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Showing posts from February, 2010

Chocolate Einstein

The APS April Meeting wrapped up a few weeks ago in Washington DC, and the March meeting is just around the bend in Portaland. I love to travel, but these meetings are so all-consuming of my time that I don't get outside much. My memories of meetings past are associated more with the color of the carpet in the hotel than the local monuments.

That said, some hotels are more fun than others and the Marriot Wardman Park Hotel had this little gem that I will forever associate with April (February) Meeting 2010:

Chocolate Einstein!

Einstein is carved out of dark chocolate, and the floor he is sitting on is careved from white. The plackard on the statue didn't have an artists name. Neither did the plackard on the the chocolate tribute to the Iwo Jima Monument:

I called the hotel to find out where the statues came from and was transferred four times. Each new call went something like this:
Me: Hi! I have kind of an odd question. I'm trying to find out who made the Chocolate Einstein …

Interview with an Intelligent Lifeform: Jill Tarter, Director of SETI

There was clearly intelligent life at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, held February 18-22. In particular, I had the good fortune to sit down with Jill Tarter, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research and Director, Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. The mission of SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe, according to its website. SETI scientists, of which there are approximately 150, essentially listen and look for signals from space that would demonstrate there is intelligent life out there.

Remember the movie “Contact”? Jodie Foster’s character, the driven astronomer who first noticed the strange sounds coming from the VLA, is based on Jill Tarter. This intrepid scientist, whose undergraduate degree is in engineering physics, has what some may argue is the best and most difficult job in the wo…

Tumblr, Etsy Roundup

I sat down at my computer today with great intentions. I was looking for some piece of breaking science news or an awesome new gadget to share with you dear readers. Just really provide some great coverage and strong content.

About five minutes after that I got really, really side tracked looking at Tumblr and Etsy (where I found the image to the right). When I looked down at the clock and realized I'd been under for almost two hours, I feared that I had completely wasted my afternoon. I know everyone has days like that. How could you not with all the internet awesomeness out there? It's a very natural thing to do. It does not, however, justify you missing your 5pm deadline, and I was starting to panic. But then I realized - you guys are fellow science geeks! The afternoon was not a waste, but a geeky roundup! Oh, thank you, free form physics blog!

So if you aren't familiar, Tumblr is a website that hosts short-form blogs. By short form I mean they are geared less toward tw…

Science- The Gathering

The following is one of a few posts live from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting held in San Diego, February 18-22, 2010.



To my left was the ocean – dark and deep. It called to me, a mysterious enigma, with treasures and puzzles of flora, fauna and rock that still remain to be discovered and solved by who knows who.



Big deal.



To my right, was the San Diego Convention Center, site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting. The structure was stuffed to the gills with scientists.



Screw the sea, Jack. It’s the triple A-S that had my eye.



I know I shouldn’t malign the marine environment like that. What did a Sacoglossan sea slug ever do to me? And after all, there’s plenty of science in the sea.




But there’s no denying the energy that was in the air when thousands of scientists and science-loving comrades from as many as 50 countries gather in one place – it’s pure magic. And yet there’s nothing magicical about science itself. …

Chemical Velcro

General Motors, despite some set backs over the last two years, remains a very innovative company. The company published a paper in the February 2 issue of February 2 issue of the ACS Publications' journal Langmuir, announcing it's creation of a strong glue that will loosen up when heated, and can then be reattached. The glue could be used, for example, to attach cup holders in a car - the buyer could then heat up the glue, detach the cup holder, and move it based on his or her personal preference.

The company announced that the adhesive is about "10 times stickier than Velcro." I didn't have time to check on that stat, but it actually doesn't quite make sense to me. You can increase the "stickiness" of Velcro by increasing the number of hooks and loops per area (the up close photo of Velcro courtesy of Andreas Viklund). So there isn't really a standard "stickiness" of Velcro, but I'm guessing they are referring to common household …

Winter Olympics Science Notes: Ski Jumping

The physics and physiology of gliding toward gold.

The first gold medal of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics went to Switzerland's Simon Ammann, who won the normal hill ski jumping competition on Feb. 13 with a top jump of 108 meters -- nearly the length of an entire football field. Athletes in this sport stretch for every inch they can, attempting to find the optimum combination of technique, body size, weight and aerodynamics.

Sometimes they stretch too far -- damaging their bodies in the quest to become the perfect jumping machine.

Luca Oggiano, an aerospace engineer focusing on sports at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, explained that there are four major factors that enable jumpers to succeed: a stable position at take off, a high speed at the take off point, the position of the skis in the air (a V-formation is more efficient than parallel) and the shape of the body.

Ski jumpers use their bodies and skis to create an effect similar to an airplane…

Oscar Worthy Science And Engineering

Making movies look more like real life is no easy task for nominees of the Feb. 20 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Achievement awards.

When audiences watch a movie, they know that what they are seeing is an illusion -- and making the images appear as real as possible can be a major undertaking for any filmmaking team.

Creating those realistic-looking illusions is the job of the film's cast and crew. Making sure that colors look the same throughout a film, creating animated scenes that look real, and reproducing the same highlights and shadows as those created by natural light is only a sample of the accomplishments of the 15 scientists and engineers who will be honored during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Achievement awards hosted by actress Elizabeth Banks on Saturday, Feb. 20.

Keeps Colors Consistent

Best picture nominee "Avatar" would have lost its ability to immerse movie audiences in a fanta…

Brushing Won't Help

Did you know that your bones, fingernails, and tooth enamel, all keep a record of the radiation that you are exposed to? So does your hair and some items of clothing, like buttons. Your teeth do better than your fingernails and hair (which grow and fall off) and aren't as difficult to get to as your bones. So, physicist PrabhakarMisra from Howard University, is trying to get a grant to take samples of tooth enamel so that eventually he could have a record of the population's radiation exposure to compare with cancer rates.

Now lets be clear - the photo on the right was created by shining a harmless, low-powered laser in an someones mouth. I used it as a joke - this person does not have radioactive teeth (he just loves lasers). And your teeth do NOT become radioactive when you are exposed to radiation. But they do hold a record of the amount of radiation you have been exposed to. Employees of companies and labs that use radioactive materials often wear dosimeters - devices for m…

Fingers and Franks in the LN2

It’s a fairly easy equation: fingers + liquid nitrogen = screams + injury + scars. So whenever I did liquid nitrogen physics demos for little children, or silly adults with finger-death wishes, I would always begin my show with a warning – do not try this at home.



I thought it was simple enough. After performing close to a hundred physics outreach shows as a student and then later a staff member of the University of Arizona Physics Department and College of Science, I became pretty well-versed in how to articulate my concern for my audience’s well-being. I commenced my performances with a message and a manifestation of the power of the medium.

“You see this vat of bubbling liquid?” I’d ask with exaggeration and wide eyes. “It’s actually boiling! The air is sooooo hot compared to the nitrogen, which is --320 degrees Fahrenheit, that the nitrogen is actually turning from a liquid to a gas at this very moment. And the nitrogen is soooo cold that if you stick anything in it, like your finge…

APS "April" Meeting Round Up

Hey folks,
Washington DC is still recovering from the ceremonial snow burial it underwent last week, and already another storm is blowing in. When I was out last night, I saw dump trucks hauling snow out of the city because there's no room for it, and a number of cars that look like they will become petrified if their owners don't dig them out soon. I don't know if my bus will be able to leave tomorrow morning, but today I'm warm and cozy here at the APS "April" Meeting (being held this weekend which, do not panic, is not April). I'll probably have plenty of things to rant and rave about once we've wrapped up, but for now please enjoy some of the amazing coverage by the visiting journalists. So grab some hot coco and enjoy the science!

RHIC measures the hottest temperature EVER! (Lots and lots of places are covering this. Exciting stuff!)

Mysterious Origin of Cosmic Rays Pinned Down (Space.com)

Powerful Collider Set to Smash Protons (LHC operating at 7 Ge…

Curling Science

Success in this slick sport requires intense physical effort and concentration.



Since becoming an official Winter Olympic sport in 1996, the sport of curling has draws a surprisingly large TV audience for an event that features slick-shoed competitors sweeping brooms in front of stones sliding across the ice. But it's far more complex than just an icy version of shuffleboard.

Researchers are examining the sport in an effort to identify the techniques that improve an athlete's performance, asking questions similar to what most spectators likely ponder when watching the sport: "what does good look like in curling?"

That question is dear to John Bradley, an exercise physiologist who has worked with both the Irish and Scottish Institutes of Sport. He recently published a paper in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine explaining the science of curling.

Each member of a four-player team slides two stones per round, or "end." As each teammate sends a roughly 41 p…

How Much Snow did Washington DC REALLY Get?

You may have heard about the record-breaking snowfall in the Washington DC area this winter. The flaky white stuff has pounded the region all winter, in successive snow storms locally dubbed "The Snowpocalypse," "Snowmageddon," and the most recent "Snowverkill." These storms, on top of several smaller unnamed squalls, have dumped 55.6" total inches on the nation’s capital as of Thursday morning.However how much is 55.6" of snow really? Of course all this snow didn't come all at once, and represents a cumulative amount for the entire winter so far. But still, that's a lot of snow if you think about it. A whole lot. Washington DC looks like a 10 x 10 mile square with a bite taken out of it. All together the city is 68.3 square miles. It's not too hard to figure out the total volume of snow dumped on the city so far.55.6" depth of snow x 68.3 square miles roughly equals 8,820,000,000 cubic feet of snow, or 249,000,000 cubic meters.…

"Going Boldly Where No Hat Has Gone Before..."

So where do I get one of these?

In other physics (?) news - did you hear Steven Chu on NPR's "Wait, wait, don't tell me..."? He played a game called "Not My Job," wherein a person of one profession (like physicist) is asked questions about a totally different one (in this case, the Washington Generals). That guy is the best.

Alright, here's something - Niels Bohr back in the news. I'm a big fan of Bohr. They guy is a renowned physicist, but really he was a Renaissance man. He wasn't just interested in physics, he was interested in life. He laid some pretty intense philosophical ground work in relation to quantum physics, together with Werner Heisenberg and Einstein. And from all the stories I've heard of him, he was just an all around curious and creative guy. Easily one of my top ten people I'd like to meet.

Back in his heyday, Bohr speculated that the time it takes to a person to react is shorter than the time it takes to consciously act.…

Physicists (and Physics Aficionados) are Human Too

Physicists are playful people. They like a good joke and a rib, although some may not admit it. When I worked for the University of Arizona Physics Department, some of the loudest laughter in the building could be found coming from professors’ offices. An academic might be sharing a humorous account of a data mistake or a lab goof with his or her post doc or grad student (“and this is where I wrote > instead of <, thus condemning us all to a world without gravity!”) and a big belly chortle could be heard from down the hall.
Rarely did I hear any physics professors screaming, although like all humans, they probably did. I myself occasionally yelled while in my office and sometimes it got so loud people banged on the door to find out if I was in peril or having a nervous breakdown. One time in particular, I was typing a cold email to a scientist who I knew could be a very important contact for me and the department. But I was having writer’s block and I couldn’t find the words to …

And they're off!

Space shuttle Endeavor lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:14 a.m. this morning. Clouds had delayed the launch the day before, and while the sky was still dark, the control room took advantage of a hole in the clouds to set Endeavor on its way. Great NASA footage of the event:



Endeavor is the 130th space shuttle flight, and is also one of the last; at least for the current space shuttle program. Only four manned shuttle flights are scheduled to take place after Endeavor.

After the shuttle Columbia exploded on reentry in 2003, NASA and the review panels set up to investigate the incidence made the decision that fixing the exact problem that caused the Columbia disaster wasn't enough. It was time for a new fleet of space shuttles, and the old ones would be retired in 2010.

Besides building new shuttles, NASA is, at the moment, struggling to define what the tasks and goals of its manned space flight program should be. Should we go to the moon? To Mars? Somewhere fur…

Chicken Head Tracking

Chicken head what?

Youtube aficionados may have already seen this video. Once the giggles die down, consider the mechanism that makes this possible! (The chicken makes a loud noise at the end, which thoroughly frightened my coworkers. Just a warning if you're not wearing headphones.)



Hummingbirds are also good at keeping their heads very still while they flap their wings furiously:



The purpose of this, for the chicken, is to keep the her wits about her - i.e. make sure she knows which way is up, and where potential threats are in relation to her. To do it, the chicken has to have sensory information flooding into her brain, telling her how her body is moving.

The technique - which you could generally call "tracking" but is also pretty much the same thing as "dead reckoning" (or is it ded reckoning?) - is utilized by aircraft and some car navigation systems. (I love it when "high tech" turns up in Nature.) The chicken's body communicates its movements …

Is the Ozone Keeping Out Cosmic Rays?

A paper that appeared recently on arXiv.org (a site where people can post physics papers that have not been reviewed or edited by any journals) and the Technology Review blog, says that the volume of cosmic rays that reach particle detectors on Earth matches up with temperature fluctuations in the ozone layer. Is there a direct correlation?

Well - lets back up.

The researcher who put the paper on the arXiv is with the IceCube experiment, which is a neutrino detector buried under the ice in Antarctica. IceCube is looking for neutrinos - subatomic particles that barely interact with regular matter. But occasionally, very very occasionally, they do interact. So scientists have built VERY sensitive detectors to catch those rare few.

Those neutrino detectors are so sensitive that they can't help but catch all the other particles coming at them (particles that do interact with regular matter). Namely, cosmic rays (which are mostly mesons) come hurtling through space (they are believed to b…

Study Physics - It's the Whole Enchilada

If you're gonna study something, you might as well study physics. At least that's what I used to tell my students when I taught at the University of Arizona. Physics is the heart of all, physics is the whole enchilada, physics is totality, physics is everything, physics is existence. Every morsel of our lives, every fabric of our being, every bit and piece of all that stuff that we see and don't see is driven by, exists because, and perhaps most importantly is a manifestation of physics. My God (pun totally and shamelessly intended): when you put it that way, why isn't everyone studying physics in school?

Oh yeah - it's hard stuff. Or at least that's what people sitting next to me on airplanes tell me. That is when they even know what the word "physics" means and to what it refers. I think most average Joes might have some idea that physics has to do with gravity, "particles" (whatever those are), levers, pulleys and fulcrums (whatever those…

I love a baseball post!

My computational physics professor in college was a baseball fanatic, and insisted on pushing that obsession onto his students. So for most of the semester we wrote algorithms that would map the path of a baseball pitch, based on variables like the angle of release, the speed and the spin of the ball. We demonstrated that very small changes in any of these variables can drastically change where the ball ends up.

That was some years ago, and these days I couldn't program my way out of a paper bag, but I find it interesting that my professor was not the only scientist trying to break down the game of baseball. Studies on the physics and science of baseball pop up all the time, and a new one out from Brown University actually found it helpful to temporarily suspend the laws of physics to get the answer they were looking for.

Take this new study that...wow, HANG ON. Can I just point you to the picture of the owl in 3D glasses? Also the photoshopped picture of the owl participating in a …