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Showing posts from June, 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 trust…

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, …

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 Sc…

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 te…

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 publ…

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 quanti…

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.

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 centu…

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 hig…

"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.

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,…

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 conn…

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 SP…

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…

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 th…

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".

Bubbles+Rings= Toroidal Funtime!

Bubbles!
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 …

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.

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

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 pers…

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…