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Showing posts from August, 2010

Beauty in art and physics

When a physicist talks about beauty in science, it's usually in an abstract way. Astronomers have Hubble, biologists have flowers and rainforests, and geologists have the Grand Canyon. But what does the public think of physicists? We're all bombs and particle accelerators in many people's eyes.

Here's a clear example of why that's not true. Kai-hung Fung, a diagnostic radiologist at a hospital in Hong Kong, used a little art and a 3D Computed Tomography (CT) scan to create this image. It's called "Cosmic Lungs."

The manipulated image is a top-down view of human lungs with the cosmic clouds represented by the blanket over the person's body on the right and the CT table cushion on the left. Fung digitally removed the rest. Fung also won the photography prize in the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge in 2007 for his piece "What Lies Behind Our Nose?"

You can see more art and read about Fung's process here.

Free: One never used laser interferometer (building not included)

For decades Australian physicists have lusted after a gravitational wave detector, but despite their lobbying, the Southern Hemisphere still has no such instrument. According to Science Magazine's News of the Week, American's at our own Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) have concocted a scheme that could change that.

The U.S. currently has two detectors, the Livingston Observatory in Louisiana and the Hanford Observatory in Washington State. Because gravitational waves - quivers in the curvature of space time - are expected to travel at the speed of light, when one instrument makes a detection the other should follow in about 10 milliseconds. That short time lapse will let the physicists determine the direction the ripple came from to within a few degrees of the sky (for reference, amateur astronomers typically use the rule that your fist held out at arm's length is ten degrees of sky).

Gravitational waves are expected to originate in the most dramat…

City landscapes could draw storms near

WASHINGTON (ISNS) -- Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, devastating New Orleans and other regions along the Mississippi River Delta. Hurricane forecasting has steadily progressed over the intervening years, which should help cities and states better prepare for devastating cyclones. Now researchers have added another piece to the forecasting puzzle by determining how the texture of landscapes can affect a storm’s motion.

New research shows that rough areas of land, including city buildings and naturally jagged land cover like trees and forests can actually attract passing hurricanes. The research found also that storms traveling over river deltas hold together longer than those over dry ground. As a result, the city of New Orleans might feel a greater impact of hurricanes coming off the Gulf of Mexico than existing computer models predict.

A team from the City University of Hong Kong modeled the effects that different terrain has on the paths of tropical st…

Meteorite evidence favors explosive origins

I think I lost this story this week amidst the widespread coverage of a new solar system discovered with seven planets -- but astronomers at Arizona State (Go Lumberjacks!) published new research in the journal Nature Geoscience on Sunday about our own solar system's origins.

The ASU researchers acquired a small piece of a meteorite from a private dealer that had gotten the space rock off a local in Morocco after it was found in the Sahara desert. When the team analyzed the meteor, they found it was as much as 2 million years older than the previously accepted age of the solar system - or 4,568.2 million years old - making it the oldest object ever discovered on earth. While that is only a slight difference when compared to a 4.5 billion year old system, they also found the meteorite had some peculiar properties about it.

The meteorite contains a type of iron that can only be formed when a star goes supernova. Previous theories of the solar system's origins held that it was c…

LEDs not neccesarily eco-friendly

When ultra efficient LED light bulbs emerged on the scene they were hailed as a brighter and greener way to light the world, but research announced Monday by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico shows that might not necessarily be true. These physicists aren't some lingering agents of Thomas Edison's – they of course acknowledge LEDs are a superior technology - instead the researchers show in their paper that the potential problem lies in history and human nature.

"Presented with the availability of cheaper light, humans may use more of it, as has happened over recent centuries with remarkable consistency following other lighting innovations," Sandia physicist Jeff Tsao said in a press release.

While the potential for cheaper energy could increase the quality of life for billions around the globe, it also could mean an increase in energy usage. Tsao says that since the 16th century, with each revolution in lighting technology humans have used more light, inste…

NST produces most detailed sunspot image

A new telescope at the Big Bear Solar Observatory has captured the most detailed visible light image ever of a sunspot. The 1.6 meter, generically named NST -- for New Solar Telescope -- has remarkably clear seeing thanks to its location on a pristine mountain lake in Southern California, and also benefited from adaptive optics to generate the image.

While the image has remarkable resolution of about a 50-mile section of the sun's surface, the technology is a test-bed for an even more ambitious project called the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, which is expected to be completed in the coming decade.

From the press release:

"The new telescope now feeds a high-order adaptive optics system, which in turn feeds the next generation of technologies for measuring magnetic fields and dynamic events using visible and infrared light..."

"The new optical system will allow the researchers to increase the distortion-free field of view to allow for better ways to study th…

Deep sea to get louder with climate change

As carbon dioxide continues to build up in Earth's atmosphere, it will also accumulate in her oceans. This rise in CO2 has already made the upper ocean more acidic and the same is expected to happen even in the lower depths in the coming century.

Physicists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution now say that these changes will make some far flung reaches of the ocean more noisy. In a paper published last week in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the team modeled ambient shipping noise for the deep ocean, incorporating forecasts for ocean pH levels and shipping noise in the coming century.

Any first year physics student knows the thickness of a fluid is important in considering how well sound waves propagate, but also of crucial importance in sea water is the concentration of boric acid and other chemicals. Boron ions help filter out low frequency waves, but as the ocean gets increasingly acidic, the amount of boron ions will decrease and these low frequency so…

Beer microbes survive the rigors of space

According to a BBC article today, microbes taken from the cliffs of Beer -- a small fishing village in the UK (I know, sorry) -- were left outside of the ISS for a year and a half to see how well they could live in the harsh conditions of space. When the astronauts finally retrieved them, they found that many of the microbes were still alive and well (click for a video).

Bacteria has survived in space for several years before, but this is the longest (known) that any photosynthesizing microbes have survived.

Interestingly, the microbes weren't selected for any special properties. The researchers in charge of the experiment guessed that if they sent extremophiles outside for this mission, they would do fine with the intense UV radiation and large temperature swings. So instead they just sent the community of rather ordinary tiny creatures that happened to be living on this rock already. Once examined back on earth, the researchers found that the survivors had thick cell walls and …

The loneliest rocket: a journey to space and back

Solid Rocket Boosters have made routine commutes to and from space since the Space Shuttle program first began. For decades they've been used, beat back into shape, and used again. Here's something that might throw a little respect there way. In what David Levin over at PBS's Inside Nova has described as "a film even Stanley Kubrick would be proud of," NASA strapped a camera & mic to an SRB on STS 124. The result is seven-minutes of surreal anticipation, launch, floating, free-fall and then splash down. Enjoy, and make sure you've got the sound on.

Astronomers try to greenlight LSST... again

Among the multi-billion dollar wish list astronomers released last week in their sixth decadal survey, was $421-million for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, marking the second time the scientific community has established the instrument as a priority. While the telescope's primary mirror is a relatively large 8.4 meters, it's not so much the size that matters here. What's different about the LSST is its exceptionally wide field of view -- seven times larger than the diameter of the moon as seen from earth.

That broad view will allow it to scan the entire night sky in the southern hemisphere every 72 hours -- creating 30 terabytes of data per night -- from its perch high in the foothills of the Andes. Astronomers say it could help to unravel the mysteries of dark energy, dark matter, time-variable phenomena, supernovas and even asteroids. To help process this enormous amount of data, the LSST has partnered with Google, which plans to make much of the data easily accessi…

French physicists prove the proper way to pour champagne

"I baptize you a Frenchman, daring child," French poet Paul Claudel once wrote, "with a dewdrop of champagne on your lips.”

I've always thought of physicists as beer drinkers, but I suppose if you live in France, you're a Champagne drinker whatever your profession. In a paper titled "On the losses of dissolved CO2 during Champagne serving," some French physicists have examined the proper way to pour a glass of bubbly. Apparently these mimosa loving researchers at the Université de Reims thought that determining the best technique to pour your champagne would be a fine use of their lab funds (to which I say 'hooray for populist scientists!').

It turns out that, counter to what the French think about pouring their bubbly into perfectly vertical glasses, physics proves that the same slightly-tilted tactic beer lovers have used for millennia is best for champagne too. Their conclusion might be intuitive, but it flies against hundreds of years of Fre…

Physicists say cosmic rays affect the length of day

If your Monday is dragging on too long, you might try blaming it on cosmic rays. In a paper published Friday by the journal Geophysical Research Letters, physicists from Paris and Moscow propose that the high energy protons and nuclei might have a surprising influence on Earth's length of day. The team claims that a previously noticed relationship between fluctuations in the length of day and the 11-year solar-cycle are actually caused by cosmic rays.

One of the team members, Vincent Courtillot of the Institute of Geophysics of Paris, says they examined the length of day -- as defined by the speed of the earth's rotation in a reference frame fixed with respect to the stars -- using a series of daily values over a 40 year period. They claim that up to 30-percent of changes could be directly related to the 11-year sunspot cycle.

Of course, 30-percent of that change only amounts to a few tenths of a millisecond, so you'd never actually notice it, but what's more compellin…

Donated Computer Time Discovers New Star

Pulsing star discovered using a home computer's idle time.

WASHINGTON (ISNS) -- Astronomers announced Thursday the discovery of a new star, found with help from a most unusual source -- a screen saver.

Chris and Helen Colvin, owners of the personal computer running the screen saver are participants in a project called Einstein@home, an experiment in distributed computing which uses the donated idle time from hundreds of thousands of home computers across the globe in lieu of more expensive supercomputers. The June 11 discovery in Ames, Iowa of a pulsar -- a dense, rotating star that appears to pulse like a lighthouse beacon -- was confirmed on June 14 by another user's computer in Germany. It marks the first time an astronomical body has been discovered this way.

"We've both been users since the beginning, but it was his desktop that got the golden packet," said Helen Colvin, who has a doctorate in human-computer interaction and attributes much of the find to luck. …

Power Grid Protection Plans Include Solar Storms

Legislation plans prepare for electrical emergencies that occur from events outside our control

WASHINGTON (ISNS) -- Protection plans for the nation's complex electrical grid passed by lawmakers in July include emergency events that are outside of control.

Electricity is all around us. It lifts elevators, pumps gas, lights rooms, cooks food, and even powers a growing fleet of cars. We generally take the vast electric grid for granted until it turns off. Only then do we realize how important it is. Blackouts owing to technical foul-ups are bad enough, but new hazards, some malicious and some from nature, threaten to create electrical disturbances on an unprecedented scale.

Legislation that Congress passed in July hopes to strengthen the grid’s robustness against attacks of many kinds. The immediate aim of the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act is to direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the main federal agency responsible for electricity matters, to establish …

Lasers reaching their limit

Somebody is going to have to break the news to Darth Vader. His Death Star's planet destroying potential is going to be way behind schedule. Research scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Physical Review Letters shows that lasers are already close to reaching their maximum intensity and that the next generation of lasers currently being developed might be able to reach that limit.

In 1997, an experiment at SLAC sent 47-billion eV electrons from its 2 mile long accelerator and collided them with a one trillion watt green laser to create a monstrous electromagnetic field. When the electrons and the photons from the laser impacted, they created higher energy gamma-ray photons, these gamma-ray photons then collided with photons in the laser beam again and shattered the vacuum as matter was spontaneously created from light within the experiment.

Creating light from matter is rather ordinary in terms of physics, as can be seen in nuclear explosions. But the SLAC ex…

Hubble's view of an 'Island Universe'

The unstoppable Hubble Space Telescope, which celebrated its 20 anniversary in April, released a new image today titled Island Universe. The 28 hour exposure combined data gathered in 2006, 2007, and 2009 of a spiral galaxy some 320 million light years away in the Coma Cluster. The cluster is home to one of the most dense populations of galaxies in our cosmic neighborhood and this close proximity means the galaxies often interact violently. The long wispy formations seen along the arms of the main galaxy in the image are a result of the nearby galaxy in the upper right striping material off as they pass perilously close to each other.

Click on the image for the high resolution version.

From the NASA press release:

"The galaxy, known as NGC 4911, contains rich lanes of dust and gas near its center. These are silhouetted against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen, the existence of which indicates ongoing star formation. Hubble has also captured the …

Observatory discovers cosmic particle accelerators in our own galaxy

When an ultra high-energy cosmic ray enters the upper atmosphere it splinters into an elaborate shower of billions of secondary particles that head for Earth's surface. While ordinary cosmic rays are a relatively common phenomenon in physics, among astrophysicists these high energy cosmic rays are known as the most elusive of particles due to their rarity and mysterious origins.

They strike so infrequently that one will hit in any given square mile only about once a century. In order to capture them, the Pierre Auger Observatory distributed 1600 5' x 12' plastic water tanks across a 3000 square kilometer section of the Argentine Andes. When the particle crosses the tank the difference between the speed of light in air and the speed of light in water creates a shock similar to a supersonic jet, except with light. The result is a flash of light in the water called a Cherenkov emission that their detectors picks up.

While it's believed that the origin of high energy cos…

Bright White Light

Sixty-five years ago a blinding flash of light leveled the city of Hiroshima Japan. The United States dropped the atomic bomb, dubbed "Little Boy," over the city's downtown. Three days later, the United States dropped "Fat Man" on the outskirts of Nagasaki. Japan surrendered six days later, ending the most devastating war the world had ever seen.

Hiroshima was completely destroyed. Before and after photos show that the buildings in the city were almost totally razed. Over 70,000 people died the first day, with roughly 70,000 more perishing from radiation poisoning in the following months.

But why was Hiroshima chosen in the first place? Its strategic importance was only part of the reason it was chosen. There were several military camps around the city including the headquarters of the Fifth Division and 2nd General Army. However up to that point, the U.S. Air Force hadn't deemed it as important enough to bomb in the preceding months of the war.

It sounds twis…

The physics of shark repellent

duh, duh....duh, duh....duh, duh... OH NO!!!!!!!

After a recent trip to the Air and Space Museum had me laughing hysterically at the shark repellent displayed in a U2 pilot survival kit, I did the natural thing and googled it. I was seriously surprised by what I found. So, in honor of Shark Week - the annual holiday as declared by Discovery Communications - I wanted to harp on some seriously suspect physics I noticed while looking up shark repellent bat sprays.

Two separate devices I found are being sold to this effect and from the looks of it, people are really buying. The first, called Aquashield, is using physics that seems about as likely to save you from a great white as a magnetic bracelet is to save you from Magnetic Field Deficiency Syndrome. And as near as I can tell from their Wikipedia regurgitation of irrelevant facts and the following email correspondence, it is a magnet.

Inquiring email to Aquashield:

Our Question:

"So, it's a magnet?"

Aquashield Answer:

"T…

Empathy for the Spirit Rover, NASA moving on with new partner

Rumors of Spirit's demise have been greatly exaggerated for years, it seems every six months or so we see one of these stories. Unfortunately, this time it looks like NASA is for real. In the continuing saga of the little rover that could, NASA announced Saturday (to much press) that Spirit may never call home from the surface of Mars. This pretty much blanketed the news this weekend, but I think we're all a little tone deaf after seeing the same story for so many years. I also think NASA was a little insensitive to poor spirit yesterday by announcing its plans for the new and improved rovers. So to remind us all of the scope of the tragedy, I thought I'd dig out my favorite xkcd.



Click for the rest of the comic...

Pour out a little Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster for the homies...

NASA and ESA announce future Mars plan

Moving on to bigger and better rover plans, NASA announced in a press release yesterday that it had selected the new instruments for its upcoming joint Mars miss…

Sparks fly over electric car funding

Accounting for well to wheel efficiency in electric cars: Do electrics have lower emission levels than hybrids?
WASHINGTON (ISNS) -- As the Senate struggles with energy legislation this week, one of the few fixes with bipartisan support is a bill that would invest billions in putting electric-powered cars and trucks on the road. But it’s not clear whether it would be environmentally beneficial to do so. That debate has played out in an open conflict between electric vehicle proponents whose proposals would be implemented in the bill and auto industry executives pushing for funding of alternative technologies.

The measure, as approved by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, would provide an additional $3.6 billion for electric vehicles if passed by the full Senate and put into effect several proposals in the Electrification Coalition's roadmap, including $1.5 billion to lower battery costs and help link the vehicles to the electric grid. Also in the bill is $2 billion in fu…