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Showing posts from November, 2009

Discoveries, in their own words

The words Philosophical Transactions, which happen to form the title of the journal published by the Royal Society, may not ring a bell for the modern science enthusiast, but the hoary pages of this prestigious journal witnessed the birth of physics as we know it. When Newton discovered that white light was actually a combination of different wavelengths, he wrote a letter to the Royal Society vividly describing his experience:

"...In the beginning of the year 1666...I procured me a Triangular glass-Prisme, to try therewith the celebrated Phaenomena of Colours. And in order thereto having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in my window-shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the Suns light, I placed my Prisme at his entrance, that it might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing divertisement, to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby."

The account was published in 1672, twelve years after the Royal Society, which h…

In the Brain, Seven Is A Magic Number

Having a tough time recalling a phone number someone spoke a few minutes ago or forgetting items from a mental grocery list is not a sign of mental decline; in fact, it's natural.

Countless psychological experiments have shown that, on average, the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items. This limit, which psychologists dubbed the "magical number seven" when they discovered it in the 1950s, is the typical capacity of what's called the brain's working memory.

Now physicists have come up with a model of brain activity that seems to explain the reason behind the magical memory number.

If long-term memory is like a vast library of printed tomes, working memory is a chalkboard on which we rapidly scrawl and erase information. The chalkboard, which provides continuity from one thought to the next, is also a place for quick-and-dirty calculations. It turns the spoken words that make up a telephone number into digits that can be wri…

Ka-Blammo!

In case you haven't heard, the massive Large Hadron Collider in Geneva Switzerland had its first proton collisions over the weekend after shutting down last September. This means that the world's largest most complicated machine is now back, and ready to search for the hypothesized Higgs boson, the particle theorized to give matter its mass.

The LHC is on record as the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Not only that, it really is the world's largest and most complex machine. When running at full power it shoots lead ions around its 27 km long track at almost the speed of light. The ions collide with such energy, that new particles are created under conditions similar to just moments after the Big Bang. It’s the hope of physicists around the world that one of the particles that flies off into the detectors is that hard to pin down Higgs boson.


Author Bill Bryson visited the collider a few weeks ago while it still under repair. He spoke to CERN physic…

The Story Behind The Physics of Superheroes!

James Kakalios knows that he will be forever linked to the physics of Spiderman. When he started teaching a freshman seminar class in 2001 based on the physics of superheroes, he had little inkling that it would soon lead to a whole series of popular lectures, a popular book, and even a gig consulting on a major Hollywood motion picture. He jokes frequently that even if he were to win three Nobel Prizes, the photo of him surrounded by action figures would be his legacy.

There is of course more to Kakalios than caped crusaders and comic books. In addition to teaching and directing undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, he is also a condensed matter experimentalist. His work in disordered systems extends from the properties of amorphous semiconductors to neurological systems and the avalanche dynamics of sand.

Kakalios’s book The Physics of Superheroes originated from an impulse and momentum problem he included on exams nearly fifteen years ago. He asked his students to cal…

Show your school spirit! (of innovation)

If you're a high school student, teacher, or parent, this post is for you. The deadline is coming up to register and submit project plans for the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Awards. Now, I'll admit to being a pretty massive geek in high school—Math Bowl, Science Bowl, Academic Decathlon. I pretty much signed up for every extra-curricular activity guaranteed to cement my status as a social pariah. But if the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Awards had been around in my day, I needn't have sacrificed cool for school. From a look around their website, it kind of seems like the X-prize for teenagers.

The competition is definitely about science, problem-solving, and technology, but there's a strong entrepreneurial aspect. The idea is to use your smarts to develop a product that's actually needed: good ideas get a $1000 grant, and winning teams get a $5,000 grant to develop their product further. There are four project themes that a team can work within: aerospace e…

The plot thickens; the ozone does not

Hello, ozone. (Image from NASA). Here's a scientific mystery for you: where has all the ozone gone?

In 1985, researchers discovered a gaping hole in the layer of ozone-rich cloud over Antarctica. Ozone, a molecule of three oxygen atoms, may seem unassuming, but it absorbs light in the UV-B range, considerably reducing how much of it reaches the surface of the earth. When it comes to sunlight, this is the nasty stuff—skin cancer-causing, molecule-destroying, plant-killing wavelengths of ultraviolet. Ozone, happily, absorbs the lion's share before it starts frying our eyes.

So what was causing the hole? Another chemical was the culprit: chlorine. A chlorine atom will tear an oxygen atom away from O3, producing chlorine monoxide (ClO) and molecular oxygen (O2). Then things get worse: the molecular oxygen grabs the oxygen back from the chlorine atom, not to form ozone again, but to form two atoms of molecular oxygen. This leaves the chlorine atom free to do its dastardly business …

Old School

A proton anti-proton collision at CERN, from 1982. (Image by CERN).

Good news for anyone who didn't have plans for this Friday night: the Large Hadron Collider might be starting up, possibly at 00:00 on Saturday, Geneva time. And you can monitor everything from the magnet temperatures to detector performance, thanks to this handy CERN portal put together by a reader of the online tech newspaper the Register to make the dense, yet disconnected jungle of CERN webpages easier for the average LHC fanboy or fangirl to navigate.

As for me, well all the excitement over the world's most advanced machine makes me long for simpler times, when physicists turned to photographic plates, not giant particle detectors, to learn about the unseen world. It's somewhat surprising, but humans have been photographing the innards of the nucleus and elementary particles for nearly as long as they've been photographing themselves in corsets, silly hats, and handlebar mustaches.

Our story begi…

Weird, tasty science

Looking for a creative twist to put on your Thanksgiving turkey this year? Why not cryosear and cryorender it?

The chefs of the experimental kitchen (read: nefarious secret lab) at Intellectual Ventures developed this technique to solve the age-old cuilinary quandary: how do you cook the fatty skin on a duck breast so that it's nice and crispy, without overcooking the meat itself?

The recipe is more Mythbusters than Julia Child: it involves pricking the duck's skin with a (hopefully unused) stainless steel dog hair brush, dehydrating the skin-enshrouded duck breast on a bed of salt, and pressing it between a satchel of metal pieces and a slab of dry ice. The idea is simple: the tiny holes in the skin help the fat cook faster, and the ice treatment prevents the meat from over cooking while the skin begins to bubble and crisp. Just don't walk into your local Bed, Bath, and Beyond and ask for a block of dry ice or a "muslin satchel filled with loose pieces of metal,&q…

Sagan sings

What started out as just another YouTube video may be competing with the bird-baguette-LHC urban legend for being the best way to get physics some attention from the public. In "A Glorious Dawn," composer John Boswell remixed clips from the vintage pop-science show Cosmos into a pretty darn catchy song. "A still more glorious dawn awaits—not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise, a morning with 400 billion suns, the rising of the Milky way." Thanks to AutoTune, the software that gave Cher's voice that robotic sound in "Believe" and helped Saturday Night Live comedians record their rap hit "I'm on a Boat," Carl Sagan sings his words of physical/philosophical wisdom.

It turned out the video isn't just for the geeks—NPR gave it a nod on their music blog, Monitor Mix, and on November 9, the Telegraph reported that White Stripes frontman Jack White is releasing "A Glorious Dawn" on his label, Third Man Records. Great timing—Carl Sagan, …

Nobu Toge: Machine Portraits

Nobu Toge's lens peers through the final magnets of the test accelerator. (Nobu Toge/KEK)
For physicist Nobu Toge, a typical day of work at the Japanese high-energy physics lab KEK might involve attending a few meetings, calibrating a just-installed piece of equipment, or writing a report on the research's progress. But in the midst of it all, Toge might also pull out his always-ready camera and snap a photo of a gleaming piece of machinery, or a pair of technicians in bunny suits readying a component for testing. At the end of the day, reports and spreadsheets laid to rest, Toge will add the photos to the thousands he's taken on the job over the last seven or eight years.

A high-energy physics laboratory might seem an unlikely muse for a photographer. But just a glance at a few of Toge's photos might convince you otherwise. His images of scientific equipment are explorations of shape, form, and color. When you peer through his lens, you might find yourself awed by a l…

Best physics inventions of 2009

What a real teleporter looks like. (Photo from the Joint Quantum Institute.)
TIME magazine has announced the 50 best inventions of 2009. NASA's Ares family of rockets was a shoo-in for best invention, given the recent launch of Ares 1-X, the family's test rocket. I'll give them that; NASA could certainly use the cheerleading.

But I was surprised to see "Teleportation" sixth on the list. When did I miss this? Has everyone else been teleporting to work while I've been trudging in the rain? How can I get my hands on a teleporter?

When something looks fishy, it's probably the usual suspect—quantum mechanics. What we're talking about here is teleporting information, in this case from one atom to another one meter away. Anton Zeilinger, reality-questioner extraordinaire, has accomplished the feat with photons, first in the lab, then across the Danube, then between two Canary Islands. But photons maybe seem a bit too ethereal for TIME magazine; atoms, now there…

Call me a Luddite, but...

Galileo's famous experiment reincarnated in a Wolfram Demonstration.
Ever since discovering them in my first year of college, I've been a frequent visitor to Stephen Wolfram's MathWorld and ScienceWorld. Those websites were great for when, far from my textbook, I needed to remember the value of a physical constant or what the heck Green's function does. Occasionally, the Mathematica Integrator helped smooth out a thorny integral. But they were more references than textbooks, better for jogging my memory than teaching me something new.

So I was pretty excited to see a new Wolfram webpage: Wolfram demonstrations. After downloading (for free) Mathematica Player, you can open up any number of demonstrations in subjects ranging from pure math to biology to high school physics. I was excited; I sort of love Java applets that illustrate physics concepts, and the Wolfram demonstrations page was just so colorful and full. Galileo's gravity experiments? Archimedes' princi…

A modest mathematician, a not-so-modest conjecture

Grigory Perelman didn't want the money or the fame—he loved math for math's sake. It's not often that an unemployed, middle-aged man living with his mother in the suburbs gets a write-up in the Wall Street Journal. But Grigory Perelman, a forty-something Russian mathematician who shares an apartment in the St. Petersburg suburbs with his mother, could have been a Fields medalist and a tenured professor at any of the top mathematics departments in the world. Instead, he turned down the notoriety for a quiet life.

The provenance of Perelman's unclaimed Fields medal was a question posed in 1904 by Henri Poincare, the celebrated French mathematician. The famous question, known as Poincare's Conjecture, can be worded succinctly in mathematical parlance like so: "every simply-connected closed three-manifold is homeomorphic to the three-sphere." (Here's the official description from the Clay Institute—more on them later.)

The "three-sphere" in que…

Particle physics pop-up

Nerdy science books enter a new dimension: the third. (Photo by Fons Rademakers/CERN)

Stumped by what to get for that picky particle physics buff on your Hannukah list? You're in luck. CERN is about to debut a technolust-inspiring souvenir that's science lesson and work of art all in one: a pop-up book of the ATLAS detector. Folded between its covers are Geneva, both above ground and 100 meters below, the Big Bang, and the complex architecture of ATLAS.

The ATLAS detector at CERN is a vast cathedral of electronics, wires, and materials—from semiconductor to liquid argon to scintillating plastic—enshrining the spot where two protons collide. It's not a single detector, but a series of detectors, packed around the interaction point Russian-doll style. Together they'll capture every last flicker and trace of the particles hurled out from the collision and spit out this information as hard data—about 27 CDs worth per minute.

Build your own ATLAS detector! (Photo by Papadaki…

Heaven on Google Earth

Yesterday I talked about using Google Earth to get a sense for the grandeur of the huge, landscape-sized machines of experimental particle-physics. But Google Earth is also perfect for touring the holy sites of the other big science, astronomy, whether you want to check out the world's biggest telescopes or explore the stars.

First stop: in the "Fly To" bar, type in "Very Large Array." Before you know it you'll be descending on a dusty, desolate patch of New Mexico that's home to 27 telescopes, each laden with a 25-meter-wide dish. The VLA is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and "see" the universe in radio waves just as we see the world in visible light, allowing astronomers to study anything from the Cosmic Microwave Background to stellar corpses known as pulsars. Some of the data collected by these telescopes has even found its way into Google Sky.

The Very Large Array in New Mexico.
Apparently the Google Maps truck barreled …