career in condensed matter physics and materials science!

Particle physics boasts the most terror-inspiring experiments and astronomy has the prettiest pictures, but the branch of physics that best fulfills Arthur C. Clarke's oft-quoted statement that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" has got to be condensed matter physics. A condensed matter physicist once told me that his field was a lot like cooking—depending on what ingredients, and how much of them, you throw into the pot, you can get really different results. To put his statement in more concrete terms, swap "pot" for the experimental setup below:

But he's absolutely right. Also known as materials science, this field focuses on the truly weird behavior you can get from just the right ingredients: superconductivity, massless electrons, bendy electronics, and, one of my favorites, orange, Gak-esque gel that goes rigid when hit. You can also thank condensed-matter physicists for your computer and your sweet new flat-panel LCD. Worried about the future of renewable energy? Condensed matter physicists are hot on the trail of super-efficient solar panels and materials for hydrogen storage.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Solar panels are all very nice, but where's my invisibility cloak?" Don't worry, they're working on that too. New Scientist reports the latest advance toward Hogwarts-tech: a carpet that hides bumps. Thanks to a material that reflects light evenly instead of casting a shadow, nobody will bat an eye at that mysterious lump in the rug. (I leave possible applications to your imagination.)

On the topic of "magic" fabrics, Popular Science announces something I would never have thought up: camera pants! Sort of. Researchers have fabricated threads embedded with fiber-optic sensors that would transmit what they "see" back to a computer, creating an image. If R&D goes forward on this one, I might actually become interested in knitting.
And that's just today's news, folks; there's a whole lot more out there to learn about. For a great roundup of some of the weird and wonderful things materials scientists are exploring, click on the hilariously posed photo below! And remember, if you've ever wanted to work with magic, consider a career in physics.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Justify Your Existence

It's tough being a scientist. You work incredibly hard in relative obscurity, only a handful of people understand what you do, and your job is often at the mercy of the nation's waxing and waning enthusiasm for science. Physicists especially must constantly defend why they do what they do; knowledge for its own sake is a harder sell than the promise of a new energy-saving technology or cure for a deadly disease.

A few months ago I was interviewing a chemist about his research on oxidation states of sulfur in biological molecules. With a slightly embarrassed smile, I asked him why his research was important. Before going on to explain how oxidation states might play a role in the onset of Alzheimer's disease and cancer, he said that, for the most part, the point of his research was to increase our understanding of how stuff works. It concerned him, he said, that the public seemed to find this kind of justification insufficient; in the meantime, he's learned to draw connections between seemingly insignificant research topics, like oxidized sulfur, to big picture issues people can grasp and care about.

Fundamental research—the quest for a deeper understanding of the universe—has resulted in all sorts of useful things, from the World Wide Web to cellular phones. But there's rarely (never?) a clear path from A to B. The fundamental physics research of today will certainly have a hand in the technologies we rely on in the future, but there's no predicting how or when.

So I was happy to stumble upon (thanks, uncountable!) this great essay in Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, by University of Toronto physics grad student Lindsay LeBlanc. LeBlanc studies the behavior of extremely cold atoms, and she does physics, she says, for the sheer beauty of it. Which, incidentally, is a much more modest stance than claiming you're going to single-handedly solve the energy crisis or cure cancer. The essay's also a lovely peek into the mind of a researcher, and I think achieves her aim:

Like an artist, I want to share this beauty with others. I want them to know what it is to see through my eyes.
The photo included in this post shows part of her group's experimental set-up. Physics really is beautiful!

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On a Roll!

I don't think any sane person would set a group of third graders loose with an inclined plane and a bowling ball, but sometimes we do crazy things in the name of science. So last Thursday, that's exactly what a group of SPS interns did at a Virginia elementary school. Armed with a inclined plane made from plywood and soda bottles, canned food, PVC pipe, marbles, and of course, a bowling ball, a group of intrepid interns set out to teach a class full of 9-year-old students the principles behind one of Galileo Galilei's perhaps lesser known experiments.

Probably best known for his work in astronomy and run-in with the Catholic Church, Galileo made other discoveries in the 16th and 17th century that trip up physics students even today. For instance, he discovered that the speed at which two objects fall does not depend on their weight (but don’t forget about air resistance!), and that the period of a pendulum depends only on its length, not its mass or height of release.

The SPS inclined plane experiment wasn't exactly like Galileo's. Third graders are a little too excitable to keep time using their heartbeat, and I don't think they had Pepsi cans in the 1600s. The lesson became more of a competition, where the students raced different objects and tested their intuitive knowledge of moment of inertia. But in the true spirit of science, research was done, discoveries were made, and everyone had a great time. I think Galileo would have been proud.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Warning: don't try this at home

Whether it's their irresistibly British accents or refreshingly non-snore-inducing physics coverage, the Guardian's "Science Weekly" podcast is an entertaining roundup of the week's science stories. The team is currently on vacation (or holiday, one should say) until July, and in the meantime they're airing special episodes, each focused on a single topic. In Sunday's pod, intrepid host Alok Jha interviews string theorist, pop science author, and futurist Michio Kaku about his latest book, The Physics of the Impossible. Kaku explains how close today's scientists are to accomplishing science-fiction-worthy feats like invisibility, teleportation, and force fields—closer than you'd think, it turns out. But Kaku brushes an equally jaw-dropping topic toward the end of the interview:

"When I was in high school I did two experiments. One was to create anti-matter and photograph anti-matter when I was about sixteen years old. The next year I wanted to make my own source of anti-matter. . .so I decided to build a 2.3 million electron-volt Betatron particle accelerator."

A seventeen-year-old building a particle accelerator in his parents' garage? Talk about the physics of the impossible! The necessary ingredients for such a project include a highly evacuated environment (an air molecule is as much an obstacle to a flying particle as a brick wall is to a bus) and an extremely powerful magnetic field (to accelerate and steer). So the determined teenager scavenged parts from local electronics warehouses, and put his parents to work helping him wind 22 miles of wire into coils capable of producing magnetic fields so strong "they would rip the fillings out of your teeth if you got too close," as he puts it. (For a more in-depth description, see the first chapter of one of Kaku's earlier books, Hyperspace.)

As some of you might already know, a trio of New York wunderkinds are following in Kaku's footsteps. Known as the Cyclotron Kids, they're currently hard at work (with help and parts from Jefferson Lab in Virginia), creating their very own particle accelerator. I'm still exploring all there is to see on Physics Central, and was excited to stumble upon this video of the Kids, from early this year. For anyone looking for some light bedtime reading, take a glance at their project description.

Particle accelerators don't have to be the 27-kilometer-long behemoths we're used to hearing about on the news. In fact, if you don't happen to own one of them new-fangled flat-screen monitors, you might be face-to-face with one right now! The bulky boxes of less-up-to-date TVs or computer monitors house mini particle accelerators, or cathode ray tubes (the most mellifluous three-word phrase in the English language, perhaps). TVs usually have three cathodes, or pieces of metal give off electrons when heated; much, much smaller versions of Kaku's giant coils accelerate the electrons and "paint" them rapidly across the monitor's screen. The screen is coated with phosphor, which lights up when the electrons hit it, and presto—glorious, mind-numbing television! Thanks, physics! So whether it's the half-built betatron in your neighbor's basement or the beloved "tube" to which you're glued, these amazing things are all around. Which leaves me wondering: does anyone know of other incognito particle accelerators among us?

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Monday, June 15, 2009

I'm new here...

Hello readers! This is Scappuccino, the newest member of the Physics Buzz blog team. A short biography: after studying physics and creative writing at USC (the one with the football team), I decided to put those skills to good use as a waitress in a cafe in Scotland. Fast forward 8 months—I had gained ten pounds (all that leftover rhubarb pie has to go somewhere, you know), I couldn't stop calling people "hon," and perfecting my cappuccino foam wasn't quite enough physics action for me. So I returned to the US, pressed my nose to the proverbial grindstone, and ended up at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, talking with real, live physicists about their latest research and writing it up for the lab's communications office. Now I'm thrilled to join the folks at APS as a science writing intern and contributor to this blog.

"Scappuccino?" you ask? A two-fold salute to my coffee-schlepping days and particle physics. According to supersymmetry, if there were a particle called a cappuccino, and it were a boson, it would have a force-carrying sister particle, which would be called a scappuccino. (If my fictional cappuccino were a fermion, its supersymmetric particle would be called a cappuccinino, but that would just be silly.) For a playful primer on the naming of sparticles, check out this poem by Cornell professor Philip Tanedo.

P.S. For anyone wondering, the "SLAC" in SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory used to stand for "Stanford Linear Accelerator Center." Now it doesn't strictly stand for anything, except, perhaps, the laboratory's tendency to generate acronyms. Newbies are greeted with a home-made acronym dictionary and an encouraging smile.

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Toybox Physics Viewers Choice Poll!

Stop staring at that pigeon...

...and vote for your favorite ToyBox Physics video. Voting ends at 11:59:59.99 pm on Tuesday the 16th (that's tomorrow if you are reading this today or today if you are reading this tomorrow).
We've picked our favorite video for the contest and now it's time for you to tell us your favorite. We will announce both winners simultaneously (WRT our local reference frame)!

*WRT is physics talk for "with respect to".
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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bubbles+Rings= Toroidal Funtime!

It's summer time. That means it's time to run around on the grass or in the swimming pool -because everyone knows that there is nothing better on a summer day than running around with your friends on the grass in your bare feet screaming "Kinetic Theory of Inert Dilute Plasmas! Ra! Ra! Ra!" (or whatever thems kids are sayn' now a days)

Pssst, why does it say bubbles up there?

That's because while you run around screaming nonsense, you could also have some fun with physics. The physics of bubbles! It's a battle between surface tension and pressure. But all in all bubbles operate on a fundamental principle: laziness. Bubbles form which ever shape minimizes their surface area. This is usually a sphere until something forces them to have a little fun. However, Plateau, Lagrange et al. demonstrated where the real bubble fun is happening (psst, click on happening to see where the real fun is).

Weather you are out in the yard, in the pool or in a low Earth orbit, there are some great ways you can play with bubbles. For a lesson in bubble fun, watch these instructional videos that we found on the internets:

And finally, try cooling off with some cold dry icy bubbles:

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Why I Do Outreach

Hello fellow physics enthusiasts:

This is me, from about a month ago, graduating from NC State University with physics and applied math degrees.

Now I'm working as an intern in the APS outreach department, and this is my first blog post.


You love physics, and you want everyone else to feel the same way you do but… Kenneth Ball explains it best in his Technician article:

I'll meet someone new and we'll start chatting. "Hey, what's your major?" they'll ask.

"I do physics," I'll respond.

"Oh man, I feel for sorry for you. I hate physics," they'll respond, trying to sympathize as they casually defecate on my interests.

Hey guys, it's OK. I hate what you do, too. Whatever it is, I hate it just because I don't understand it. I hope that makes you feel better about yourself.

This is why I love outreach. It turns out people don’t hate physics at all, it’s just that some people hate physics class. I have never met a single person that doesn’t think liquid nitrogen is awesome. The demo coordinator at NC State told me that the point of outreach is not to lecture- it's to get people excited enough about science to ask their own questions. I try to keep this in mind in hopes that I can make physics as fun as possible for as many people as possible.

These pictures are from Family Science Night at Washington GT Elementary, something I did every year in college. Teachers are more than happy to let you take over their classes for a little while, and the kids think you're magic, so it’s an all around rewarding experience.
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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The science cafe is coming for you!

After spending a whole day listening to a lectures at school or meetings at work, the last thing you probably want to do is attend a science lecture during your precious free time. Well think again. Science lectures in the evenings at cafes and bars is a huge phenomenon that is becoming the biggest thing since the invention of 80's night. Who would have thought that school after school would be as much fun as whitewashing a fence (which is what I do in my free time)? A friend of Nikola Tesla once wrote: "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of of whatever a body is not obliged to do."

The phenomenon is called Cafe Scientifique or Science Cafe depending on how sophisticated you want to sound. One could argue that its origins trace back to the Vienna Circle or possibly even earlier with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle arguing at Starbucks which was the most fundamental form: rock, paper, or scissors.

Today a science cafe is a monthly event hosted by a local cafe or bar that features two or three lectures on science. According to the ScienceCafes.org

"A science café's casual meeting place, plain language, and inclusive conversation create a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for people with no science background.

Each meeting is organized around an interesting topic of conversation. A scientist gives a brief presentation and sometimes shows a short video clip to kick off the discussion. You can leave a café meeting when you want, but you'll miss out if you show up late."

Science Cafes are taking over the country and growing more popular each month. They have been covered in the media, from the NY Times to the Tucson Citizen. For instance, an event called Nerdnite started in small bar in New York City and shortly after reaching the pinnacle of nerdyness by featuring a lecture on the different sizes of infinity, it was forced to move to a larger space. Nerdnite now sells t-shirts and charges admission. They even run a nerd speed dating event before the lectures to help the socially challenged break the ice. It is commonly remarked that an extroverted physicist will occasionally look at someone else's shoes rather than their own. Nerdnite has since toured across the country. I should mention that it technically got its start in Boston (kind of like Babe Ruth). So look for Nerdnite coming to a town near you.

Similar to Nerdnite is an event called Dorkbot. This science cafe usually involves artists or engineers showing off their lastest inventions. Typically these inventions involve electricity and ingenuity. In fact the Dorkbot slogan is "people doing strange things with electricity". There are literally Dorkbots all over the the world. They are taking over!!! Even if you live on a remote island, the Dorbot will find you... it is now self aware.

Now what if you happen to live somewhere far from civilazation where the Dorkbot or Nerdnite will never find you? Some where like Tucson, AZ for instance. Then start your own science cafe! Go to your local cafe owner and say: "Hello local cafe owner. My name is ----- and I happen to notice everyone cringing and pulling out their ipods during the last open mic night. How about I start a science cafe night?" It's that easy. The sciencecafes.org website even has section on starting your own. So go on and start your own!

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