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Showing posts from June, 2010

The secret of Saturn's hexagon

Admittedly, any mystery involving geometry does not sound all that thrilling (though this one does have a sweet video), I promise this one is. For the last 30 years astronomers have been mesmerized by why Saturn has a gigantic hexagon encircling its North Pole. Most of the distinct bands that characterize Saturn's surface are circular, formed by gas jet streams at various latitudes. However, when the Voyager spacecraft flew over Saturn in 1988, astronomers noticed that one of the bands is a very distinct hexagon with sides nearly the diameter of earth. Someone concocted a theory to explain the geometric voodoo and attributed it to a giant vortex along one of the hexagon’s sides. It sounded reasonable; the vortex was certainly big enough to manipulate the course of the planet's jet stream. But then when Cassini went back a few years ago, the hexagon was still the same as ever and the vortex was nowhere to be seen. Saturn's jig is up though. As explained by Science N

DIY Fusion: There goes the neighborhood

The BBC ran a story last week detailing how an amateur physicist from Brooklyn had successfully built his own fusion reactor in an empty warehouse in the heart of a residential neighborhood. In the video above you see a bubble detector picks up a tiny-dot, evidencing fast neutrons have been generated and hence fusion has occurred. I remember reading the story of the so-called radioactive Boy Scout a few years ago, a disenchanted teenager had managed to create a radium gun in his parents shed using americium-241 scraps from smoke detectors. In his attempt to build a breeder reactor , he nearly killed himself and irradiated his entire neighborhood to the point that the EPA had to disassemble the shed and put it in hazardous waste drums. Those kinds of nuclear materials aren't produced from fusion so it isn't dangerous in the same way, and that's part of the appeal. Two light nuclei fuse together to form a heavier nuclei and the process lets off a tremendous amount of

Small things can make all the difference

Neutral, immeasurably small and more common than Ray Bans on hipsters; and yet despite their abundance, neutrinos have proven frustratingly hard to nail down. In part, because they rarely interact with other matter and pass freely through everything around us. A group of physicists at Fermilab might have just made major strides in our understanding of neutrinos though. We've known for some time that neutrinos come in three varieties: electrons, muons and taus. However, in the '90s an experiment at Los Alamos suggested there could be another - the "sterile" neutrino , so named because it's even more reluctant to interact with matter. The idea is very appealing because it could answer the dark matter question and it's thought you would need to use gravity waves to detect them. But in 2007 a Fermilab experiment, named MiniBooNE , seemingly disproved the idea by failing to find them. But MiniBooNE brought the issue back to the surface earlier this month whe

The Physics of the Blues Brothers

This week, we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the greatest musical comedy of all time: The Blues Brothers. Yes, it is better than School of Rock. Anyone who's seen the movie is well aware of the seemingly physics defying stunts. The police cruiser jumping, bullet dodging, redneck evading and explosion surviving; all wound seamlessly together with a killer blues soundtrack. And it was all real. While maybe they wouldn't haven't survived very far into the movie without divine intervention, they really did all the stunts, from demolishing an apartment building to jumping a retired police cruiser over the open 95th street bridge. Surprisingly, no one was seriously injured in the process. If you haven't seen the movie (you're a sad soul), let me summarize for you. Two blues musicians, a recently released convict named Jake Blues (John Belushi) and his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), must save the Catholic orphanage they were raised in by earning $5,000 dollars and

Quantum mechanics may explain how animals migrate across vast distances

Many species use our planet's magnetic field to migrate across vast distances with incredible accuracy. Monarch butterflies move across the North American continent every season, spending winters in Mexico and California, and spreading throughout the US in summer as they pursue their host plant. Their journey is so long that by the time they reach their winter destination again, the population will be many generations removed from the one that left the previous year. Numerous other birds, insects and mammals accomplish similar feats of navigation every year, and physicists believe that quantum mechanics may lie at the heart of what makes it possible. A group of Austrian physicists published an article in Physical Review Letters this month explaining how they could enhance or reduce the performance of an animal's chemical compass using quantum entanglement . Entanglement describes a quantum mechanical state where two objects are connected in a way that prevents understandi

Tipping the cosmic scale

A hundred billion stars here, a hundred billion stars there, pretty soon it adds up to some serious mass. Estimates of just how much mass the Milky Way contains have varied pretty significantly in the past, but one lone star may push up the upper bound for our galaxies weight. Astronomers in Germany found the fastest moving star ever seen in our galactic halo and say that in order for the Milky Way to hold on to it, the galaxy must have a higher mass than previously thought. Previous studies done by an international team of astronomers on 2400 stars in the galactic halo indicated the mass should be about 1 trillion times the mass of our sun. But the German team says this one star could throw out the earlier numbers. "It was immediately clear that this star must be something special and interesting," said team astronomer Norbert Przybilla in an interview with Physics World. The astronomers say the Milky Way must have a mass at least 2 trillion times that of the sun. O

The tetrahedron of fire

On Saturday, a 500 acre fire in Flagstaff, AZ was started by some guy , apparently lacking the foresight God gave pistachio nuts, who dumped his burning campfire coals on the forest floor instead of properly putting them out. The next day, some (presumably unrelated) equally responsible person left a campfire burning and just walked away. The first fire has stopped growing, but the second reached 10,000 acres in around the first 24 hours and is only 10-percent contained. As I blogged about a couple weeks ago, until June I'd been living in Flagstaff, AZ. If you follow the news you've probably seen it's now surrounded by fires and burning in the wake of my absence (you can see a live view of the smoke plume from the fire in my alma-matter's webcam ). Perhaps a public service announcement/review of fire physics will help future fire starters realize why hot things burn and to put out their fires like every girl/boy scout knows how. Classically, the nature of fire is ex

A universe of atoms, an atom in the universe

Maybe I'm thinking too deeply for a Monday, but last week's blog on science as art and a few too many museum outings had me contemplating the beauty of discovery all weekend. The great physicist Richard Feynman (of QED, Los Alamos, space shuttle, strip clubs and bongo drum fame), was enamored with the pure joy of finding things out. Feynman believed the beauty of science could outweigh what any poet or painter might ever imagine about the world. The deeper our knowledge of any question, the greater our enjoyment can be, he thought. And he had a way of taking this child-like fascination with the world around him and turning it into scientific discovery. Feynman's Nobel Prize came from watching someone throw a spinning dinner plate in the Cornell cafeteria. Feynman noticed a relationship between the wobble of the plate and the rate of its spin, he worked out the equations for wobbles and eventually applied them to the spin of electrons. The implications for QED were profou

San Francisco: Mobile phones need warning attached

City approves first U.S. law requiring retailers to notify customers about cell phone radiation. San Francisco is set to be the first in the nation to require that retailers tell consumers how much radiation their brain will absorb from new phones. The ordinance -- approved on Tuesday and now awaiting Mayor Gavin Newsom's signature -- is an attempt to err on the side of caution in the debate over whether or not cell phones can cause brain cancer. Despite numerous studies, medical researchers haven't found conclusive evidence that cell phones increase the risk of brain cancer, and many physicists say that there's no need to investigate a possible link between mobile phones and cancer because the radiation emitted by the phones theoretically can't affect brain tissue. California politicians, however, have moved to act preemptively in response to public concerns over the often contradictory reports. "The science is in, if there were no concern there would b

A scientific justification for art

For two years in college I lived with art majors and whenever I didn't like a piece of abstract modern art I got cut-down for some absurd thing like being too scientific and not creative enough. I've always looked at it like Feynman , understanding the science behind how the world works gives you a greater appreciation for the beauty of a flower or sunset, and most certainly the cosmos. You may have seen Josiah McElheny's art before, but cosmologist David Weinberg put a paper on arXiv last week that explains the science behind it. If you haven't seen it before, McElheny (a prominent sculptor) received an art residency at Ohio State University and worked with Weinberg (an accomplished OSU cosmologist) to create an accurate artistic version of the big bang. While the photos make it look like an explosion (not at all how to think of the big bang), they actually have a really cool explanation to accompany the pieces. The center represents the origin of the universe

Quants destroy: How physicists tried to bring down the global financial market

In my continuing list of things to blame physicists for, we can now add the near crash of the global financial system. Apparently, the volatile investments called derivatives , which resulted in some of our largest banking corporations going under and the massive bailout of countless others, was all the idea of some punk physicists trying to make it rich on Wall Street. While the guy who actually brought the idea to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange some decades ago wasn't a physicist, apparently we still get the wrap for pushing it with that spell-binding thing called math. Watch CBS News Videos Online From 60 Minutes: "They are complex, in effect, mortgage science projects devised by these Nobel-tracked physicists who came to work on Wall Street for the very purpose of creating complex instruments with all manner of detailed protocols, and who gets paid when and how much. And the complexity of the structures is at the very center of the crisis of credit today." Wh

A smell test to save old books

Paper is an enduring medium. Much of what we know about our history has stemmed from scrolls, scraps and pieces of parchment that have lasted millennia. But when exposed to the wrong conditions or made on the cheap, paper degrades quickly. Everyone can distinguish the smell of such a book, walking through a library or old book store you can often pick out the musty, earthen smell amidst the stacks. A team of European researchers has found a way to capitalize on that pungent smell to help preserve and protect old books and historic documents. The team made use of physics based techniques like spectroscopy, gravimetrics (a complex way of determining mass), and a number of analytical chemistry techniques, to very precisely examine the way old books smell. Not all documents can be protected like they were the Constitution, and eventually years of exposure to sunlight, humidity and heat cause the paper to out-gas several hundred different types of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as ti

Laserfest video contest: An honorable mention

When the winners of the 2010 APS Laserfest video contest were announced last month, there was one name noticeably not on the list-last year's winner James Lincoln. The guy can make a pretty good video and he's as enthusiastic about physics education and the promotion of women in physics as anyone we've come across. His video was great too, but this year's contest had a lot of incredible entries. So, when James emailed us asking for an honorable mention, we thought we'd throw him a bone by doing a profile of him on the Physics Buzz blog. We like you James, so here's your honorable mention. Physics Buzz : What do you do? Are you a teacher, student, a dedicated physics geek etc.? James Lincoln : I am a teacher; high school and college, mostly high school. I am also researching in the history of physics and in physics education specifically differentiated instruction based on gender. In history, I focus on the origin of the symbols we use in physics. I knew i

Solar cells fake photosynthesis using berry juice

The Millennium Technology Prize , which is like the Nobel of the tech world, was given out Wednesday for a crazy solar cell that can make renewable energy on the cheap. The Graetzel's cell , named for prize-winner Michael Graetzel , eliminates the need for extensive manufacturing of solar cells by capturing the sun’s energy with a sort of artificial photosynthesis. It works like this: an ultrathin layer of titanium-oxide nanoparticles is laid down and then covered with dye made from berries that absorbs the sunlight like chlorophyll in leaves. Simple enough, but it's a cool way to make a thin-film solar cell . And the simplicity means it can be made in mechanically sound, flexible sheets without worrying about trees falling on them or hail shattering its casing. It's not as efficient as the current photovoltaics in use, but it's cheap enough that it more than makes up for the loss of energy-per-foot. The technology and resources needed for solar panels until now

Recombination (and the briefest history of time)

The briefest history of time: illustrated edition The Big Bang occurs; within 10^-37 seconds the universe undergoes inflation and expands exponentially as it becomes homogeneous; symmetry breaking follows and sets the laws of the universe in place as we now know them; by the time the universe is one-millionth of a second old it's cooled enough for a (still very hot) plasma of protons, electrons etc. to form; the temperature plunges in the universe as it expands, when it reaches 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit it enters the Recombination Era and electrons and protons can finally stick together to make hydrogen atoms the epoch leaves behind the Cosmic Microwave Background-radiation (CMB) as evidence of its existence; eventually hydrogen leads to stars, planets and you and me… We all know the rest of the story. (Stay tuned for my interpretative dance version next week) Recombination The Era of Recombination part of this has been of great interest to physicists in recent years as it&

Sweet, albeit brief vindication for Obamaspace

In May of last year the president ordered a review of NASA's human space flight program. His panel eventually concluded the space shuttle should be grounded and NASA's resources should be moved toward private spaceflight, setting the stage for a new rash of criticism for the president. Normally dormant space legends like Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and James Lovell awoke from a long sleep to openly ridicule the president for retiring the space shuttle, putting a lot of people in Texas and Forida out of work and rerouting American astronaut flights through Kazakhstan. The astronauts claimed that Obama's plans to abandon a return to the moon were misguided and balked at the idea of depending on developments in private space flight to get us into space. "If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered,"Neil Armstrong told a senate committee in May. "I do not bel

Flying Before (and Faster than) the Wind

Sometimes you just have to say "sorry." It appears that it's my turn. Yesterday, I saw a story on Wired touting the first full-scale demonstration of a wind powered machine that can move faster directly downwind than the wind itself is moving. The piece instantly got my perpetual motion scam meter ringing. So I did what any well-meaning physics fan would do -- I flamed the shysters in the comments section of the article. I now know I was wrong. I spent most of last night a drawing up page after page of force diagrams and pouring over videos like this . . . . . . in an attempt to figure out how they managed what was clearly a deception. Instead, I have seen the light. I'm convinced that Rick Cavallaro and his buddies at Thin Air Designs and San Jose State University deserve a hearty pat on their collective backs for sticking with their convictions. My belief that outrunning the wind is impossible stemmed from hours on sailboats as a kid. You can build up a lot

Removing the God factor: Morgan Freeman discusses 'creation' on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

I thought it was odd when Discovery Communications gave a certain former Governor known for her love of hunting wolves from helicopters a show on Alaska and its wildlife. But now Discovery's Science Channel is premiering a show this week called “ Through the Wormhole ,” hosted by Morgan Freeman. How could I possibly have any problem with Morgan Freeman? Well, as an actor I think he's incredible , but judging from the interview he gave on the Daily Show last week, I think Morgan Freeman may have never emerged from thinking he was God . The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c Morgan Freeman Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party Throughout the interview, Freeman frequently invokes what he calls the "God factor." The argument goes like this: if science doesn't understand something, then it must be the work of God. The argument is as old as society itself and (unfortunately) it's still very much alive in Am

Physics, Phast Cars and Breaking Glass

The Lexus LFA is a nice enough ride, I suppose. What's not to like about 500 horsepower supercars? 'Course, it has too few seats for me (only two). Oh yeah, it also costs $375,000!!!! But that doesn't mean this video about the physics behind the LFA ad isn't still really cool. What I need now is a behind-the-scenes explanation of why you have to make ads to sell an ultra expensive, very limited production supercar. Do oil Sheikhs watch much TV?

The Real World: Geneva

The folks from PFILM have released the latest episode of the most awesome show on the web, Colliding Particles . Their sixth episode, “Beam,” stalks particle physicists at the LHC and reveals the level of competition between the Higgs hunting teams of the ATLAS and CMS instruments. Okay, so there's no sexual exploits (these are physicists after all) or made-for-TV drama, but it's still really cool. As the show's creators describe it on their site, Colliding Particles is meant to "stimulate interest in the process of scientific discovery." The ten minute-ish episodes do a fantastic job of it too. It's like the best TED talks you've ever seen, but pieced together with a dramatic storyline. I would guess the public assumes a physicist's life is as exciting as I think investment banking would be, but the continued success of this genre shows that the process of discovery is still something dramatic and inspiring to people. "I've always

BP: Blame Physics

As British Petroleum continues to struggle plugging the hole they made in the Gulf, I keep seeing ridiculous debates on my Facebook newsfeed about exactly who is to blame for our nation’s biggest environmental catastrophe. Some blame BP’s exploitation of government loopholes and a series of mistakes, others say it was environmental regulations that pushed them that far out in the Gulf to begin with. As it turns out though, they’re all wrong. Physics is truly to blame. Methane hydrates , also known as fire ice, were thought to be confined to the outer reaches of the solar system until fairly recently. It’s most abundant in places like the icy moons of Uranus and Saturn. As BP is now well aware though, they also exist in significant deposits under our ocean floor and form readily in cold, deep water. You can see in the video below, the sea floor under the Deep Water Horizon is full of methane (the lighter stuff coming out with the oil). Reviewing our physics of pressure… If you app

Neutrino news

As reported yesterday in the WSJ , astronomers in Antarctica are building a telescope out of ice on the Earth’s southernmost continent. The project is being headed by the University of Wisconsin and is expected to cost a cool $270-million, with NSF covering the vast majority of funding. Appropriately called Ice Cube , the project will use one square kilometer of ice to create a detector that can glimpse the rare instances where water-ice atoms and neutrinos collide. The astronomers can then use their observations to do something that has never been done before-create a neutrino map of the sky. The mass of a neutrino hasn’t been precisely determined yet (more on that in a minute), but they are strikingly small. The subatomic particles can pass through solid matter at nearly the speed of light without having a collision. Neutrinos are more common than even protons and neutrons and these high-energy neutrinos frequently emanate from cosmic explosions, such as gamma-ray bursts . In th