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Showing posts from July, 2010

The physics of futility

Open mic: Should science theorize about the unverifiable?

The cover of Shel Silverstein’s famous Book of Futilities depicts two men in an obviously hopeless predicament. Thoroughly chained to both the floor and ceiling in an inescapable room, one prisoner exclaims to the other “now, here’s my plan.” I was reminded of the old cartoon the other week when the front page of the New York Times science section had an article (albeit very well written and worth reading) on a physicist who claimed gravity didn’t exist. Of course he had zero experimental evidence and few in his field even understood his theory, but it got me thinking: Has physics reached the point of futility?

The greatest problem facing generations of physicists has been the inability to unite gravity - as described in Einstein’s general relativity - with quantum mechanics. Both theories work very well on their own in making predictions, but the common ground between them may lead to a description of our origins, allowing us t…

Automotive X-Prize reaches final stages

Last week Indy Car racing legend Al Unser Jr. rounded the corners at the Michigan International Speedway in a car with a top speed of 75 MPH, and still managed to make it into the finals. This time the car wasn't an opened-wheeled, gas chugging race car speeding its way to a CART victory - Unser gave that up years ago. No, this was a battery electric car called the ZAP Alias competing for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize.

While the more famous X-Prize from a few years ago awarded $10 million for the first private craft to take people into space and return them safely, the automotive X-Prize is a series of awards for achievements in extreme automobile efficiency.

The 111 entrants were announced in April of last year, but by October the entrants had been narrowed to 49 before any on-track competition had begun. Every car in each of the three categories must achieve 100 MPG efficiency over a 200 mile range, the winners from each split a $10 million prize. The first group …

Cylons riding an escalator

I think I can speak for the entire APS Comic-Con crew when I say that one of the best parts of the whole convention was seeing people do ordinary things in elaborate costumes. The Stormtrooper holding hands with his ballerina daughter, Flash Gordon bumming a light from Superman out back, anyone at all trying to drink from the water fountain; it was all hilarious. Of course, I was usually too distracted by the absurdity of seeing superheros have everyday experiences to come to my journalistic senses and capture it for all of you to enjoy too.


Fortunately, fellow blogger Uncountable was once again in rare form and captured perhaps the funniest moment of all: Cylons riding an escalator. I hope you all appreciate it as much as we do.


The most powerful idea in the world

On Monday's Daily Show with John Stewart, author William Rosen stopped by to discuss his new book The Most Powerful Idea in the World. What is this most powerful idea according to Rosen? The steam engine.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10cWilliam Rosenwww.thedailyshow.comDaily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Most Powerful Idea in the World begins with how the engine came to be and then traces it through powering industry and factories, as well as fueling transport and other new inventions.

As he tells it, the engine was not only responsible for the start of the industrial revolution, but it also brought about the concept of owning an idea. Before then, it had never been accepted that an inventor should own their idea. Rosen says it's the not only the story of the birth of the steam engine, but also the birth of invention itself. While the engines had existed since the first century in Egypt, the act of ownership and commercializing an idea took …

Who is Iron Man?

The modern envisioning of Tony Stark is based on a real life physicist and entrepreneur

Several days ago I reported from Comic-Con 2010 on a panel about whether Stark Industries was a good model for the blossoming new-space industry. Admittedly, the panel was more of an excuse to talk about the future of private space flight than an actual analysis of the Stark model. Then on Saturday Samuel L. Jackson surprised thousands of attendees when he marched out on stage at the end of a Marvel panel and announced the new Avengers characters Black Widow, Agent Ghoulson, Thor and Captain America; Robert Downey Jr. followed by announcing Hawkeye and Bruce Banner. Which still left me wondering: who would the real Tony Stark be?

It turns out John Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. are way ahead of me. In their search for character inspiration in their re-imagining of Tony Stark, they turned to none other than modern tech privateer Elon Musk. He is the CEO and Founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors (…

It all started with the Big Bang!

They're cool, they're hip, and they're loved by 14 million for their quirky wit and intelligence. The cast of CBS's The Big Bang Theory has been everywhere at ComicCon this week, from signing autographs to doing interviews and panels, these guys are kings among nerds here (the title of queen surely goes to Olivia Mund). In fact I was inspired to post this video after the 4-millionth person asked me if I was a fan of The Big Bang Theory show and then told me how much they loved it. I've only seen select episodes, as I have no TV, but I can tell you that I love the Barenaked Ladies' theme song for the show, and they were on hand to play it for one of the panels.


It's curious what a hit TV show can do for the reputation of any particular group in this country. Based on my experience it's not at all true that physicists have less social skills than anyone else and it's also not the case that they're all geniuses either. But theatre is theatre and I&…

CostumeCon putting on a show

Created with Admarket'sflickrSLiDR.
Comic-Con is nothing if not the biggest costume party on earth. The convention center is huge and the entire place is filled with people. Well over a hundred thousand of them. The building is large enough that if you lost your keys, it would take months to find them (it also looks much more airport-like than the actual airport for some reason). From steampunk to nearly-naked Princess Leia, all costumes are welcome so long as you check your toy weapons with security first. And with tens of thousands of people in such elaborate disguise, it's hard to assume ours are worthy of the masquerade.

However, my dad has requested some pictures of our costumes and fellow Buzz blogger Uncountable has put together a fantastic photo collection for you to sample the madness in addition to Ms. Alignment's Extreme Science Squad (AKA yours truly), so without further adieu...

Nikola Tesla-The people's superhero

Few people pass up swag at a convention based around all the free stuff you can carry and most snatch up our "free physics comic books" as they walk past the booth. But we get the rest with our calls of "read about Tesla vs. the nefarious Thomas Edison!" Who's going to defend a man that electrecuted elephants as propaganda science demos?

Maybe it's the steampunk craze sweeping the geekdom, but people love Nikola Tesla. He's a nerd pop-culture icon around these parts. Tesla costumes, Tesla Shirts, Tesla the dog, Tesla theories about Tunguska; we've seen it all. One gentleman even came by the booth in a steampunk Tesla costume with his girlfriend dressed as a pigeon. Another's reponse to our accurate physics comic book on the history of Tesla and his battle vs. Thomas Edison for electric world domination was "awesome, everyone's doing that now!"





APS comics haven't gone "mainstream," but Tesla cartoonists really are more …

Lessons from ComicCon: Is Stark Industries a good model for the new-space movement?

One of the more interesting panels from ComicCon has been a discussion among figures in the so called "new-space" community about whether or not Stark Industries from the Iron Man movies would pose as a good model for the private space movement.

One of the panelists was XCOR engineer Mark Street who talked about how after the first movie came out all the company's engineers went to see the movie together. Street said they all laughed hysterically when Tony Stark nearly kills himself in his basement labratory after he sets Iron Man's thrusters at 10-percent and sends himself flying. That's the way things are at XCOR he said, which is much different from the way Lockheed Martin or NASA operates.

"It never works exactly the way you think it's going to the first time," said Street. "The large companies use well established procedures and rules, and they develop the 787 and it flies the first time, but that's not the approach that will bring pri…

Opening day at ComicCon

Wednesday was the panic before the storm here at ComicCon 2010 and while the masses waited outside the convention center in the thick San Diego fog, we frantically put our booth together. Our 10’x10’ chunk of real estate sits in a direct line between DC comics and the entrance and when the acres of exhibit hall finally opened for last night’s sneak preview, tens of thousands rushed onto the floor, eagerly grabbing up Spectra comics and stuffing them in their massive freebie swag bags.

Spectra is already an outstanding hit. That’s not too surprising, but one thing that is surprising is that every one fanatically loves our Tesla comics. When we describe how the righteous Nikola Tesla battles the evil, dastardly Thomas Edison at the world fair, people swoon. While the grown up’s love us, the kids go crazy for our “throwies.” We help them build a little LED light using only a battery, bulb, magnet and a Laserfest sticker; which they can wear around on their badges.

Constructing this nerd D…

Spectra on IMDB

Or own LaserFest superhero, Spectra, has truly arrived now! She joins countless celebrities, both major and minor, in getting a mention and a picture on the Internet Movie Database



She shares space with notables of the caliber of Sponge Bob Square pants, no less. Click the pic below to see what wonders await the lucky few (well, the lucky few hundreds of thousands, anyway) who have scored tickets to the most glorious Con in the western world.

On Paper, the World's Smoothest Roller Coaster Ride

Swedish mathematicians draw the perfect loop

At the age of 74, retired roller coaster designer Werner Stengel still spends his days riding the latest loop-de-loops.

"Trying to explain the thrill of a roller coaster to someone who has never ridden one is like trying to explain color to a blind person -- you just have to experience it for yourself," said Stengel, who in 1975 created the first modern roller coaster loop, built for Six Flags' Magic Mountain in California.

But for summer vacationers who are tired of having their heads jerked around by the laws of physics, Swedish mathematicians have published new designs for what could be the smoothest, most comfortable way to flip head over feet.

Using the same equations that describe how the planets orbit the sun, Hanno Essén of Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm drew a series of potential roller coaster loops that have one thing in common -- the force that riders would feel pushing their stomachs down into…

Shutting Off the Large Hadron Collider

How particle beams are brought to a safe halt

On hilly parts of the Interstate highway system, road engineers provide steep-grade areas with gravel off-ramps for trucks that lose their brakes. The ramps bring the big rigs to a rough but safe halt.

Engineers at particle accelerators must also be able to halt intense beams of particles during routine shut-downs or emergencies. At the largest accelerator of all, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, researchers have devised an elaborate off-ramp procedure able to bring beams of protons (particles found inside every atom) traveling at nearly the speed of light to a dead halt in a fraction of a second. The beams carry enough energy to melt a ton of copper.

At LHC, the "road" the beams travel is a sixteen-mile ring-shaped tunnel, and the off-ramp looks like an immense pencil -- it's a piece of graphite about three feet wide, 26 feet long, wrapped with steel, water cooled, and encased in concrete.

The difficulty of stop…

APS hits ComicCon with the first superhero science comic

For the rest of this week I'll be blogging from the madness that is sure to be ComicCon 2010. APS will be the first professional society to bring a comic book, so us public outreach folks are excited to be rolling in with 2.5 tons of Spectra comics. For you unacquainted, the convention combines all things nerd under one massive roof for a week every year. All those people in Princess Leah or Batman or Wolverine or extra #554 from scene 3 on Tatooine in A New Hope costumes? This is their summer sanctuary. I'm not knocking... okay maybe I'm knocking a little, but only to make myself feel better about the costume I'll be wearing all week. I'm positive a certain amount of fear and loathing is in store for us (google image search comiccon), but with 125,000 people in attendance we should be able to bring our laser superhero comic to a willing audience.

APS's most recent comic series, Spectra, takes its name from the comic's heroine, who has all the superpowers of…

Cosmic rays explode tree at American Center for Physics?

According to the NOAA, lightning has been witnessed in volcanic eruptions, intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, snowstorms, large hurricanes, and now the American Center for Physics parking lot. Well, I didn't see it, but this tree did (or at least it would have if it had light-detecting organs).

Sometime over the weekend this little guy experienced an arboreal nightmare as hundreds of millions of volts of electricity shot through his body. Lightning strikes can be as much as 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun, and in an instant, that heat turned water into steam inside him-splitting his trunk vertically through his core and sending bark flying at least 50 feet in various directions.

Lightning strikes like this happen 4-million times a day on our planet, yet no one's sure what causes it (even the folks who park in this same parking lot).

According to this Scientific American post by lightning expert and physicist Joseph Dwyer, no measurement made inside a …

Don't be jealous of these physicists' boogie.

Long ago the Buzz Blogger, Agent Utah, challenged me to write a post on Ru Paul's Drag Race that fit the theme of the Physics Buzz Blog which is more or less about, well physics. She fulfilled her end of the challenge with an amazing piece on Project Runway. She is in fact a professional writer. So after many months of procrastinating and traveling to physics conferences I have stepped up to the challenge.

While I doubt that I can match wits with the awesome Agent Utah, this post will definitely change the way we look at physicists. That being said I should also mention that this will be my last post on the Buzz Blog. Yep, I'm heading off to math land. So what other way than to go out with a bang... a fabulous bang.Every Monday night this last spring, my friends and I would religiously huddle around the magical glowing rectangle at 9pm for Ru Paul's Drag Race on the LOGO channel. Even though the season triumphantly ended months ago, Ru Paul being the genius that she is, cr…

Musical Love for the Spitzer Space Telescope

Who would have imagined a nerdy tune could be so catchy, and yet accurately describe the Spitzer Space Telescope's capabilities and mission? The song even mentions that the telescope continues to send us images despite the fact the its liquid helium coolant reservoir is empty.

I've got the song stuck in my head, but that's OK for now. At least it's not MacArthur Park . . . uh oh. Dang it!

Scientists Prove Cosmic Rays Are Made of Protons

Utah detector looks at particles a million times zippier than anything made on Earth

By Phillip F. Schewe
Inside Science News Service

WASHINGTON (ISNS) – Cosmic rays are made of protons, scientists found as they used a vast array of telescopes arranged across the Utah desert. Each telescope in the 67-unit arrangement sees the sky with a multifaceted eye. It’s no wonder they call it Fly’s Eye.

Scientists at the High Resolution Fly’s Eye detector, nicknamed HiRes, in the Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, determined that the positively-charged components found in the center of each atom are what make up cosmic rays. Previously they had not been sure that the high-energy rays hadn’t been something heavier, such as the nucleus of an iron atom.

Cosmic rays, originating outside our Milky Way galaxy, slam into our atmosphere, where they set up a shower of secondary particles. These particles cause nitrogen molecules in the air to glow slightly. The energy of the glow is recorded in sensiti…

Best science fiction to watch online: Your guide to on-demand summer sci-fi

I'm guessing a lot of you students have some serious free time for the wasting this summer. I know at the end of my undergrad summers I was always trying to figure out how I wasted three months of my life. So, to help you along your way, I thought I'd facilitate your do-nothing-abilities with some summer sci-fi you may not have seen before. Most of it I'd suspect you die-hards are familiar with already. I also wouldn't try to argue all of these are "underrated," but I tried to reach for the less-than-obvious. I also gave a very strong preference to movies available on-demand (i.e almost all of these are currently on Netflix watch instantly or rentable on iTunes).


Metropolis (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Released in 1927, this is the first feature length science fiction movie ever made. Set in the year 2026, society is separated into two classes; an ultra wealthy futuristic high-society and a class of workers forced to live underground. One man rejec…

NASA launches hi-tech free online game Moonbase Alpha

Last week, NASA came as close to going back to the moon as it probably will for decades. The agency has launched Moonbase Alpha, a 3D lunar adventure available free through online streaming game service Steam. You can have teams of up to six players as you work to restore power and other critical functions to a lunar outpost struck by a meteor. This isn't your dad's Atari Lunar Lander, the game has some seriously wicked looking graphics. I couldn't try it out because it's not available for OSX, but the screen shots and game trailers make it look epic. The game has been in the works since 2005, taking its inspiration and using the expertise from fellow government outreach game America's Army.

Personally, I think one footnote that slipped out with the release is far more compelling than Moonbase Alpha. NASA is working on a much larger massively multiplayer online game project that will create a virtual world where players can work cooperatively to carry out missions …

Big Brother 12: How to win a beautiful girl with physics

I'm not sure it's possible to say anything that could add to this, but I'm guessing this is the first time a guy has (successfully) used his thin films research as a pick up line. My sources can confirm that Brendon is actually a member of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine.

No word on Rachel's standing in the American Chemical Society.

Please, just enjoy.

Coffee Cup Secrets

Physicists from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and from the University of Bath in the U.K. took a close look downward into their mugs to find out exactly how cream blends with the coffee in a cup when stirred.

Using image tracking and infrared cameras, the researchers studied the swirl patterns formed when liquids of varying temperatures -- like cold milk and hot coffee -- are mixed together.

Alternating rings of the hot and cold liquids briefly form in the center of the container before moving outward toward the rim of the cup. This is the result of the slightly different viscosities of the hot and cold liquids separating out. As the temperature evens out throughout the cup, the rings break down and the liquids mix together.

By Mike Lucibella, ISNS contributor
Inside Science News Service


Read their paper on the arXiv 'Streaks to Rings to Vortex Grids: Generic Patterns in Transient Convective Spin-Up,' by Zhong, Patterson, and Wettlaufer.

To catch a plagiarist

Scientific dishonesty is all the rage these days. No, the cool kids aren't doing it.

Amidst the public gnashing of teeth at the IPCC over the Climategate report and the science blogosphere reeling from Pepsigate, Nature ran a piece last week detailing how it and other publications had started cracking down on plagiarism in their journals.

The topic isn't new in science, but the ongoing plagiaristgate (copycatgate? cheatergate? Unattributed-recycling-of-previously-used-materials-gate? Sorry, part of being a journalist is unnecessary attachments of the word gate to any noun involved in a scandal.) shows that the problem isn't only confined to high school English classes.

In 2008, several thousand publishers organized a non-profit plagiarism checker called CrossCheck that draws on the collective power of 25.5 million articles from nearly 50,000 journals to catch would-be cheats. To date, 83 publishers have joined the database, with many supposedly holding out over fear of sh…

The Law of Attraction: I will meet physicists

Alaina G. Levine reporting from Italy.


You'd think in a conference the size of the Euroscience Open Forum, with thousands of scientists, students, and journalists from all over the world, that I might run into a physicist or two. But it seemed that throughout the event, which wrapped up yesterday in Torino, Italy, every time I sat down next to someone and cheerfully introduced myself, the person to whom I announced "Boun giorno" was a physicist.

First there was Marco, an Italian particle physicist studying at the University of Torino. I met him in a session about food science. Then there was Filomen, a Greek particle physicist with a position at a university in Roma, with whom I shared a meal at the food court in the mall above the conference center. Then I chatted with another member of the brethren in the press room, and yet another at a party. With so little experimental data, you might come to the conclusion that the place was crawling with these guys.

But any scientis…