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Showing posts from September, 2009

Orange juice, and fundamental physics, a la Rube

It's one of the most vivid memories of my high school years. I'm dozing on my kitchen floor, surrounded by a debris of screwdrivers, scrap wood, ball bearings, nails, old cardboard boxes, springs, wood glue, wire hangers, and lots of duct tape. My dad nudges me in the side with his slippered foot. "It's three o'clock in the morning," he says. My cheek is squashed against the cool tile floor. I crack an eye open and see my nemesis: the golf ball that, in just a few hours, I'm supposed to somehow raise six feet in the air, in ten steps, for my physics final project.

Whom did I have to blame for my predicament? Not my physics teacher exactly, but rather a famous American cartoonist who never forgot the strange contraptions he saw in his engineering classes at UC Berkeley. After graduating in 1904, the engineer soon traded in his slide rule for a cartoonist's pen, but his training inspired his most beloved cartoons and even earned him a spot in the dicti…

The Best Approach for Avoiding Zombies

WASHINGTON -- When Woody Harrelson escapes the living dead in "Zombieland", a new movie opening this Friday, should he head for the hills or the mall? A recently published research paper suggests that he's probably better off hiding in the mall to save his delicious brain.
The world is full of things that move in zombie-like fashion, such as particles flowing through a turbulent fluid or the unpredictable price changes of the stock market, so physicists seek insight into this behavior by creating so called "random walking" models.

Physicist Davide Cassi at the Università di Parma in Italy looked at how long an entity hiding in a complex structure could survive if being pursued by predatory random walkers. Cassi's paper, recently published in the journal Physical Review E, is the first to describe a general principle of a prey’s likelihood to survive over time while hiding in an irregular structure.

Though the paper itself does not specifically refer to flee…

Are Nobels predictable?

School has started and Halloween is around the corner, which can only mean one thing—it's Nobel season. On Tuesday, October 6, the Nobel committee will be announcing this year's Nobel laureates in physics at a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. In the hours beforehand, a handful of physicists around the world will be tossing and turning in their beds or frantically checking their cell phone's reception while giving that day's lecture, wondering if they're about to get the "magic call", just minutes before the public announcement, telling them they've won the Nobel prize.

The "magic call" has been notorious for catching previous winners unawares, asleep, out shopping, and down at the pub. But the Nobel prize committee is always eerily successful in reaching their target, in a way that's reminiscent of, well, magic. Richard Ernst, for instance, was on a plane from Moscow to New York when the captain c…

Weekend television: The Secret Life of Scientists

Nanoscientist Rich Robinson on The Secret Life of Scientists
A child-prodigy medical researcher who loves to run. An engineer who practices back-flips in his spare time. A nanoscientist who takes soul-searching photographs.

These are a few of the scientists profiled so far on the new NOVA Web series, "The Secret Life of Scientists." NOVA explores the different facets of each scientist's life, including their passions, their research, their experiences, and their opinions. The videos are short and minimalistic, and there are no hosts or voice-overs, keeping the viewer's attention on what the individual has to say.

Every two weeks, the Secret Life team puts a new scientist under the microscope. When a scientist is profiled, viewers have a chance to submit questions and, after a couple of weeks, get some honest answers.

The team's just getting started, but they already have a couple of great videos in the can. The idea behind it reminds me vaguely of a certain US …

Adaptive optics: not high-tech, just humanitarian

Physicist Josh Silver's specs may look retro, but they can change lives.
Back in July, I wrote about the 2009 TED Global Conference, held at Oxford. The Global Conference is a sort of carnival of ideas, with talks and presentations by by great thinkers of every stripe, from storytellers to designers, anthropologists to physicists, and videos of this years talks have started to trickle onto TED's online archive.

Physicists, of course, were well-represented among the ranks of TED speakers, but when Oxford prof Joshua Silver took the stage, the audiences weren't in for the usual science lecture. Silver is an atomic physicist, but lately he's been obsessed with optics; not because he wants to design an invisibility cloak or improve high-speed communication, but because he wants to address a very important problem for the world: bad vision.

As Silver points out in his talk, glasses, contact lenses, and even laser eye surgery are facts of life for about half the people in the…

Nerd on your gift list? Give a Gömböc!

The Gömböc and its creator, Gabor Domokos, on the British show QI
We buy pet rocks, snuggies, and shrinky-dinks; mathematicians have Klein bottles, Mobius strips, and the ultimate mathematical novelty item, the Gömböc.
The Gömböc, in sleek plexiglass Gömb means "sphere" in Hungarian, but the Gömböc is an extraordinary shape all its own (and is apparently pronounced "goemboets"). As QI host Stephen Fry demonstrates in the video above, no matter how you set it down, the Gömböc will wobble and rock itself right side up. And, unlike the common Weeble, the amazing Gömböc isn't weighted. It rights itself thanks to its unusual geometry.

The story of the Gömböc begins the way many mathematical tales do—with an older cannier mathematician posing a really hard problem. Mathematicians knew that it was impossible for any two-dimensional object to have just one stable equilibrium point (like the curved bottom of a round bowl) and one unstable equilibrium point (the tip of a …

Is a Nobel laureate smarter than a fifth grader?

George Smoot on last Friday's "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?"


Is a Nobel laureate smarter than a fifth grader?

George Smoot, a UC Berkeley professor who won the 2006 Nobel prize in physics, stepped up to the challenge last Friday as a contestant on "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader," the entertainingly humiliating game show that tests adults on facts a ten-year-old is expected to know.

The show entertains by painfully exposing just how little of their elementary school education adults retain, so having a Nobel laureate on stage called for even more ridiculous FOX theatrics than usual. In the opening sequence, the announcer booms, "Will he blow it, and be the laughing-stock of Nobel prize-winners everywhere?" I wonder if any of Smoot's Berkeley colleagues started to sweat at that point. Would the show expose the shortcomings of science? Would Smoot remember how to spell the word "Mississippi?"

[Warning: spoilers below. If you'd ra…

Turning down the volume on TV ads: a tale of waves, ears, and brains

Credit: NIST.gov
WASHINGTON — Every year, television networks receive thousands of complaints from viewers bothered by commercials that seem to be getting louder and louder. They're tired of fumbling for the remote control and having the quiet moments in their romantic films spoiled by ads that sound louder than the loudest blockbuster movie explosions.

All of this may soon change. A technical organization that sets standards for digital TV broadcasters moved forward on Sept. 16 with new recommendations that may finally dial down the volume of these obnoxious ads.

"It's a problem that's been around for awhile not only in analog TV but also in FM radio," said Mark Richer, president of Advanced Television Systems Committee, the same organization that developed the standards for digital video formats now used by all broadcasters in North America.

The new audio recommendations, soon to be sent out to broadcasters for approval, provide a way to measure the loudness of…

Operating Cells Via Joystick

WASHINGTON — Biomedical research could someday look a lot like playing video games thanks to a new device that allows users to manipulate cells with the swerve of a joystick.

A team of physicists and engineers at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio developed the device from a tiny piece of square-centimeter silicon inlaid with rows of zigzagging magnetic wires. At each corner, the wire behaves like two magnets pointed north to north or south to south. The fields of the two magnets create a point of strong attraction just above them. A nearby magnetic object, such as a magnetically-tagged cell is attracted to the corner and gets stuck there

To get the particles moving, the researchers then place two magnetic fields around the chip one in the plane of the chip and the other perpendicular to it. By flipping the direction of these fields, the researchers can guide tagged cells along the zigzagging wire and even make them jump from one wire to the next. The researchers computerized the …

Physics for your next shower

There's a classic elementary school experiment that gives you the inkling that fluids have more to them than meets the eye. You're handed a penny, a glass of water, and an eyedropper. Your task: fit as many drops of water as you can onto that penny.

As the droplet grows, the experiment acquires the dramatic tension of a game of Jenga. Will this drop burst the droplet? Will the next? The task delights and fascinates schoolchildren. Some of those schoolchildren grow up into physicists, and a good fraction of physicists, for whom the delights of the penny experiment perhaps never fade, devote their entire careers to probing the weird, often counterintuitive behavior of fluids.

The following video, filmed by researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, shows the unexpected consequences of squirting shampoo out of a bottle:




The mysterious Kaye effect was first seen in the 1960s, and has fascinated scientists ever since. As the video describes, the falling shampoo pile…

First Detailed Photos of Atoms

WASHINGTON — For the first time, physicists have photographed the structure of an atom down to its electrons.

The pictures, soon to be published in the journal Physical Review B, show the detailed images of a single carbon atom's electron cloud, taken by Ukrainian researchers at the Kharkov Institute for Physics and Technology in Kharkov, Ukraine.

This is the first time scientists have been able to see an atom's internal structure directly. Since the early 1980s, researchers have been able to map out a material's atomic structure in a mathematical sense, using imaging techniques.

Quantum mechanics states that an electron doesn't exist as a single point, but spreads around the nucleus in a cloud known as an orbital. The soft blue spheres and split clouds seen in the images show two arrangements of the electrons in their orbitals in a carbon atom. The structures verify illustrations seen in thousands of chemistry books because they match established quantum mechanical pre…

How big is it, really?

People often say that standing outside on a clear, starry night gives you a sense of scale, of how tiny you are compared to the vastness of the universe. But it's tough to really comprehend just how vanishingly miniscule we are. We're so used to living in inches and feet and miles—or centimeters, meters, and kilometers—that it's nigh impossible to wrap our minds around the enormous distances between us and other objects in the universe, even ones we can see, like the sun and moon. Is there any way to comprehend it?

That may be a tall order, but folks at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Georgia have come up with a wonderful, creative approach in a project called MASS. MASS stands for Metro Atlanta Solar System, a model of the solar system scaled down by a factor of 150 million to fit within Atlanta's city limits. Agnes Scott's gorgeous Bradley Observatory is the center, specifically the circular stone courtyard in front of it. The courtyard's diameter is about 30 …

Answer to the Friday Fermi Problem

The result of our Fermi problem: you may need one of these to brave your classes this fall.


On Friday, we posed the following back-to-school-themed Fermi problem:

Assuming you're not in a big lecture hall and the professor shuts the door at the start of class, how long does it take for you and your classmates to deplete the oxygen enough to feel it?

We promised a surprising answer, and here it is. You decide if our back-of-the-envelope calculations are reasonable.

Let's build our classroom first. It's 16 feet wide and long, and 10 feet tall. In handy metric dimensions, that's:
5 meters by 5 meters by 3 meters, or 75 cubic meters.
A cubic meter is 1000 liters, so now we've got 75,000 liters of fresh air.
The oxygen content of air is about 21 percent, and at about 17.5 percent you'll run from the room screaming. To get from fresh and breathable to absolutely stifling, take the difference between 21 percent of 75,000 liters and 17.5 percent of 75,000 liters. That gives u…

Fermi Problem Friday: Back to School Edition

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/ / CC BY 2.0


There's nothing like a crisp fall day—fresh, cool air, leaves crunching underfoot, an apple in your hand, and ten pounds of textbooks in your backpack slowly giving you scoliosis as you haul them around campus. In the spirit of back-to-school, join me in imagining the following scenario.

You get to your class on time for once, file inside with your classmates, and find a seat. Then the teacher starts talking. And talking. And talking. Time dilation seems to be at work. You check your watch—still another half hour to go. And you're starting to feel not very good. Must be this droning professor, you think. You tug at your collar and cough; your head starts to hurt. Your eyes wander to the door and you wonder whether it's been shut this whole time. Then it dawns on you...

The Fermi Problem:

Assuming you're not in a big lecture hall and the professor shuts the door at the start of class, how long does it take for you and …

In love with Hubble all over again

NGC 630 caught on Hubble's new camera
It may have a boring name, the nebula known as NGC 630 is a minor celebrity these days. This butterfly-shaped cloud of gas, pluming spectacularly from a distant dying star, is all over the Web right now. It's one of the first images snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope since STS-125 astronauts replaced its camera and upgraded its instruments in May.

The Wide Field Camera 3 At 19 years old, Hubble may have seemed a bit young for a facelift. But, as any PC or camera owner knows, a lot has happened in the world of electronic and optics in the last 19 years. Judging from these first images, the Wide Field Camera Three is doing a fantastic job. Although it shares the same ultraviolet through infrared range as the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, its field of view and resolution outshine that of the retired Whiff Pick Two.

As the Christian Science Monitor points out, there's a marked difference in the new photos, which boast a crisper ima…

ATLAS Rendered

A screenshot from Phil Owen's winning video "Origin of Mass"

Phil Owen might just be the envy of every geek on earth.

In November, the twenty-five-year-old will be flying from Australia to Geneva, Switzerland, courtesy of CERN. There he'll have a front-row seat to possibly the most anticipated event in scientific history—the startup of the Large Hadron Collider. And that's just the beginning. As the winner of a video contest held by the collaboration that works on ATLAS, the LHC's flagship detector, Owen will be the project's multimedia intern, with the opportunity to document those first moments in gorgeous 3D.

"I had some other plans for next year, but I think I'll put them off," he says. "It's an amazing opportunity."




Owen, who was born in the US, is finishing up his bachelor's degree in information technology at Monash University in Australia. While studying he's been working on medical visualization projects with the …

To be or not to be: the magnetic monopole

You might have read it in Nature News, Starts with a Bang, or Science: physicists have discovered magnetic monopoles. Sort of.

Positive and negative charges are happily independent, but north and south poles always come in twos. As the textbook example goes, cut a bar magnet in half, and you'll get two smaller bar magnets—you can never isolate one from another. Monopoles—a lone north or south pole—simply don't exist.

Or so I was told when I first heard about monopoles, in my first college course on electromagnetism. I heard about them for the second time from Shou-Cheng Zhang, a condensed-matter physicist who studies exotic phases of matter. He seemed to have a rather different opinion.


As my hand struggled to keep up with the interview, it occurred to me that Stanford clearly thought very highly of Zhang; sunlight flooded through a large window into the generously proportioned office, which was located just next door to one of the department's Nobel laureates.

Profiling Z…