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Showing posts from January, 2010

Hubble 3D!

If you haven't heard yet, the IMAX film crew who put together Space Shuttle 3D and Deep Sea 3D have a new film coming out called Hubble 3D. Le trailer:



Reports say that there will be some never before seen images from Hubble at the end of the movie (I'm drooling already), but most of the film is a documentary about the space shuttle crew of STS-125 going up to repair and upgrade Hubble last May. The trailer also makes it sound sort of scary (it is always scary to strap human beings to a bomb and then watch them try to repair a billion dollar instrument 350 miles above Earth) but of course we already know that the mission was a terrific success: Hubble works wonderfully and the crew made it back safely.

I was lucky enough to catch a preview screening of about 15 minutes of footage from the film, and LIKE WOW. I will definitely be going back to catch the whole thing. Seeing the shuttle launch in IMAX 3D was so surprisingly stunning. I got teary. And then seeing Hubble, this magnif…

Part 1 of "Prediction is difficult . . .

. . . especially about the future." Niels Bohr

With all due respect to Professor Bohr, I think some things are easy to predict. Take the latest stab at the air car. For at least a century, futurists have been predicting that we'd be flying to work eventually. Check out the video below to see NASA's late air car idea. I feel like it's pretty easy to predict if and when these sorts of things will be commonplace.



I'm going to try my hand at futurism for a bit. I plan to throw some cold water on a few predictions, and highlight a few others that I think are feasible and likely. Because there're so many things to talk about, I thought I'd make this a semi-regular column. Today's topic: NASA's Puffin Air Car and the Holodeck - Future Tech or Dead End?

Flying Cars - You might prefer to call them "personal aircraft" or some other buzzword. People have been working on them since airplanes were invented. In fact, we already have some personal aircraft…

Mars, Tablets and Hydrogel

There's a lot going on today. And it's not even a Saturday. I think of Saturday as the day of many rewards, but apparently the solar system and Apple are irreverent about the days of the week. They will reveal mighty wonders whenever they want!
The solar system is revealing Mars today - the red planet will be the closest to Earth that it will get until 2014. It will be particularly visible in North America tonight, so be sure to step outside and get a good look. One that will hold you over for 4 years. You know, now that I think about it, maybe the solar system did plan to have this happen on a Wednesday. Heaven knows I'm not about to leave my apartment on a Thursday night in the middle of 30 Rock to look at the sky. (I seriously still watch TV shows on the TV and not online. I can pretty much start asking for the seniors discount at moving picture theatre.)
The other big news down on Earth is that Apple will be debuting their brand new gadget: the tablet (or as Information…

Volcano Lightning

A type of volcanic lightning was discovered during Mount Redoubt's Jan. 2009 eruption.

When volcano seismologist Stephen McNutt at the University of Alaska Fairbanks's Geophysical Institute saw strange spikes in the seismic data from the Mount Spurr eruption in 1992, he had no idea that his research was about to take an electrifying turn.

"The seismometers were actually picking up lightning strikes," said McNutt. "I knew that I had to reach out to the physicists studying lightning."

With McNutt’s curiosity about volcanic lightning sparked, he teamed up with physicist and electrical engineer Ronald Thomas and Sonja Behnke, a graduate student in atmospheric physics at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, N.M. for a unique collaboration in order to learn more about volcanic lighting.

When the Mount Redoubt volcano started making seismic noise in January 2009, McNutt alerted Thomas and Behnke that this would be a great opportunity to captur…

A Star Class is Born

Hold it right there, star. Trying to become a black hole, are ya? Well, not so fast. It's possible that as you begin to collapse and squeeze the subatomic particles at your core, the squarshed quarks could begin to radiate neutrinos and stop that collapse, leaving you stuck as a dense, nearly invisible lump for millions of years. Yeah, those tiny little quarks are real tough when you get a bunch of them together.

Scientists have proposed that there is a new, exotic type of star living in our universe that we haven't seen yet. The so-called "electroweak stars", if they exist, will be difficult to detect because they mostly emit neutrinos - subatomic particles which, for the most part, don't interact with ordinary matter.

[Image: "Electroweak" stars may recreate the conditions of the big bang in an apple-sized region in their cores (Illustration: Casey Reed, courtesy of Penn State)]

When massive stars run out of fuel to burn, they expand into a supernova and…

New Newton News

There's a fantastic little book out there called Sum, which is a collection of essays about what the afterlife might be like. The essayist carries what can often seem like wonderful and harmless scenarios for the afterlife, and carries them out to sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart warming, sometimes heart breaking conclusions.

In one scenario, people who have died enter a waiting room before they can enter the great beyond. They remain in the room for as long as people on Earth say their name. For people with large families, their names carry on through a few generations and then die out. For those with no family or friends, the wait ends after their funeral. A man who's name has become attached to a local legend retold by tour guides goes crazy wishing for the end of it all. And then there are the very famous people, some who have been there for centuries or millennia, who may very well be there until the end of civilization.

This scenario makes me happy because it means I&#…

LaserFest is Here!

The laser was born 50 years ago, so it's time to celebrate!

You can get all the news and find out what's coming up at the official LaserFest web site. Or check out articles about the laser's birthday on the Washington Post, NPR's Science Friday and All Things Considered, and no doubt many others as the year goes by. I'll keep you posted.

Pretty Physics Picture of the Week: Supersonic Splash

There's something very elegant about these images. It's just a disc being pulled rapidly down into water, but the space left behind looks so pretty. The researchers who took the pictures weren't out to make art. They were studying what happens when an object rapidly plunges into a fluid. It turns out that the void left behind collapses and pushes out a supersonic jet of air.

If you want to learn more about the science of the supersonic splash, it's worth looking over an explanation by University of Maryland physicist Dan Lathrop in the APS online publication Physics. Dan knows lots about the topic. I used to work across the hall from his lab where he did related experiments. Instead of dropping things into water, he had a huge pool that was mounted on an apparatus that bounced it up and down, creating waves that would collide to create jets of water that shot straight up in nearly unbelievable liquid spikes.

Of course, you can forget about the science and just appreciate…

Picturing An Infant Universe

A new image from NASA's Hubble Telescope has provided astronomers with the earliest snapshot ever taken of galaxies in the universe's infancy, about 600 million years after the Big Bang.

The deep look into the ancient cosmos revealed baby galaxies very different from those that exist now.

"We're seeing very small galaxies that are the seeds of the galaxies today," said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

These galaxies, which are very blue and only 1/20 the size of our own Milky Way, may help to explain where the first stars came from.

After the bright energy of the Big Bang -- which took place about 13.7 billion years ago -- the universe became a dark place. For hundreds of millions of years there were no stars or galaxies, mostly hydrogen and helium gas and a faint glow.

Then something happened around 400 million years ago that caused the first points of light, the stars, to be born and end the dark age. The stars shot off a lot of ultravi…

A Day to Remember

A fellow science writer once told me there is physics in everything. So far, I think she's right. But I wondered if I'd be able to find any physics in today's celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday. It sometimes feels like physics is disengaged from issues of race in our nation (I guess because the focus of the field is not on people). But I know that's not true.

Just as there is ongoing discussion about how to increase the number of professional female physicists, so there is discussion about how to increase the number of professional physicists who belong to racial minorities. The United States' recent call to increase the number of science and engineering graduates not only relies on improving college programs, but improving science education all the way down to elementary schools. In particular, many poor, inner city schools around the country are in desperate need of better (or any) science programs. Quite often, the percentage of minority students is…

Avatar vs. All the Cats on the Internet

If you haven't seen Avatar yet, that is OK. No, really, it's fine, you do not have to see it, because this is a free country and we are in a recession and maybe you just aren't into that sort of thing. But lots and lots of other people have seen Avatar, and I think most of them would agree that if you are going to see it, you should see it in in 3-D and on IMAX, if possible. I'm not giving away any plot points here, I'm just saying that this movie would probably look pretty weird on a 12 inch black and white television. When you let all the computer power that it took to make this film flourish in three stories and three dimensions, it is pretty amazing to look at.

The visual amazingness of Avatar is due in large part to the work of Weta Digital, a visual effects company that is pretty much destroying (in the awesome sense of the word) in the field of movie visuals right now. They were hired for The Lord of the Rings (which I'm sure had no small part in their gr…

Antimatter Supernova

Evidence for a new kind of stellar explosion 7 billion years ago

Astronomers meeting in Washington last week announced that a recent search for bright exploding stars -- commonly called supernovas -- found something quite unusual: antimatter.

Usually stars like our sun are powered by fusion reactions in which the nuclei of two atoms fuse together to form a heavier nucleus. In Y-155, a star in the constellation Cetus, the astronomers argue that another process was crucial: the making and unmaking of antimatter particles.

In all stars a titanic struggle takes place between gravity, which wants to draw matter toward the center of the star, and the pressure of nuclear interactions, which tends to keep the star inflated as if it were a balloon. Only when the star uses up all its internal fuel, causing the nuclear reactions to slow down, does gravity start to win out. The resulting gravitational collapse is what causes the star to explode. When a star dies in this way, as a supernova, it often…

Who Is Ettore Majorana?

Imagine it's the early 1930's. You are a gifted physicist, and your world has recently been turned upside down. Physics is no longer the study of things we can see, but explorations of worlds invisible to our sight - world's that behave in the most peculiar of ways. The nucleus of the atom, the particles that make up light, and perhaps even smaller building blocks are now your playground. These rebel particles play a totally different game than the one your predecessors spent centuries trying to understand. You are at the forefront of a revolution.

You are working with the brightest minds of your generation, you have all the funding you need, and the network of physicists world wide are awaiting your most recent results. When suddenly, you realize something. Atoms, which physicists have found are made up of massive, positively charged particles called protons and much lighter, negatively charged particles called electrons, must also posses a neutral particle. Something a j…

Goodbye Ray Solomonoff

Long before Steven Spielberg cast Haley Joel Osmond as Creepy Jr. in A.I., and before guys started marrying their video game girlfriends, way back in the early 1950's, a small group of physicists and mathematicians coined the term "Artificial Intelligence." While the group remained small for a few more years, the dawn of the computer age has seen this field blow up exponentially.

Ray Solomonoff was a member of that small group; an early pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence whose work showed that to achieve artificial intelligence, we must first understand intelligence on a systematic level. Solomonoff died on December 7, 2009, at the age of 83 of a ruptured brain aneurysm.

To understand the impact of Solomonoff, you have to go back to Alan Turing.

Alan Turing committed suicide by eating an apple dipped in cyanide. A dramatic end to a truly amazing life. Turing is not only hailed by the physics and computer science community, but by philosophers and the gay commun…

The Wooden Leg Makes a Comeback

Pirate enthusiasts rejoice. Wooden legs are back.

Sort of.

Actually, anyone who has lost bone or bone density to disease or accident may have something to celebrate, and will not actually have to worry about looking like a pirate.

Scientists in Italy, at the Istec laboratory of bioceramics in Faenza near Bologna, have found that the wood of the rattan tree, when heated, pressurized and enhanced with calcium and phosphates, becomes incredibly similar to human bone. Early tests show that real bone is so comfortable with the organic substitute, that it will bind to it (this is with segments of bone - no tests in humans have taken place yet). This acceptance by real bone, coupled with the treated rattan wood's natural durability, means the substitute bone will never need replacing.

Current substitutes for people who have suffered bone loss due to disease, where the remaining bone is also weak, often need to be replaced, and certainly don't fuse with the real bone. The BBC quoted surge…

Can Physics Predict the Future?

You and I each make predictions about the future continuously throughout our day. As we drive to work, we predict that the path we take will look much like it did yesterday. When we practice a sport, we begin to learn how hard we need to kick or hit a ball to make it go where we want. And soon we understand the forces of gravity, friction, and our own muscle, enough to score a goal or block a line drive. Each of us is constantly predicting the future. And sometimes we're right.

So if physics is a science meant to break down the world that we live in - picking apart it's smallest particles, figuring out it's hidden mechanisms, and working out the equations that describe it - then shouldn't physics be able to predict the future?

This is a question, or an assumption, that many people have about physics. And I'll tell you right now that it's wrong.

Physics can, to some extent, tell us what to expect from the world. Just like you and I can reasonably assume that becaus…