Skip to main content


Showing posts from May, 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

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. &q

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 democ

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: HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM! I LOVE YOU! I HOPE YOU LIKED THE FLOWERS! 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

Babies with Laser Eyes

Yup, this exists. I thought this would top off our Happy Birthday Lasers week quite nicely. I love the Internet.

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

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

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.

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 m

Happy Birthday Laser!

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

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 int

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 distor

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 featu

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 attackin

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