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Showing posts from August, 2009

Jim Sanborn: Nonfiction Artist

The cover of a recent issue of the avant-garde art magazine Esopus features a beautiful black-and-white image of a Crockroft–Walton generator , a familiar sight, perhaps, to deep nerds, especially those who grew up in the "age of the atom." This particular instance is from Japanese particle physics lab KEK , though the magazine also features old equipment from Fermilab . The generator was the workhorse of particle physics from the 1930s, when it was invented, into the 50s and 60s, creating the high voltages necessary to accelerate particles to high energies. In his essay accompanying the images, photographer Stanley Greenberg quotes Art Institute of Chicago art historian James Elkins : "Particle physics images can easily be taken as art, provided they are interpreted wholly in the light of nonscientific art-world criteria." With that in mind, Greenberg also includes actual bubble chamber film, the whimsically analogue "data storage mechanism" used

Shock Waves May Damage Soldiers' Brains

Photo courtesy of W.Moss, M.King, and E. Blackman When today's soldiers enter combat, they're better protected from explosions than the military personnel of any previous war. Ultra-strong helmets shield them from the flying shrapnel of homemade bombs; high-tech cushioning cradles their skulls during sudden impacts with the ground. But because modern soldiers are surviving explosions that would have taken the lives of Vietnam-era infantrymen, army hospitals are seeing a rise in a particularly painful war wound—traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI can range from a simple concussion to damage with long-term effects, including impaired cognitive abilities and even anxiety and depression. New research is helping to explain how those injuries come about, potentially pointing the way to helmet designs to reduce brain damage. Using code originally designed to simulate how a detonated weapon rattles a building or tank, physicists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Californ

Playing with Legos for Science's Sake

Physicist German Drazer drops a ball bearing into a Lego pegboard. (Will Kirk/JHU) WASHINGTON (ISNS) -- Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have developed an unorthodox method to study the behavior of microscopic nano-particles -- by playing with Legos. The team, led by physicists Joelle Frechette and German Drazer, built a grid out of round Lego blocks and immersed it in liquid glycerin to observe the paths of ball bearings they dropped into the construction. Though Lego blocks are many times larger than a nano-device, particles passing through the grid behave fundamentally the same way, the researchers said. By increasing the scale of the experiment from nano to Lego size, researchers are able to better visualize, describe and ultimately predict the behavior of the particles that normally are far too small to see. Many designs for nano-devices require the sorting of microscopic particles and ball bearings immersed in glycerin behave much the same way as nano-particles

What ever happened to Hven?

On a small island in Denmark in the 16th century, a scientific utopia once flourished. Happy farmers tilled the fields in the name of the knowledge and wisdom of their benevolent scientist-lord, who, his eyes constantly fixed on the stars, read the secrets of the heavens night after night. In this small, peaceful kingdom, science ruled, and all were happy. Well, not quite. Swap happy peasants for terrorized serfs and the benevolent scientist-lord for a drunken egomaniac, and you've got something like a picture of 16th century Hven, a small island in the finger of sea between Denmark and Sweden. In 1575, thanks to a decree by King Frederik, the island came under the sovereignty of one twenty-nine-year-old Tycho Brahe, and life on Hven started to get a whole lot stranger. Tycho Brahe is one of those historical figures that makes me think, "Gosh, they just don't really make astronomers the way they used to." Forget every documentary you've ever seen that included

A wizard, alive again on the web

The wild-haired, frequently sockless Albert Einstein may be the icon of 20th century physics, but there's perhaps no personality in physics more celebrated than Richard P. Feynman. Famously a bongo-player , safe-cracker, and straight-talker, Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project and shared a Nobel prize for discovering quantum electrodynamics, the quantum laws of electromagnetism. Near the end of his life, Feynman was part of the commission chosen by President Reagan to investigate the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger. During a televised public hearing, he used a C-clamp and plastic cup of ice water to demonstrate that the shuttle's rubber O-rings lost their flexibility at low temperatures. That was Feynman’s style: no-nonsense, unpretentious, engaging, and powerful. Feynman was a celebrated lecturer; these days you'd be hard-pressed to find a physicist's bookshelf without the three requisite cardinal-red volumes of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, tra

Physics and opera: a happier marriage than you might guess

I'd never expect to learn anything about physics from opera. Equally, I wouldn't expect an opera composer's work to have much to do with physics. Now two recent articles in SEED magazine have proven me to be sadly closed-minded to all that's made possible when you bring the two together . Harvard physicist Lisa Randall talks about Hypermusic Prologue, her first opera. Hypermusic Prologue isn't your average opera. There are no elaborate costumes or powdered wigs, and the plot is hyperreality, not high-brow romantic comedy. That's because the because the person responsible for the lyrics, Lisa Randall , is not your average opera librettist. She's a Harvard University physicist, a celebrated scientist who resides, by profession, on the fraying edges of what we know about the universe. She lives and breathes the p-branes and Anti de-Sitter space-time ; her playground requires a huge stretch of imagination for even very smart people to vaguely glimpse, m

For a Quick Exit, Just Block the Fire Door

Most fire codes require that the pathway to an emergency exit be kept wide open, but according to researchers in Japan, placing an obstruction next to an exit may actually help crowds of people to get out of a room more efficiently. Researchers found that when people bottleneck near an exit, they start to jostle each other for position. The jostling acts much like friction, slowing down the rate at which people can exit. Introducing a strategically-placed obstacle near the exit can reduce the number of people pushing for the exit, speeding up the rate at which people can pass through. "We found that we can evacuate faster if we put an obstacle at the suitable position in front of the exit," said Daichi Yanagisawa, who lead the study from the University of Tokyo in Japan. The researchers started their study by having large simulated crowds of people bottleneck around small exits, and then introduced obstacles that everyone would have to avoid in order to reach the exit.

Taking the measure of measurements

The holy kilogram, under its three bell jars at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures If there's anything one can depend on in this changing world, it's physical units. The kilogram, meter, and second have stood me in good stead since elementary school. But according to an NPR report on the radio this morning, the tried-and-true kilogram may be changing. That's because it's defined as the mass of an actual lump of metal, guarded by the high priests of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. Before continuing, I recommend you listen to the report (it runs about five minutes. You can also read the written story at NPR . To quote Brumfiel's article: As it stands, the entire world's system of measurement hinges on the cylinder. If it is dropped, scratched or otherwise defaced, it would cause a global problem. "If somebody sneezed on that kilogram standard, all the weights in the world would be instantly wrong," says Richard Steiner

Goddard Part 2: Bigger and bigger

WFPC 3 shaking in its boots, awaiting cosmic radiation in the bowels of the Space Environment Simulator. Yesterday I blogged about seeing the Hubble Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, which, after astronauts replaced it with the WFPC3, came home with the Atlantis shuttle in May. But there's a lot more to the building it's in, which has the predictably unfathomable name "the Integration and Test Facility." Built during the space race, the I&T is a palace of wonders . Our guide, Aleya, works on education and public outreach for the Solar Dynamics Observatory . She's used to taking legions of kids through the facility, talking about possible careers—NASA employs seamstresses as well as rocket scientists—and filling them with facts about the facility's impressive array of, well, tools, for lack of a better word. Take the Space Envinronment Simulator: Goddard's Space Environment Simulator. Its crown scrapes the 30-foot ceiling of the I&T facility; t

Goddard Part 1: Paying respects to an old explorer

The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. Seeing the Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 last week is like visiting an old and venerable explorer just back from a long and exhausting expedition. The camera, which flew back from orbit this May in the payload of the Atlantis Shuttle, was sitting in a spacious, stark-white clean room on the campus of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center . Although it weighs 610 pounds—NASA writers often compare it to a baby grand piano—it was dwarfed by giant chunks of the space shuttle's payload, including the circular catching mechanism that grasped the telescope. Pieces from Atlantis's payload that cradled new instruments and caught Hubble. If I could look inside the camera—unfortunately, a healthy layer of cleanroom glass separates me from it—I'd see four tiny mirrors, each the size of a nickel. These mirrors were replaced in the WFPC2 ("whiff-pick two," for the cool kids) before it was flown up to Hubble in 1993, taking

Astronomy: now with more cursing

Most of us think of Science as a generally dignified enterprise. You plan your procedure meticulously, set up your instrument, conduct your experiment methodically and calmly, then write up the results. You don't shout and curse as your precious telescope bangs into the truck that's carrying it as you try to launch it into the sky. Right? The above clip, from last Thursday's episode of the Colbert Report, contains footage from BLAST, a documentary by filmmaker Paul Devlin . Devlin didn't look far for the subject of his film--the story follows the daily life of his brother, Mark Devlin, the guest in the above clip. Which meant traveling to Arctic Sweden, Canadian polar-bear country, and, finally, Antarctica. Based on where his work has taken him, you might guess that Mark is an explorer. In a way, he is. He's an experimental cosmologist at the University of Pennsylvani a, and he's trying to figure out what the universe looked like just after it was born.

The other Hans Christian

Everyone's heard of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author of classic children's stories like "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling." But if you were wondering about the significance of today's Google logo , you probably don't know that today is the 232nd birthday of another Hans Christian, a physicist who changed the way we see electricity and magnetism. Hans Christian Ørsted didn't pen any fairy tales, although he was a contemporary of Andersen, who fell in love with Ørsted's daughter for a period. But he did work in a field that mystified most people in the 19th century. One evening in 1820, Ørsted was preparing a lecture for his class at the University of Copenhagen when he noticed something unusual. As he set up a demonstration with a live wire, he saw that the needle of a compass that happened to be sitting on his work table jumped away from north, tugged by an invisible force. Then Ørsted knew: electricity and magneti

The secret lives of magnetic fields

Snap, crackle, pop. The world is alive with invisible magnetic field lines. Take a length of wire with a current running through it; it generates a magnetic field that curls around the wire, but we can't see it. Magnetic Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo . Video artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who work under the moniker Semiconductor , shot footage of empty lab space at UC Berkeley's Space Science Laboratory. Then they brought the inanimate objects to life, painting in the vivacious spaghetti of magnetic field lines coming off the unassuming electronics. The pair, who hail from London, spent four months "researching and experimenting" at the northern California lab, which tackles a smorgasbord of space physics topics , from the search for extra terrestrial intelligence to solar flares. One might say that the scientists were "researching and experimenting," and that the artists were watching. Or one might say that Semiconductor's appropriation

Eye candy: Perseids, parks and going ultra deep

Not sure how to spend your evening? Don't have a favorite Wednesday night television show? Then follow this simple recipe: 1. Find blanket. 2. Go outside. 3. Place blanket on ground. 4. Lie down on blanket. 5. Look at sky. 6. Repeat step 5. Include bug spray, friends, and telescopes to taste. Although the show started last night, tonight you can catch the grand finale of the biggest heavenly event of the summer: the Perseid meteor shower. As earth travels in the Swift-Tuttle comet's dusty wake, the night sky reveals us caught in a fire storm of ice-bound dust sizzling in our atmosphere. We call these "shooting stars" the Perseids because they seem to emanate from the constellation Perseus, named after the hero from Greek mythology who slew Medusa. Look for them streaking out from the northeast part of the sky near a Y-shaped constellation. According to a late report from National Geographic , the Perseids are even showier this year because of a distant friend i

A is for Atom: a conversation with 'nerd artist' Tiffany Ard

Visit Tiffany Ard's Web site , and you'll see ABC and number cards for babies, a children's book, and nursery prints, all rendered in the beautiful, whimsical watercolors you might expect from a children's artist. But within seconds of browsing the site, you'll realize there is something very, very strange going on here. In Tiffany Ard's world, "a" is for atom and "m" is for Mandelbrot fractal set . Counting starts at zero and pauses between three and four to include pi. Her children's book, titled "Pat Schrodinger's Kitty," includes a page showing Enrico Ferm i holding hands with Paul Dirac , and invites the precocious young reader to "try to interact with neutrinos." "I have a really weird sense of humor," Ard says. Her tongue-in-cheek products for "nerdy babies" take the parenting obsession with educational products like Baby Genius and Baby Einstein "to its logical extreme,"