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Showing posts from December, 2009

The Race to Define the Kilogram

In August, scappuccino reported on a BBC radio story about the changing weight of the kilogram. That is, THE kilogram: an apple-sized mass of platinum-iridium protected behind glass that defines how much a kilogram weighs. There are replica masses all over the world, but this is the queen bee. If she loses weight, everyone feels it. And she has been. Over the past few decades her weight has fluctuated. It's also possible that the comparison weights have been gaining mass, but no one can be sure because the change is happening on such a small scale. It's only by a few micrograms - nothing that would affect general consumers like you and me - but enough to affect precision measurements done by scientists. Needless to say, there's a bit of a panic to come up with a solution so that the weight of the world, so to speak, won't continue to rest on Le Grand K's shoulders. There are currently two key efforts to successfully redefine the kilogram in a way that would not re

Volcanic Quakes Help Forecast Eruptions

Monitoring the earthquakes caused from magma movements inside an active volcano could help to improve the accuracy of forecasting an eruption. According to Emily Brodsky, the magma inside a volcano appears to be the real driving force of pre-eruption quakes, indicating how soon an eruption will follow. "It is really that simple," said Brodsky, an associate professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "It all comes back to physics and the fluid dynamics of magma in the volcano." Brodsky worked with Luigi Passarelli, a visiting graduate student from the University of Bologna in Italy, who observed 54 eruptions around the world. "Passarelli collected the data, and it revealed obvious patterns in eruption activity," said Brodsky. "This kind of work isn’t glamorous, but it is very important to find these patterns, and they have led to something that is really very simple." What Brodsky and Passarelli disc

Tongue in Cheek

What a classic holiday image - a child in distress. Part of growing up is learning lessons about the world around you, and this early physics lesson is one that most kids don't forget. It's the principle of thermal conductivity . The sensation of having your tongue stick to a metal pole sends chills up my spine. Not for the cold or the taste, but the removal. Unless you've got a cup of hot water, it's rather painful to pull your tongue off. It's that or the risk of remaining tethered to a pole. In 8-year-old lore, it's metal poles and mailboxes that you have to watch out for. Frost on wood or rubber doesn't present such a high risk. Why doesn't your tongue freeze to your glove when you eat a bit of snow off of that? Why not? Quite simply, when you lick cold metal, the water in your tongue freezes to ice and binds you to your temporary prison. Here's why: Heat is sort of a socialist. It wants everyone to be even. It's always trying to get the


Baby, it's cold outside. Unless you're living in Los Angeles, where people are so rich that they bought the sun and get to use it as much as they want. For the rest of us, it's cold. And you know what that means? Fewer sound shadows. I blogged last winter about temperature inversions, which occur in areas where there is not a lot of circulation during the winter. I promise this will get back to sound shadows, but here's the gist of temperature inversions: As sunlight passes through the layers of our atmosphere and reaches our bright shining faces, it doesn't actually do a lot to heat up the air. Air is a pretty bad conductor of heat, so it takes a while to warm up. Instead, the sun heats up the ground. The ground acts like a hot plate and gradually heats the air right above it. That warm air rises (Sincerely, physics.) and colder air drops down close to the hot plate. Then that warms up, continues the circulation, and pretty soon we've got a pretty toasty litt

Body Heat Power Source

Imagine portable electronics that run on a free, reliable energy source. No chargers to worry about, no dropped calls because you played too much Tetris on your Droid, and an endless playlist on your iPod that's truly endless, at least until they pry it from your (literally) cold dead hand. Well, you may not have to imagine for long. Vladimir Leonov and Ruud Vullers of the Interuniversity Microelectronics Center have developed power supplies that can run off of your body heat . All you have to do is strap on the blingtastic headband you see here, and you're ready to go. OK . . . the technology is not quite ready for prime time, but it's much more promising than lots of other proposals for systems known as "energy harvesters" that gather power that would otherwise go to waste. Consider, for example, the wasted energy in the jiggling of your own waist (assuming you have a little extra there like I do.) As you go about your day and your spare tire bounces around,

Spiral Control

Researchers at the University of Japan have found that they can change sea snails from lefties to righties by nudging early embryonic cells with a glass rod. The shells of Lymnaea stagnalis curve either to the left or the right, a trait determined by genetics and which begins to show in very early development. It appears that by simply nudging the snails in the right way, we can change this. Photo: The snail shells can curve to the left or right. Glass rods prod the embryos. Large photo: Kuroda lab. Inset: B. Endo. Whether a snail is a lefty or a righty is often described as handedness, or more accurately, chirality . The mirror image of a chiral event is not the same as the original. So, while handedness sounds like an odd word, it is used because one of the most common examples of chirality is our hands. The mirror image of your right hand is actually your left. You can use your right hand to shake someone elses right hand, but not the mirror image of a right hand (the left)

Light Up the Holiday Science Round Up

I don't know about you, but I love this time of year - the snow, the cold, the decorations, the songs. Plus I don't have to do a lot of shopping (being poor has its benefits!) so I think I get to enjoy it a bit more than some. It's also a time of year to nerd-out, as our other bloggers have shown. In addition to books and t-shirts for that special geek in your life, try sending out Hubble Holiday cards featuring images from the newly revamped Hubble Space Telescope. And what a better subject for a Christmas card? I mean, have you ever seen a more tremendous lighting display than this: That's one of the newest images to come from Hubble since it was equipped with the Wide Field Camera 3 in May of this year. By August, the telescope was sending back the deepest images ever taken in the near infrared range. No one has ever seen this far out into the Universe in this wavelength before. What is stunning about this image is both how many galaxies and stars appear (though

Year's Best Gift Could Be A Job From Santa

Outsourcing the delivery of Christmas presents to mere mortals would provide a jolt to the staggering global economy. In this year's myriad discussions of stimulus and jobs programs, no one has yet publicly raised the idea to ask Santa Claus to take Christmas Eve off. Outsourcing his job by asking mere mortals to deliver presents to the world's children could provide the jolt required to right a staggering economy. Claus could not be reached to comment on this story. Independent researchers have yet to develop a reasonable understanding of the techniques that allow him to travel the globe, delivering packages to hundreds of millions of residences over the course of a single evening. NORAD -- the military organization responsible for the aerospace and maritime defense of the United States and Canada -- tracks his sleigh on radar, and speculators have attributed his swiftness to everything from special reindeer feed to relativistic physics. Because little hard data is avai

'Tis the season for Geek Gifts

Hanukkah ends this Friday, which means you have to come up with (counting tonight) four more nights' worth of terrific presents to bestow upon your favorite nerd. In case you're running out of ideas in a hurry, here are a few on my geeky wish list. Nerdy Shirts from Threadless is my all-time favorite source for t-shirts. (Besides the local Goodwill, that is.) Artists (many of them amateurs) submit designs, then potential buyers vote on the ones they'd like to see made into T-shirts. Threadless prints a limited amount of each design, safeguarding your independent style from cramping. Combining the geek uniform with social networking, Threadless is the ultimate venue for nerdy shirts. For the cable-wielding, wire-soldering AV nerd, or the person whose back, you suspect, looks like this anyways: Audio-Visual Nerd shirt from For the person who asks you to fix their blender because you're majoring in physics: Dear Scientists: This was

Dark matters

The latest rumors about forthcoming hot results from the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search at the Soudan Mine in Minnesota only confirm what I've always suspected: Physicists! They're just like us! They love rumors! Into this wild Abyss The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave— Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire, But all these in their pregnant causes mixed Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight, Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain His dark materials to create more worlds,— Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while, Pondering his voyage; for no narrow firth He had to cross." —John Milton, Paradise Lost In many other ways, physicists are not just like us. To get to work, CDMS physicists descend 2,341 feet via a rickety metal cage elevator to the 27th level of an abandoned iron ore mine. Once there, they monitor frozen towers of hockey puck-sized germanium crystals for the incredibly gentle rattle of a passi


It's like a birthday gift that arrived a few centuries too late. The English mathematician Charles Babbage , who was born the day after Christmas in 1791, dreamed of calculating logarithms using a vast machine. Or daydreamed, at least; he wrote in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher : ...I was sitting in the rooms of the Analytical Society, at Cambridge, my head leaning forward on the table in a kind of dreamy mood, with a table of logarithms lying open before me. Another member, coming into the room, and seeing me half asleep, called out, Well, Babbage, what are you dreaming about?" to which I replied "I am thinking that all these tables" (pointing to the logarithms) "might be calculated by machinery." Babbage won government support to work on a "difference" engine that could handle calculations that were valuable to navigators; nautical tables at the time were riddled with errors and could lead a ship into disaster. But after one seven

Reading by numbers / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 This news story from the BBC website almost sounds like a faux-academic fantasy written by Jose Luis Borges: physicists at Umea University in Sweden, using statistical analysis on the works of three classic authors, conclude that every author has a unique linguistic fingerprint. The BBC writes: The relationship between the number of words an author uses only once and the length of a work forms an identifier for them, they argue. This happens to be the same team whose insights into traffic jams we highlighted on the blog earlier this year. The team seems fond of using methods from physics to make observations on systems you wouldn't normally think of being in a physicists' realm, including fads and internet dating. This time they took the complete opuses of Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, and D.H. Laurence to statistical task. The paper is free to view here. The BBC writes that the graph of the number of u

Stephen Hawking in the oddest places

Hawking in Legos When Stephen Hawking wrote the modern science classic A Brief History of Time , he transformed from an ordinary theoretical physicist into an all-purpose pop culture icon. He pops up in the oddest places, from the YouTube video that autotuned his voice and Carl Sagan's, to geek rapper MC Hawking, to…the debate about healthcare? I hadn't heard about that last appearance until I read the editorial in this month's Scientific American , written by another theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krauss (the "Physics of Star Trek" guy). Krauss opens his editorial with a mention of Hawking: When I saw the statement repeated online that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge would be dead by now if he lived in the U.K. and had to depend on the National Health Service (he, of course, is alive and working in the U.K., where he always has), I reflected on something I had written a dozen years ago, in one of my first published comment

When chemistry dunces bake / CC BY-NC 2.0 With the holidays approaching, I've had seasonal culinary delights insistently on the brain. I can tell because in my spare time I find myself googling "gingerbread" and pawing through mouth-watering photos of shortbread Santa Clauses, currant-studded scones, rum cakes, pumpkin breads, and chocolate souffl├ęs. But given my long history of pulling chewy breads, rock-hard cookies, and deflated cakes out of the oven, I know the best I can do is hope friends and relatives have been slaving away in their respective kitchens to produce enough sugary Christmas goodies to satisfy my cravings. I always assumed that these baking fiascos were due to an innate defect, located somewhere near my lack of rhythm and inability to enjoy science fiction movies, a clipped allele on the cooking chromosome, perhaps. I know what you're thinking. Baking is easy! You just follow the directions. It's scientific, it's like chemi

Eyes and ears on Copenhagen / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 A giant globe inside Copenhagen's Bella Conference Center—perhaps to remind delegates to the United Nationals Climate Change Conference of the weight of their grave responsibility. Here's the one piece of science news you can't avoid hearing: over the next two weeks in Copenhagen, Denmark, United Nations delegates from 192 countries will mastermind a global plan to stop climate change in its tracks. Or, if you're a pessimist , international delegates will squabble and point fingers, eventually failing to instigate any sort of meaningful action. Or, if you're a climate change contrarian (denier might be the less-polite word), they're using pseudoscience to monger fear as part of the global liberal conspiracy to murder capitalism and usher in Big Brother and totalitarianism. Besides being hailed as a turning point in climate change policy, Copenhagen is historically important just in terms o

Dance your physics

If you want to learn about science, you can pick from a wide variety of media. If you're a student, you read a textbook; if you're a scientist trying to keep up with the latest research, you read journal articles and attend conferences. If you're an interested layman, you pick up popular science books and magazines, browse the Web, and watch NOVA. And if none of that does it for you, well, there's always interpretive dance. The above video is the work of Theatre Adhoc , a Dutch performance art group. Although it's hard to tell (especially if you don't speak Dutch), the movements portray the work of 17th century Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens, who discovered the phases and changes in the shape of the rings of Saturn, patented the first pendulum clock, and developed an early wave theory of light. The performance was in honor of the new Huygens building at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Here's another interpretive dance project tha