Wednesday, May 26, 2010

As the Universe Explodes...

You know that old soap opera called As the World Turns? The title suggested something about how time marches forward and our lives go on with it and there's nothing you can do but deal with it. You can't stop your second cousin -- who actually turns out to be your mother, even though she is barren which is why she kidnapped your real mothers only child who you who would think would be you but actually turns out to be your biological father, from marrying the man who cast a demon on you and then fell in love with the demon, any more than you can stop the Earth from turning.

But I am here to tell you that we should change the name of that soap opera to As the Universe Explodes. Because if you thought human lives were dramatic and that the rest of the universe might as well be Walden Pond, well, sir, you are mistaken. Things are dramatic out there.

Scientists using data from the Gemini Telescope have found a galactic nursery ready to churn out new stars at a striking rate for a galaxy its size. The intense production appears to be due to a galactic bubble keeping all the gas and heat in one place. From the Gemini press release:

Generally, starburst galaxies show some signs of interaction with another galaxy and a close galactic encounter is usually responsible for sparking increased levels of star-birth activity. However, NGC 1313 is a neighborless “drifter,” far away from any other packs of galaxies. The cause of its deformed shape and high rate of star formation is not obvious.

In radio studies of the underlying gas distribution aimed at solving the mystery of this galaxy’s active star formation rate it appears that the edge of an expanding “superbubble” is causing gas to pile up and spur the formation of stars. Dr. Stuart Ryder, Australian Gemini Scientist at the Anglo-Australian Observatory who has studied this galaxy extensively explains, “What triggered the superbubble is still a mystery. It would have required about a thousand supernovae to go off in the space of just a few million years, or else something punched its way through the disk and set it off like ripples in a pond.”


Also exploding this week is the plasma of our sun. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is sending back amazing images of plasma eruptions from the sun's surface. These definitely affect the performance of Earth-orbiting satellites. From an article at Physics World:

The ejections are likely to travel around 500 kilometers per second and as a result astronomers have found it difficult to clearly observe such huge ejections. "All we could previously do is see just a blur of this phenomena," says Title.
Study the ejections will help give fair warning to satelites, and of course teach us more about our own amazing star.

Oh, and to top it all off, it turns out that just like your evil twin sister who tried to sabotage your perfect wedding because she was in love with your future husbands brother who want to take revenge on the...OK, I forget what that was about, but a new study from scientists at the University of Washington has shown that planets we thought might be habitable may actually become uninhabitable, thanks to the irregular behavior of their neighbors. The shaky orbit of one planet could cause devastating changes in the climate and water availability of nearby planets. One bad apple can spoil a nearby apple I guess.

But I should hold back. Getting angry at the unstable planet may be a premature conclusion. Because it depends on our definition of "habitable." A neighboring planet with an odd orbit could change the length of a day for a neighboring planet, but that doesn't mean life couldn't adapt to such an oddity. From Wired magazine:

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tilted Exoplanet Orbits

Planets around a distant star don't all lie in the same plane.

The eight larger planets in our solar system -- including Earth -- all orbit the sun in pretty much the same plane. Planets located around other stars, called exoplanets, have also seemed to conform to this rule. But a new observation shows that some exoplanet systems are different: the data suggests that some exoplanets orbit a single star in different planes -- tilted relative to each other.

Barbara McArthur, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin, reported today the careful measurement of two planets circling Upsilon Andromedae, a star which sits in space about 44 light-years from our sun. Using the Hubble Space Telescope in combination with ground-based telescopes, McArthur and her colleagues determined the masses and the orbital tracks of two of the three planets known to travel around this star. Surprisingly, the two orbits trace out planes that are tilted 30 degrees with respect to each other.

"The findings mean that future studies of exoplanetary systems will be more complicated," McArthur said at a press conference today at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Miami. "Astronomers can no longer assume that all planets orbit their parent star in a single plane."

How did the one planet get so much askew from the other planet in this curious system? Astronomers have long thought that such misaligned orbits were not possible.

Another speaker at the press conference who had not taken part in the observations, Philip Armitage of the University of Colorado in Boulder, said that in the early life of a planetary system -- when planets form from material left over from the consolidation of a central star -- the inner region of space around the new star is overcrowded as it settles down into a stable form. This stabilization process, which may eject one or more planets, might be responsible for the existence of the one planet orbiting at such an inclined angle, Armitage said. Later planet-planet interactions might also be responsible for the tilt.

Discovered for the first time only about 20 years ago, exoplanets have now been spotted in the hundreds.

Phil Schewe
Inside Science News Service
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Monday, May 24, 2010

The 10 Hour Day

The metric system's biggest appeal is it's base unit of 10. 10's are just a whole lot easier to work with. For scientific measurements, 10's make it easy to calculate changes in orders of magnitude (that is, from millimeters to centimeters to kilometers instead of trying to do the math in feet or miles). Tens are just easier to manipulate. We have ten fingers and ten toes. We (in the US) use a base unit of 10 in our monetary system.

So why not make our days, hours, minutes and seconds into units of ten as well?

As it turns out, we almost did. The metric system, in a slightly less evolved state than what it is now, was adopted in France shortly after the French Revolution around 1789. The basis for the metric system had been around for about 200 years, but France's adoption snowballed into an almost world-wide change over to metric.

The Revolution lasted about ten years and saw the centuries old French monarchy toppled by civilian uprisings and replaced by a democratic system. Adopting metric was not only practical, it represented getting rid of the old regime and starting fresh. French leaders then decided to also make a calendar based on units of 10, and recruited mathematicians and scientists to help put it together (this included enlisting the help of Joseph-Louise Lagrange, whose name should be painfully familiar to calculus students).

The new calendar, known as the French Republican Calendar divided a year into twelve months (three for each of the four seasons), each made up of three 10-day weeks, with each day divided into 10 hours, divided into 100 minutes, divided into 100 seconds. So one of these new hours was actually about 144 minutes, or more than two traditional hours.

That didn't last long, for a number of reasons. I have my theory.

I'd have to argue that the calendar, measurements of time, are much more ingrained in our day to day lives than measurements of distance, length, mass, ect. Many people, including physicists, make up their own measurements to suit what they are measuring, or use comparison as often as exact measurements. For example, if I am trying to tell someone the distance between two locations, I often tell them a unit of time. It's 30 minutes away. What I mean is it's, assuming we are using the same method of transportation, this is how long it will take you to get there. That is often more valuable than distance. Have you ever used an object as a unit of comparison rather than an exact unit? Something was as big as a softball, a car, a house. Often times this is just easier than giving specific units of mass and size. Physicists have also come up with abbreviated measurements for values they use frequently. In the realm of the very large or the very small, traditional units (even with those handy units of 10) aren't always helpful. An Astronomical Unit is the distance from the Earth to the sun, and this is often better than giving the distance in millions of kilometers.

But this seems to be less often the case with time. There are units of time used in physics to refer to incredibly small or incredibly large lengths of time, but I would argue that these are used less often than in the case of other units. There is, for example, the Galactic Year, equal to 250 million years, but I don't hear this tossed around a lot. When talking about the universe, we still say that it is 13 or 14 billion years old (even though that time frame is difficult to grasp), but we measure its distance in light years, not kilometers, to make it easier to understand. The very smallest unit of time we have measured is the attosecond, or 10^-18 seconds. At that scale we are still using seconds, yet most chemists and physicists use angstroms when talking about measurements of length around 1x10^-10.

And of course that's not the only reason a new calendar would change things. It would mean the restructuring of some key elements of society, namely the work week. And there is also the religious pull - the Bible holds a seven day week, and in doing so keeps Sunday holy. Unless we wanted to continue to make a day of rest every seven days, which would make "Sunday" actually take place on various days during the week, we'd have to extend the week to ten days. Or, we could have shortened it to five, which would have been nice, but maybe not practical.

The calendar, though ultimately impractical because of how deeply entrenched the Gregorian calendar is in our lives, had some interesting aspects. In the way that the Christian calendar assigns some days to Saints, it assigned every day of the year with some thing. Days ending in 5 were assigned an animal. Days ending in 0 were assigned a tool, and all other days a plant or animal. Had this taken off we would have had The Day of the Cauliflower, The Day of the Blueberry, and The Day of the Marshmallow. You would also see these fun days: the potato, the vat (a tool?), the spinach, the corn salad, the hedge mustard, and the button mushroom. Today would be The Day of the Duck.

The French leaders also tried to divide a circle into 400 degrees, instead of 360 degrees. So instead of doing a 180 on someone, they would say you did a 200. Instead of 90 degrees to a right angle, there would be 100. The mathematician, physicist, sailor, and all around busy guy Jean Charles de Borda spent a lotta time building a new compass to go with the new system. But in the end it didn't stick. With a change like that to the foundation of geometry, you also have to change all of your logarithms and geometric functions like sine, cosine and tangent. As if that stuff isn't tricky enough as it is. And to be honest, dividing a circle into factors of 10 doesn't really make things much easier, since 100 isn't nicely divisible by thirds, which appear quite frequently in geometry. Still, for his good efforts Borda had a crater on the moon named after him, so it wasn't a total waste.

Happy Day of the Duck!

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Laser! And My Mom!

This week we celebrate the creation of the first working laser! And my mom's birthday! YOU GUYS DIDN'T FORGET DID YOU?! I almost did, and so I am, as usual, a little late getting these birthday wishes out.

I did call/email/text my mom a whole bunch of times on her birthday to make her feel loved (which she is), but I haven't even called the laser yet and at this point the more I put it off the more awkward it is going to be so I should really just get it over with.

In terms of gifts, I know my mom will think it is cute and sweet if, for her present, I wish her a Happy Birthday and tell her I that love her in a public forum. So:


See, that was nice. But I don't know if the laser will get as much enjoyment out of the same gesture. He might realize that it actually falls under my job description to write about him here, therefore invalidating the idea of a "gift." I am sorry, laser, but you are so hard to shop for. Seriously, I cannot afford to buy you those 8-foot long Burberry scarves you like so much, they are WAY overpriced and some of us have to pay rent!

Ugh, now I'm making it more awkward by yelling at the laser in his birthday post. But please, laser, take this post as my humble gift offering to you. It is only a tiny thing but it has a lot of heart.

Hmmm....well, it looks like Nature has some nice pieces about the anniversary of the laser. OOoooooohhhhhhkay, I see, so when Nature does it it's a great gift?! Yeah, that's just great, lasers, that's just great.

This is seriously not going well.

What am I trying to do here? Give one of the greatest inventions EVER a birthday present on a blog? What do you get the physics invention that has everything? I mean, this is an invention that seems to get better every day?! Just this week, Nature Photonics featured a paper out this month from a group of researchers who may have solved (on a relative scale) the problem of laser wavefront distortion.

In brief, when you shine a light through certain materials - like one of those frosty windows or, I don't know, wax paper - the light gets refracted and splintered off, which means you can't see through those materials because the light doesn't make it to your eyes before it's path is skewed. This can also happen due to disturbing factors in the environment. With enough knowledge about the system that is skewing the light, the researchers found they could begin to correct for the damage to the beam of laser light, or "sculpt" it back to new. This means they could keep lasers highly focused as they pass through difficult material - like your body. The team says they think the technique will assist in medical imaging, which is an area of constant concern as it is often used in disease detection. This description makes this process sound very easy, and that is mostly due to the fact that I don't understand it. But I am pretty sure that a lot of hard work and PhD's went into this.

And you know what? Even though I don't understand this paper, it has jut reminded me of something very important: THE LASER IS HUMAN, TOO.

Lasers are flawed just like the rest of us. Laser, without the help of your family (physicists and engineers) you would not be able to exist the way that you do! It's not just that they gave birth to you, it's that they steered you and guided you and helped you keep things in perspective when they started to get fuzzy. They put a roof over your head and fed you and clothed you (just go with the metaphor). They gave you so much! How do you ever thank someone for that?! Try and try as you might, you can never fully pay them back! You can only take advantage of the many opportunities that they provided for you, and hopefully, one day, they will get to see you writing nonsensical rants on a blog that is supposed to be about science.

Err....I mean, doing important laser things. Or whatever.

You get my point, lasers. Yes, you are really awesome, but only because scientists and engineers believed in you! And when the rest of the world gets tired of CD players, and when cats stop chasing laser pointers, it will be the physicists and the engineers who find something else to do with you, some way to improve you, and make the world love you again. I am no physicist but I am a promoter of science, from its most basic level to its most crucial applications, and you are part of that, laser. So this blog might not look like much, but it represents our greater battle to promote science to the world. And that is a gift you can't put a price on.

Unless you want to talk hourly rates. But I don't want this to get weird.

So Happy Birthday, Mom and Lasers. I love you. In different ways.


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Babies with Laser Eyes

Yup, this exists.

I thought this would top off our Happy Birthday Lasers week quite nicely.

I love the Internet.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's Intolerance Got to do with Science?

I have a long list of people I'd like to meet someday (Lyle Lovett, Sergey Brin, Vera Rubin. . .), and a much shorter list of folks I hope never to meet. I'm not going to elaborate on the second list, except to say that I added one more name to it today - Jonathan I. Katz.

(I'm not talking about this Jonathan Katz, he's definitely on my want-to-meet list).

Katz is a professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, and was briefly a member of Steven Chu's team of scientists who met in Houston to offer advice on stemming the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Katz is also an extreme, self-declared homophobe, who happens to have controversial opinions on a laundry list of things ranging from diversity on college campuses to learning disabilities to terrorism.

Apparently, the Obama administration isn't too fond of him either. They demanded that Katz be cut from Chu's team because his opinions were serving as a distraction from the mission at hand.

I am shocked and offended. But it's Katz's firing that has me in a tizzy, not his repugnant opinions. If the other members of the team were having trouble dealing with Katz (which wouldn't surprise me - after all , his writings sure make him seem abrasive), I could understand that he would have to go. But I fail to see how protests by outside groups could be distracting Chu, Katz, and the rest of the team from getting their work done.

Yes, I hate many of the things Katz has to say, and disagree with most of the rest of his opinions, but he wasn't in the Gulf to work on human rights. He was there as a scientist. His personal views are entirely beside the point, so long as they aren't related to his scientific expertise.

In short, I believe that we should NEVER vet scientists based on anything other than their scientific achievements and knowledge. If we allow politics to get in the way of science then science itself eventually becomes nothing but a reflection of the prevailing political views.

While I have to admit that my convictions were put to the test as I read Katz's creepy little essays, I'm glad to say that my belief in the the separation of science and politics is intact. I hope I never bump into him at a science conference, but I also hope I never lose my conviction that Katz-the-scientist should be judged solely on his science, regardless of what Katz-the-homophobe has to say when he exercises his first amendment right to spew nonsense and venom.

(In case you're wondering about the image above, it's a memorial to Alan Turing. He was one of the most brilliant people of the last century. He was also gay. I doubt we'll ever see a memorial like that for Katz.)

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Neuroscience Behind Stupid Physics Tricks

I swear Buzz Skyline and I did not plan this, but immediately after I watched his post Stupid Physics Tricks (DO NOT DO THIS AT HOME) I found a new article in Nature that gives a better indication of why on Earth someone might try something like this.

Adolescents, teenagers, young adults, ungrateful ruffians, trouble makers, borderline insane people, our future, are sort of a species all their own. The transformation that we all undergo from pre-teen to teen can sometimes hit our parents and family members in the face like a fast moving truck. And coming out of the haze of teen-hood is like waking up from a morphine induced comma. We look back wondering why we ever did the things we did.

Stupid behavior on the part of teens is often credited to kids simply not feeling the impact of negative consequences, or receiving more intense stimulation from positive outcomes. Thus, they seem impervious to negative outcomes, oblivious to things that seem so outrageously not-worth-the-risk to the rest of us. But a new study shows that kids may actually experience an increased appreciation for positive responses, meaning they simply get way more enjoyment than adults out of getting on a merry-go-round powered by a motorcycle wheel.

The study, lead by Jessica Cohen at UCLA, placed teenagers in an NMR machine to watch their brain responses to some simple tests (there's your physics). They also tested younger kids and adults, for comparison. The participants had to answer a series of questions where they matched up similar visual images - some of the answers were predictable, while others were random. Either way, the participant earned real money for every answer they got right.

The study showed that teenagers have a higher mental response to positive outcomes than adults. So rather than being oblivious to negative responses, teenagers may simply feel more elation and mental stimulation when things go right. And, like any good addiction, that positive feedback may overwhelm the fear of negative outcomes.

Cohen had this to say in an article by AFP:

"Our research shows that when adolescents get a reward that they're not expecting, their brains are more responsive to that reward," Cohen said in a phone interview.

Previous research, among adult humans and monkeys, has found dopamine surges before an expected reward comes, she noted.

"Some researchers have put forward a theory that striatal regions are fully developed in adolescents but the pre-frontal regions, which put the brakes on, are not," Cohen explained.

"As a result, adolescents get the sensitivity to reward that adults get too. But adults can suppress it and think before they act, or act more responsibly sometimes, whereas teenagers tend not to be able to do this as well."

This information could be helpful in avoiding teen drug addiction and accidental death via stupid, adrenaline pumping stunts. On the flip side, it could also show that too much inhibition leads to a decrease in the positive feeling we get from a surprising outcome.

It also justifies a few other things. Like how even if your mom was right, and you did look ridiculous wearing that thrift-store neon green shirt with the asymmetric collar and all those necklaces and the weird hair things and that really blotchy eye make-up (because that's what the goth kids are doing and while you didn't quite want to be goth you also didn't want to dress like the girls on the dance team so you kind of met them half way but mostly end up just wearing that XXL hooded sweatshirt all the time), it would all have been worth it for the dopamine rush that would come from the slightest look of approval from some cute guy walking down the hall. Yup, that is how I'm going to justify my high school pictures from now on.
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Stupid Physics Tricks

I love this video, but I swear if I EVER catch you trying this you're going to be in a heap of hurt! I'm looking at you, people who have enough appreciation of physics to be stopping by this site at all.

One nice thing about the video is it makes it clear that not all Darwin Awards go to USA contestants.
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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is Ball Lightning Just A Trick of the Mind?

Everyone seemed to enjoy the Mathlete's sassy take on lasers yesterday, which included a rewrite of a Britney Spears song and an attached video with lots of bare midriff. Is that what I have to do to win your hearts?! Well, I'm afraid I just don't have the Mathlete's poetic graces or Britney's trainer, so you'll have to make do with my inane yet informative ramblings.

I am especially excited about today's topic - ball lightning - although I wish I were able to report that the mystery of this unconfirmed phenomenon had been solved. Alas it has not, and in fact, the story has taken a dramatic twist. New findings published in Physical Review A suggest they may simply be due to the magnetic field interaction with our brains. There are a handful of articles out there on this new paper, including a great one in New Scientist by Kate McAlpine, also known as Alpinekat.

Let me back up. Ball lightning may or may not exist, and different reports of ball lightning may actually be observations of different phenomena. Ball lightning was first reported in 1634 during a great big storm in England. Townsfolk reported having seen an 8-foot fireball burst from a bolt of lightning and destroy a church. The destruction was very real, and four people were killed.

In 1960, a survey found that about 5% of the American population reported having seen ball lightning, varying in size from a few centimeters to many meters. There are photos which seem to show ball lightning, but none that have been strictly confirmed as evidence of the phenomenon. The accounts of ball lightning are varied at best, though there are instances where multiple observers have seen the same ball lightning and given agreeing descriptions.
The physical evidence for ball lightning is mixed - in Sweden a ball lightning allegedly went through a window, cutting out a 5 cm in diameter circle in the glass. Other than property destruction, which could also be caused by a lightning bolt, there isn't much to go on.

Scientific experiments have produced visually similar effects in the laboratory, but no one can yet confirm if these experiments are related to or can explain ball lightning. There are multiple theories about what might cause ball lightning, including the notion that they could be black holes.

If you're a long-time follower of the buzz (and have a crazy good memory), you may remember way back in 2007 when Buzz Skyline reported on experimentally generated sulfur fire blobs, which the researchers believed to be artificial ball lightning. From that post:

The experiment may confirm the hypothesis that ball lightning forms when normal lightning vaporizes silicon out [of] soil, wood, metals or plastics. Theoretically, the vaporized silicon forms a cloud of nanometer-sized particles that glows as it oxidizes in the atmosphere."

That paper was published in Physical Review Letters, and now a new paper in Physical Review A says ball lightning may actually be a trick of the mind.

Specifically, someone standing within a few hundred feet of a very specific type of lightning, which generates a specific strength and duration of magnetic field, may experience a mental stimulation similar to that given in electrode therapy. The stimulation may cause hallucinations, which could result in someone thinking they saw a ball of lightning.

Does this mean ball lightning is just a hallucination? Remember that there is speculation that not all reports of ball lightning are actually the same thing. Some of them may be hallucinations, while others might be the phenomenon reported in 2007 in PRL.

From the New Scientist article (referring to
Thomas Kammer of Germany's University of Ulm, "who advised the team on the neurobiological aspects of the work."):

However, he [Kammer] doubts that sightings of ball lightning lasting longer than a few seconds can be explained by TMS hallucinations, since even repetitive return strokes don't last very long.

What's more, the serious burns and deaths attributed to ball lightning need a material explanation.

Now the paper isn't a neurological study; what is confirms is that certain types of lightning do create magnetic fields similar to those used in neurological stimulation, and which are known to induce hallucinations. So rather than confirm or deny the existence of ball lightning, scientists could be getting closer to separating out different phenomena.
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Monday, May 17, 2010

Happy Birthday Laser!


Well, close to happy birthday, I'm just one day late. I'll send flowers and one of those belated birthday cards. Hopefully you have been keeping up with our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first working laser so I don't need to tell you much more. In case you haven't, the first laser was demonstrated by Theodor Maiman on May 16th, 1960. Our own blogger, Mike Lucibella, more commonly known as Quantum, does a better job talking about the history than I ever could so you should go read that.

Just in time for the the birthday, President Obama released a statement saying, among other things, that he is "pleased to join all those celebrating the 50th anniversary of the development of the world's first working laser" and that he "looks forward with real excitement to further advances in this field and new applications as yet undreamed of today." If you would like to read the whole statement, too bad, you can't. However, the laser was quite flattered by Mr. Obama's comments.

Normally you would sing happy birthday to someone on such an occasion, but that song doesn't really teach much about lasers or physics. Instead, I suggest we sing Britney Spear's Crazy, only with alternate lyrics about lasers. So print out the lyrics below and do some creative laser karaoke! Better yet, send us your own music videos of PhysicsCentral's (You've Got Me) Lasing!

(You've Got Me) Lasing

Baby, you start with a core
First one was ruby but now there are more
Pumping shakes its electrons around
So they transition from a state that is ground

In a mirrored cavity
Quantum transitions set the frequency
emission makes a laser lase
photons emitted are all in phase

You've got me Lasing
Electrons leap
Releasing photons so I can keep
Lasing and it looks so bright
Baby turn me on you've got coherent light.

Coherence is the property
That makes it a laser not just an LED
Normal light doesn't work as a team
Photons are in step in a laser beam
emission makes a laser lase
photons emitted are all in phase
You've got me Lasing
Electrons leap
Releasing photons, so I can keep
Lasing and it looks so bright
Baby turn me on you've got coherent light.

Lasing, electrons quantum leap
Releasing photons, I've got to keep
Lasing and it looks so bright
Now you’ve got coherent light.

You've got me Lasing
Electrons quantum leap
Releasing photons so I can keep
Lasing and it looks so bright
Baby turn me on you've got coherent light.

You've got me Lasing
electrons quantum leap
Releasing photons, I've got to keep
Lasing and it looks so bright
Baby turn me on you've got coherent light.
Baby turn me on you've got coherent light.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Look at this Neat Thing! Friday Edition

My blood is a-buzz with good feeling today, dear readers. I'm back from a very relaxing and much needed vacation with the family, where I completely took advantage of my parents' "I never get to buy you stuff anymore" attitude. And now a beautiful spring time weekend lies in front of me! Why have I not adopted this one-day work week before?!

I know some of you are probably so beat from the week that you are ready to punch my lights out, so I hope you'll enjoy this little week-end round up of goodies. Take a breath and let the physics wash over you.

Lets check in with celebrity gossip:
Olivia Wilde likes science!
Jupiter (planets are celebrities here) poses naked!
The 3-D Carnival of Space!!!! (where do you get 3-D glasses these days?)
Poetry About Space on the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory website.

Did you know a lot of PhD physics students graduate and head straight to Wall Street? This isn't a new phenomenon, but with the American public's interest in physics and finance increasing, there's more and more buzz about it. Here's a neat blog post from Forbes about how searching for the Higgs Boson could be akin to searching for the cause of market dips. There's also the writings of Emanuel Derman, one of the first particle physicists to migrate to Wall Street. His book "My Life as a Quant," is out in hardback.

Live and learn! An Australian physicist found an error with the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word siphon. The definition, which has been there for 99 years, stated that siphons function due to atmospheric pressure, when in actuality they function due to on gravity.

Cool blog: My Efficient Planet.

If you're craving something a little richer, I highly suggest indulging in this article by Ron Cowen at Science News about the most recent advances in the search for dark matter, and an argument that has arisen within the community. Putting aside the debate, Cowen's article captures the mood that we are close, oh so close, to a breakthrough discovery.

And then there's this thing. I guess I could try to connect the dots, but you guys get it. Power to women. Power to academics. Educate the youth. Laugh a lot. We do it all.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Funnel Vision

New info about how cells in the eye help guide light into the retina.

The eyes are marvelous instruments for converting outside reality into images lodged inside our brains. A new study of the retina, the light-sensitive region at the back of the eye, solves a mystery as to why the images we see are so sharp.

The light-sensitive cells in the retina -- rod-shaped cells, which can process very low levels of light, and cone-shaped cells, responsible for perceiving color -- pass their electrical signals along to neurons, lengthy cells which, when bundled together as the optic nerve, carry visual information deep into the brain.

Strangely, the neurons which govern this delicate process lie in front of -- not behind -- the receiving rod and cone cells. Even though these neurons are transparent to light, their wrinkled shape distorts the light as it passes through on its way toward the rods and cones. Why aren't the neurons underneath the light-sensitive cells, where they won’t distort the incoming image of the outside world?

The mystery has now been solved by explaining the role of glial cells. Glial cells perform a number of roles around the body, such as bringing nutrients to other cells or holding them in place. This is especially important for glial cells in the brain; they are sometimes referred to as the “glue" of the brain.

Glial cells are also present among the neurons lying above the cones and rods in the retina. A number of years ago experimenters showed that glial cells don’t serve as mere scaffolding for other cells, but can actually channel light and therefore help to facilitate human vision.

Now scientists in Israel have gone the next step by providing a detailed description of how glial cells produce sharp images. Erez N. Ribak and his student Amichai Labin at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, have shown how the vertically-oriented glial cells -- extending from the top to the bottom of the retina -- can funnel light through the neurons and the other layers of the retina down to the photo-sensitive cells -- the rod and cone cells -- where the light is absorbed. In other words, the glial cells are acting as light pipes for delivering visual images of the outside world into the brain.

Furthermore, because of the geometry of the light-guiding glial cells, only light that comes in at pretty a straight-on direction will make it all the way down to where the photo-cells are waiting. Light arriving at oblique angles might enter a glial cell but will not be successfully guided downwards. Instead it will be scattered off to the side. This is origin of our sharp vision.

Ribak and Labin reported their explanation in a recent issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

Inside Science News Service

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Myth of the Physicist Part 2

How perfect! Just as I want to make a post about the Myth of the Physicist in Hollywood, this trailer pops up over at Bad Astronomy!

The 1950's certainly had a big impact on the way scientists are portrayed in movies, particularly physicists. And those movies were certainly influenced by the early comic books where-in some kind of space monster attacked Earth and when all the military power in the world failed to eliminate it, some physicist would come along and figure out its weakness. (On a side note, now-a-days there are lots and lots of very smart scientists working for the military and the government defense sectors, perhaps because they realized from these comic books that brawn won't always win the war.)

Once again I can draw reference to James Kakalios and his book The Physics of Superheroes, where he talks about reading these old comics as a kid and gaining a great love and respect for the physicists who used logic to defeat the monster. Sometimes the comics featured some real physics!

But I don't want to get off track, so fast forward to modern day Hollywood and the use of the physicist as a magic curtain plot device for creating often unrealistic scenarios.

How did we get here? Again, the biggest answer shining in my face is simply - IT'S HOLLYWOOD, LET IT GO!

My friend Correy, who is working on her PhD in particle physics while also writing sci-fi books on the side, had this to say:

Often having a "good story" in science fiction seems to revolve around someone overcoming impossible scientific odds and inventing/discovering the amazing solution filled with hot scientific buzzwords. Often writers ratchet up the tension in a scene/story by either putting in intense time pressure or great cost of failure--often both. So now your amazing scientific breakthrough has to happen in hours... or minutes... or seconds! With this sort of time constraint, there's no way to possibly show how scientists *actually* work. So you get some idealized version that fits the excitement & contrived plot of the story.

And let's be honest, no one wants to watch scientists work like we actually work in real life. Days sitting in front of a computer, cursing at the screen, wandering over to Facebook, reading some blogs. Or a literature search! Woo, that's exciting. Much more exciting to consider physicists in this idealized, super-human brainy light. If your physicist has to stop and consult a reference work, the tension drops. If your physicist drops a factor of two while working out "the critical equations" (because we're human, and in 10 pages of calculus, you *will* drop a factor of two) then you have to show them going back and checking their work, looking for all those dropped negative signs and missing constants--and the tension drops.

And then there's the physicist vs. scientist vs. engineer. In most fiction, these labels are pretty much interchangeable. In real life, every scientist is incredibly specialized. In fiction, they're all generalists--unless the plot depends on a gap in their knowledge. Your string theorist knows about genetics? You betcha. Your engineer has memorized Schrodinger's equations? But of course!

I guess it could be considered flattering that even though Hollywood may greatly, greatly, even absurdly alter how science actually happens, it does, in some way, give credit to science for making great breakthroughs that solve problems.

Because lets not forget - physics is hard. Science is hard. Not so hard that you can't understand it! Or love it! Or talk with a physicist about what he or she does for a living! But it is hard enough that it takes many many years of studying to become a professional (like many professions). And while physics and science and engineering can't quitegive us things like blue-glow-hearts that give us unlimited energy, I think it might be even more impressive that we can make machines like the Large Hadron Collider, which in many ways I find even more amazing than the stuff from Iron Man. But that may also be because I know a little more about what went into the LHC than most people. Teaching people a little more about physics could both increase their ability to recognize the falsehoods of Hollywood, and have even more awe for the realistic things that modern day scientists are doing. That is one thing, I hope, this blog helps to achieve.

OK, now lets get into the hairy woods.

I find it important to address the way that real physicists do or do not fill out the "I know everything" issue because it both reveals their humanity and shows how not all physicists are like this.

There is a mentality among some physicists that because they have climbed the monumental mountain of physics, they have pretty much passed every other profession on their way up. In reality, those other professions are mountains of their own. It is insulting to suggest that the people who specialize in those other mountains (areas of expertise) simply stopped climbing and landed in their current job instead of continuing onward to a physics degree. And it is simply not true.

Now let me emphasize that the vast majority of physicists I have met are NOTHING LIKE THIS. They are good, humble people who's only flaw is that they always want to know more. They are constantly asking questions and have honed their own skills so that they can be best fit to find the answers. They aren't crystal balls and they can't solve the crisis in the Middle East but they are still very intelligent yet humble people.

To illustrate how it can go both ways - a science writer friend of mine who has had far too many experiences with physicists who assume that they are more fit to write about physics than a train physics writer (and even more egotistical things), also married a physicist. So lets not go building up stereotypes. While we still want to try to talk about physicists in general and some of the commonalities that arise, we must remember that all of that talk can never actually tell you about one individual. People are more complex and varied than that.
But my good friend Dan had a very insightful, and humbling, point to make:

I think there's a lot in common between the way physicists are portrayed in
movies and the way, for example, the discovery channel portrays Steven Hawking
as an ultimate authority in the ads for his new tv special (can't remember what it's called at the moment). It seems like it arises from a combination of public attitudes,
media attitudes, and the attitudes of the physicists themselves. When we see a
story with some scientific angle (anything from a story about the LHC to vaguely tangential science content), the reporting agency will often at some point refer to a
physicist or chemist. This puts pressure to explain things on a group of people
whose egos are largely tied up in exactly that, their ability to put together an
explanation of something (and I'm as guilty of this as anybody else in my
field). This contributes to a public image of physicists as a group with an
answer to everything, often couched in terms which can't be readily evaluated
for their validity.

So there is a pressure that physicists, in fact all scientists, recieve from the media and the general public to be authority figures. And that's not to say that most of the time we should be consulting specialized scientists on many issues where our everyday intuition may fail us. Physicists studying these areas have shed light on things like economics and climate science, even the behavior of birds of prey, revealing underlying mechanisms that we can't see from the surface. Still, science will always have more questions than we have answers to. Scientists are just doing the best they can at their jobs, and I know for a fact that if someone has an overly inflated sense of personal worth or ability, that does not come from their profession, it comes from them. There are people like that every where you look. So I guess all I'm saying is can't we all just get along? Give physicists a chance! Live and let calculate! Go to the movies, you look stressed.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Birds of a Feather Attack Together

Video analysis reveals a sophisticated level of flight coordination among bird mobs.

Last summer, physicist Suzanne Amador Kane at Haverford College in Pennsylvania set up an experiment looking at how flocks of small birds on her campus -- swallows -- defend themselves from predators by ganging up and forming mobs.

Mobbing is a fascinating phenomenon, says Kane, because by definition mobs have no hierarchical structures -- there is no pecking order, no lead bird flying out in front for the rest to follow. Nevertheless, ecologists in the field have observed some level of organization within bird mobs. When attacking a single predator, mobs of smaller-sized birds will appear to attack in a highly coordinated fashion.

This is exactly what Kane observed. Working with Haverford student Elias Tousley and Owen Glaze, a local high school student, Kane found that the mobbing swallows were quite sophisticated in their attack.

The Question Is How?

To study the coordination between attacking birds, Kane videotaped a scarecrow made by mounting a stuffed red-tailed hawk on a perch atop a pole located in an open field with available tree coverage nearby. It took no coaxing to attract a mob of local swallows -- typical prey for the local red-tailed hawk predator -- to harass the scarecrow. The swallows mobbed the stuffed hawk with such enthusiastic, in fact, that Kane had to break up the sessions for fear that the swallows would neglect their nests for too long.

"What we see is that mobbing is highly periodic," said Kane.

The videos show about a dozen birds mobbing at a time, following a roughly elliptical orbit -- like an exaggerated planet's motion around the sun. Kane's analysis revealed that the birds seemed to have had a preferred attack frequency, and were constantly changing their flight speed and angles in a highly coordinated fashion during the attack. In the videos, there always appears to be one bird swooping in on a closest approach.

"It's likely that they're timing their attacks in such a way so as to avoid capture," said Kane, commenting to a reporter after Tousley presented the work in March at an American Physical Society meeting in Portland, Ore.

The research is relevant to robotics, Kane adds, because this defense mechanism may help engineers design methods for coordinating the motion of swarms of robots.

Jason Socrates Bardi
Inside Science News Service

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Monday, May 03, 2010

Iron Man 2 and the Myth of the Physicist

I think we can all agree that the movies appearing at your local megaplex are rarely if ever selected based on the actual quality of said movies. That is to say, those movies were going to appear in your local megaplex before they were even made, no matter what the outcome. They were placed there based on marketing strategies and some Hollywood game that relates very little to the lives of regular people. Knowing this, going to a movie at your megaplex is a bit of a gamble: if you lose, you see a piece of garbage and lose two hours of your life forever (sometimes more - I am looking at you Benjamin Button). And a startling amount of the time, you do lose.

With that in mind I will be in line, with my gamblin' chips in hand, to see Iron Man 2!! We all need eyeball candy from time to time!!

Whether that eyeball candy is one of the attractive persons in this movie or one of the attractive explosions created by Mickey Rourke's wiggly-light-saber-arms, I am thinking this will be a movie that my children will never see or care about, but I will definitely gobble it up with a bag of M&M's (bought at the Walgreens across the street because come on, megaplex, $5.50?!).

There is a physics angle to Iron Man 2, or at least there appears to be because one of the main characters (Rourke's villain Whiplash) is a physicist! So are we going to see some physics or what?!

Probably not. Oh, don't get sad, that's not really why you were going to see this movie, was it? It was? Really? Oh you, you are so cute.

It is kind of cool to see physicists as superhero's (or supervillains), just like it's great to see anyone we even remotely relate to become a superhero. Luke Skywalker was a fairly two-dimensional character who represented the desire we all have to be born with some special ability and to participate in great things. Not to mention the glorified fantasy of being faced with a choice between black and white good and evil and choosing the right. Almost all superhero movie characters are exaggerated representations of some aspect of ourselves which then play out the unrealistic fantasies we build in our heads. So maybe it is a fantasy of physicists to build electric-tentacle-arms or become half-robot super humans. And what is wrong with Hollywood wasting a cool hundred million to help us visualize that fantasy? (Besides the starving children in Africa. Don't say starving children in Africa. That is your response to everything! You are not being cute now!).

And of course, we should give Hollywood some leeway. It is Hollywood, after all.

Trouble is - do the non physicists know where to draw the line? Hollywood's portrayal of physicists as the folks who can do absolutely anything (even the impossible) is flattering, but it may also be damaging for a few reasons.

First, it's simply untrue and may actually increase the rift between physicists and the general public.

Speaking strictly about technology - which is often the knowledge attained by physicists put into practical use by engineers - physics has created some pretty amazing things. Cars, planes, iphones, medical treatments, lasers, 3-D movies, and the Large Hadron Collider. We are constantly WOWED by science. Unfortunately, the less someone understands how these things work, the more they begin to believe anything is possible. In other words, if you don't understand the parameters that allow for amazing things (like jets!) you also don't understand the parameters that would prevent other things (like energy generating heart replacements). If you don't understand anything about physics and technology, then it appears to be nothing short of magic, and magic has no bounds (I guess? It is not real, so can we even talk about it having bounds or not?).

Dismissing that idea is not so easy, as my friend David, a science writer points out:

I would guess it's always been the case that in the eyes of many people, a scientist is someone who does things they don't understand and that to them are practically indistinguishable from magic. If so, I would say that the notion that scientists can do impossible things has always been with us, in a way. But certainly physicists acquired a new status of gods of destruction with the Manhattan Project. I think that's part of why Time magazine named Einstein person of the century.
While physics may not be magic, it is very incredible.

But if we take the time to explain those incredible things - like bombs and iphones - we lose the illusion of magic and build up the scope of possibility. While we may lose our faith in the idea that electric-boogaloo-arms and free sources of energy are possible, we gain perspective on the many very incredible things that are possible.

Now you are clearing your throat at me and reminding me that if I am to fully delve into where this idea of physicists as people who can do everything comes from then I must also investigate the role that physicists themselves play. And that, as you very well know, is a very hairy subject. An exceedingly hairy one. I would call this the mother of all hairy subjects, which sounds gross because your mom is not supposed to be the parent with the most hair. This detour from Walgreens to the theater is turning out to be more than what we expected but here we are. I think perhaps we will have to save this for a second blog post and in the meantime eat my M&M's in peace before the comments start to rain down.

Let it rain!

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