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Showing posts from October, 2009

Halloween party physics

"Sure looks like a lot of fun in there, doing all those physics experiments." / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
If there's one holiday that seems tailor made for the physics enthusiast (besides Pi Day), it's Halloween. You can trick out your home or Halloween party with spooky effects and decorations, courtesy of science and a few readily-available ingredients.


The light coming from these bulbs isn't black at all, but ultraviolet. We can't see ultraviolet light; instead we see a violet glow (ultraviolet light's visible neighbor on the spectrum) from the bulb, and a white glow from teeth and white shirts and socks. That's thanks to phosphor, an element that glows in the visible spectrum when excited by higher-frequency wavelengths (confusingly, this phenomenon is called fluorescence.) Laundry detergents contain phosphor to make white clothes seem brighter in sunlight, and phosphor is second only to cal…

Nightmarish physics

A nightmarish image? / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On some nights, physics haunts my nightmares. I dream I'm once again in my last week ever of university. I have an exam in a few hours on perturbation theory in quantum mechanics—but I haven't been to a single class all year. The nauseating certainty of "I'm never going to get my bachelor's degree!" feels so real that I often wake up wildly thinking how I'm going to get my hands on some course notes. And this is two years after the fact.

I'm probably not the only one who's had nightmares about physics tests or felt trepidation at the thought of approaching a particularly thorny professor during office hours. But physics itself is rife with terms that sound menacing. I mean, just look at the Large Hadron Collider—all they did was name it literally after what it does, yet the name couldn't be more ominous. So in the spirit of Halloween, let's take a look at some o…

Liftoff: historic moment or false step?

At 11:30 this morning, NASA scientists and the world witnessed the birth of the America's next-generation human space exploration program with the successful launch of the Ares 1-X test rocket. Sleek, clean-lined, and delightfully futuristic, the Ares 1-X tapers to a needle-like apex 327 feet above its base. By comparison, the space shuttle we've seen launch from pads at the Kennedy Space Center since 1981 looks like a dowdy maiden aunt.

Ares 1-X is shaped something like a hypodermic needle; after the rocket itself had burned out its fuel, about 25 miles above the ground, the first stage (the plunger of the needle) fell away, while the upper stage continued another three miles into the air. Tucked just beneath the upper stage's needle nose was a mock-up crew module, which the upper stage carried up another three miles before they fell back toward earth.

The launch simulated the first two minutes of a flight of Ares 1, the rocket NASA has designed to replace the shuttle in …

On offer: laws of nature / CC BY-SA 2.0
Econophysics asks how individual actions give rise to large-scale phenomena. In yesterday's post I asked why economics doesn't have a few laws of nature that could prevent people from basing decisions on the financial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Enter the econophysicists, academics, (usually physicists delving outside the field and not economists borrowing from physics), who want to apply the rigorous mathematical methods of physics to understanding the economy. By modeling the economy as a collection of minor actors, like the molecules of gas, they hope to uncover how individual actions give rise to the emergent, large-scale phenomena that have sweeping effects—the booms and busts that take us by surprise.

The term "econophysics" was coined by Gene Stanley, who trained as a solid-state physicist and directs the Center for Polymer Studies at Boston University. Stanley championed the idea that approac…

Wanted: laws of nature

Our economy: not a perpetual motion machine.
A physicist friend who worked at the United States patent office once told me that the fastest way for a patent clerk to lose his or her job is to approve an invention that violates the laws of physics. Give a perpetual motion machine the green light, he said, and you'll quickly find yourself holding a pink slip.

Another physicist friend, who about six months ago quit her job at a financial firm, told me that she'd watched with horror as her colleagues fed numbers into a pre-fabricated black box of a model and made decisions based on what it spit out, despite having no idea what went on inside. As a physics student, she was taught to defend answers with rigorous proofs and scrutinize her own ideas for leaps of imagination and faulty thinking. She knew that the worst mistake she could make as a physicist was to fall in love with her solutions. Yet her colleagues comfortably made decisions in intellectual darkness, with far graver con…

A lease on life for the Tevatron?

Fermilab's Tevatron, seen from the air. This just in from Science Insider—2010 may not be the end for big particle physics in America. It looks like Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and the head of the DOE Office of Science, William Brinkman, are fans of keeping big science alive. The Department of Energy is going to ask Congress for money to run the Tevatron at Fermilab in 2011. According to the American Institute of Physics, which has been keeping up with the recent proceedings of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel:

"We want to keep alive high energy experimentation in the U.S., but need continued strong justification," Brinkman said, adding the science case made to Congress for future research is "not a simple story."
The Fermilab Tevatron, which currently holds the title of world's most powerful particle accelerator, and will do so for as long as the Large Hadron Collider continues to be plagued by troubles, has been given expiration date after expirati…

The Physics Of A Bump In A Rug

Studying carpet wrinkles is real science.

WASHINGTON -- Scientists often have to make sacrifices for their work. Physicist Dominic Vella chopped his bathroom rug into strips, and L. Mahadevan's coauthor ran off with his bookshelf. With these sacrifices, these two teams were able to glean enough information to revolutionize the world’s understanding about the physics of lumpy carpets.

Dominic Vella's home bath rug, before being sliced up for science.
Image credit: Dominic Vella Their results, set to be published in two separate papers in the latest issue of Physical Review Letters, describe everything about wrinkles in rugs-- known also as rucks -- including how they form, how they move, and what happens when they interact.

“We were motivated by an old analogy that uses the ruck in a rug to explain how certain defects in a crystal move,” said Mahadevan from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “The phenomenon itself had not been very well studied, and so we decided to spend so…

Perimeter Institute opens its doors

The Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada. Photo from the Perimeter Institute web site. On Monday I posted on the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, a theoretical physics enclave started by the man behind the BlackBerry. From the pristine grounds, geometrical buildings, and ubiquitous blackboards I saw on the campus in my virtual tour, I would have guessed that PI was run as a sort of retreat where theoreticians can work on arcane problems far from the mundane cares of the real world.

I was wrong! And what a time to make such an error! The PI has actually thrown open its doors to the public with the Quantum to Cosmos Festival, presented with Canadian television channel TVO. It's going on right now (October 15-25)—in fact, if you hit their website right this second you might catch the end of Sean B. Carroll's talk on Charles Darwin, streaming live. (Sean B. Carroll is a biologist and author and is not the same person as Sean M. Carroll, astrophysicist. Sean M. gave a talk last we…

Theater for physics fans, and physics for the rest of us

Three of Tom Stoppard's plays reveal a deep fascination with physics.

When it comes to writing about science, playwright Tom Stoppard is in a genre all his own. Stoppard, whom you might know as the screenwriter for the movies Shakespeare in Love and Brazil, wrote three plays he called his "physics plays": Arcadia (1993), in which a group of modern academics try to piece together the life of a young girl in the early 19th century; Hapgood (1988), about the fictional head of a top British intelligence agency during the Cold War; and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), in which Stoppard reimagines Shakespeare's Hamlet from the perspective of its two least important characters. But the plays aren't science fiction or physics edutainment, nor do they portray events from the history of science or depend on science to drive the plot. Instead, Stoppard masterfully uses concepts from physics to ask deep existential questions: who are…

Building Inspiration

"Think Pods" at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. / CC BY-ND 2.0
The new Scottish parliament building was unveiled in 2004, some Scots were far from pleased. Some felt that the building's unusual design wasn't so much playful, creative, or forward-looking as embarrassing.

"It looks like a baboon cage designed by a demented five-year-old," one told me. Some felt the complex's whimsical design insulted to the Scots' newly-minted representational government, which they'd lacked since 1707. Others, with typical Scottish levity, joked that the building's looks suited its inhabitants and purpose.

It's understandable that Edinburgh natives, used to either Georgian pomp or medieval heft, found the Spanish-designed clash of stone, grass, cement, and wood somewhat out of place amid the ancient buildings of Edinburgh's Old Town. Angular slabs of cement echo the nearby crags of Arthur's Seat, Edinbur…

A Black Hole Loses its Shirt

Physicists may have found a way to peel away a black hole's inescapable event horizon and look directly into the infinite weirdness that lies in its core. Many physicists including renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking said this should be impossible, but Ted Jacobson of the University of Maryland thinks he might be on the right track to create the mythic "naked singularity."

What is a Black Hole

Black holes are gravity's greatest triumph. They're formed at the end of most massive stars' lives, after they've exhausted most of their nuclear fuel. The inward pull of gravity starts pulling all of the star's matter down into its center. A vicious cycle starts. As gravity shrinks the size of the star its density increases, amplifying the pull of gravity as it goes, further shrinking the size of the star …etc…etc. Ultimately, the star supernovas in a final blaze of glory, leaving behind a black hole.

Black holes are black because gravity around them pulls so s…

PC Speed Limit

Computers speeds can only continue to increase at the current pace for 75 more years, according to physicists who determined nature's limit to making faster processors.

With the speed of computers so regularly seeing dramatic increases in their processing speed, it seems that it shouldn't be too long before the machines become infinitely fast -- except they can't.

A pair of physicists has shown that computers have a speed limit as unbreakable as the speed of light. If processors continue to accelerate as they have in the past, we'll hit the wall of faster processing in less than a century.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted 40 years ago that manufacturers could double computing speed every two years or so by cramming ever-tinier transistors on a chip. His prediction became known as Moore's Law, and it has held true throughout the evolution of computers -- the fastest processor today beats out a ten-year-old competitor by a factor of about 30.

If components are to …

Back from the future: is the Higgs jinxing the LHC?

Photo by Heidi Schellman, Higgs by Particle Zoo
A science essay in Tuesday's New York Times made big waves in the physics blogosphere. Science essay, you ask? I think the editors decided to use that label as a sort of implicit disclaimer, letting readers know, right up front, to not expect a trim, carefully-researched report of a new scientific breakthrough, something that the author, Dennis Overbye, an MIT-educated science journalism vet and deputy editor of the Times science section, can do with his eyes closed. "The Collider, the Particle, and a Theory About Fate" goes out on a limb—a really long limb—and discusses a fringe idea a couple of theoretical physicists posed to explain why the LHC has been plagued with troubles: the Higgs doesn't want to be found.

To quote Overbye:

A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its crea…

Star Parties go Presidential

Last Wednesday, a rather unusual group of people gathered on the White House's south lawn. The crowd included 150 local middle schoolers, the president and first lady, presidential science advisor John Holdren and a handful of rock-star-status astronauts: Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Buzz Aldrin, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and the "Hubble repairman," John Grunsfeld. The occasion? Just a bit of stargazing.

At the star party, which was apparently in celebration of World Space Week and the International Year of Astronomy, President Obama delivered something of a science pep talk to the gathered students, encouraging them to think about what discoveries they wanted to make in their lifetimes. Before sending them off to gaze into 20 telescopes provided by NASA, he introduced two guests who made an impact on astronomy at a tender age.
President Obama views Double-Double in Lyra with young stargazers Lucas Bolyard and Caroline Moore at White House Astronomy Night, October…