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Showing posts from November, 2010

Leaping Lizards? No. Flying Snakes!

Danger from above: Snakes can glide like an airplane. What's more, they can change direction mid-air and sail the length of a tennis court.


The snakes we're talking about are a South and Southeast Asian variety called paradise tree snakes. The snakes are part of a larger genus of airborne serpents called Chrysopelea. They live in a jungle habitat, gliding from tree to tree and can grow to be four feet long. Though they're poisonous, their venom is not harmful to humans.

Jake Socha, a biologist from Virginia Tech, studied the snakes' flying behavior, launching them from a 50-foot tower. The researchers discovered that as a snake falls, it flattens its belly, turning itself into a long wing.

They saw that the snakes angles their bodies 25 to 30 degrees relative to the wind in order to generate lift. This is the same as holding your hand out of a car window at a small angle to have the wind lift it up.

"The snake creates lift using a combination of its flattened cross-s…

Science Fiction Flowchart

What makes a movie science fiction versus fact-based non-fiction, like Apollo 13 or October Sky, or another genre altogether? It's a tricky question and one that made my colleagues pause for a healthy Monday-morning head-scratching session. Think you know?

Leslie Neilsen - the star of "Don't call me Shirley" fame - died this weekend of pneumonia. He will be missed. Though he was a fantastic comedic actor, Neilsen actually got his start in dramatic films, including one of my favorites - Forbidden Planet.

Musing over the glory days when all science fiction movies had flying saucers* in them, we turned to a question so broad that the only way to solve it was to create a flowchart: What qualifies a movie to be labeled 'science fiction'?

The answer is above. Since no one would agree with me 100 percent on the definition of what constitutes a science fiction film, I welcome your thoughts on where the chart fails (even though it doesn't).



*We also spent a good half…

The Physics of Football

Thanksgiving: It's a day dedicated to turkey, dressing, and, of course, football.

Football is a sport almost made for physicists. Newton's three laws of motion are at work during every play and little things like the unpredictable bounce of the "prolate spheroid" - the football - can throw kinks into a game no physicist, player or fan ever saw coming.

Here's how Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, described the gridiron in Football Physics: The Science of the Game by Timothy Gay:
The action that happens on a football field involves mass, velocity, acceleration, torque, and many other concepts...

While some observers see only carnage and chaos, brilliant athletic performances and bone jarring collisions, the science-minded see the field as a working laboratory. Newton's laws of motion are the superstars of pigskin physics, explaining a lot of what goes on on the field. Newton's first law tells us that an object either at motion or at rest…

Physicists Mimic Supernovae Formation in the Lab

A trio of physicists from the University of Toronto and Rutgers University have created a laboratory analogue for the type of supernova formed by the explosion of a white dwarf star.


Supernovae can form after the deaths of both giant stars many times the mass of our Sun or from smaller stars called white dwarfs. A white dwarf is a dense star at the end of its life cycle. It heats up over time until, at some point, it reaches a critical temperature that triggers an explosion, called a supernova. (Many, but not all, white dwarfs are thought to form supernovae.)

The initial explosion - called a flame front - starts within the star and balloons out, ejecting matter away from the star's core in a mushroom cloud shape. The highly energetic and super-bright matter wraps around the star and a supernova is born, as demonstrated in this University of Chicago video.


Already-formed supernovae are discovered by the dozens each year, but astronomers rarely observe the initial explosions, havi…

Airport Body Scanners: To Fear or Not to Fear?

It's that time of the year again - when Americans brace for the annual air travel melee on the industry's busiest day of the year - the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. New this year is the increased presence of total body scanners - technology developed to detect explosives stashed in the pants of a would-be terrorist - and the backlash of those who question the scanners' safety. How dangerous are the total body scanners, then?

There is disharmony between the government's official position on the scanners and some scientists' beliefs over the potential health hazards involved with a total body scan.

Air travelers embarking from most major airports in the U.S. this year may find themselves in a security line for one of two types of scanners: A backscatter X-ray unit (the gray and blue rectangular booth) or a millimeter wave unit (the gray cylindrical booth with clear windows).

Both units work by firing a beam of radiation at the person being scanned. An image of …

Tesla Mad Lib

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in the former Austrian Empire. Regarded by some as a mad scientist, his innovation in the field of electrical engineering helped to spur the second industrial revolution. Tesla died in 1943 in New York City. Though he's hardly a household name in the U.S., his work remains a legacy that's ubiquitous in modern life.

To complete the Tesla Mad Lib below, first, print out a copy of this post by going to File -> Print in your browser menu. Then, fill in the blanks at the top of the post with the appropriate parts of speech. Next, fill in the numbered blanks in the story with the words from the list at the top. Read out loud with friends and enjoy!

1. Adjective _______________
2. Plural Noun _______________
3. Verb _______________
4. Adjective _______________
5. Past Tense Verb _______________
6. Adjective _______________
7. Noun _______________
8. Past Tense Verb _______________
9. Monetary Unit _______________
10 . Adjective ___…

It'll make you laugh; it'll make you cry. It's...Science!!!

It's okay to be entertained by science. Really, it is. And when it comes to physics especially, science can be very entertaining. Just think about the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel. Think National Geographic , Popular Science, How It Works and Discover Magazine. All are about science. All are entertaining.



A friend once told me that she never watches the Discovery Channel because she feels some sort of obligation to pay attention and retain the information being presented. I can see where she's coming from; science can be intimidating. But my message is simple: It's okay to watch scientific programming simply to be entertained. Just enjoy. I bet, without even knowing it, you'll learn something new without even trying.

Entertaining science is all around and accessible in forms to suit you, your mom and dad, and even your grandma. Take A Short History of Nearly Everything, a book by Bill Bryson. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of his book. Tell…

Snagging Antimatter Atoms

Anti-hydrogen atoms are collected for the first time.



Researchers announced this week that for the first time they have created and trapped 38 anti-atoms at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

When a regular atom and an anti-atom meet they annihilate each other, creating a burst of energy. This effect is used on the television program "Star Trek" to accelerate a starship to high speeds. In real life, anti-atoms can be created -- but only in tiny amounts.

Anti-atoms are very scarce in the universe, as far as we know. Indeed, astronomers see little evidence of anti-atoms in the great depths of space. To see them at all anti-atoms have to be made here on Earth at particle accelerators. The trouble is that as soon as you make an anti-atom it drifts away before you can study it. Only with this new announcement can physicists say that they have properly held even a handful of these difficult particles in one place under controllable conditions.

Understanding why there is so mu…

Baby Black Hole Discovered in Earth's Backyard

Astronomers have found evidence for what they believe to be the youngest black hole existing in our cosmic neighborhood.

The 30-year-old black hole, detected by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, is a remnant of a supernova, or exploded star, called SN 1979C. The supernova is about 50 million light-years away tucked into a galaxy in the Virgo cluster of galaxies that is part of the constellation Virgo. (To put that into perspective, there are anywhere from 1300 to 2000 galaxies in the Virgo cluster.)

The supernova that gave birth to the black hole was first discovered in April 1979 by a teacher moonlighting as an amateur astronomer and astronomers have been observing the area since then.

There is a chance that the supernova has morphed into a dense neutron star instead of a black hole. Researchers are expressing confidence that it is a black hole, however, because for a 12-year period from 1995 to 2007, it emitted X-ray radiation at a constant rate. The amount of radiation emitted f…

Who Says Hands Need Five Fingers?

Human fingers are pretty cool: They grip, they pinch, they squeeze. They can crush bugs and hold delicate crystal. They're amazing! Because of all the wonderful things fingers can do, it makes sense that we try to replicate them on our human analogues. But recreating robotic fingers is difficult and can get rather costly. To overcome the challenges that come with creating a robotic hand, one group of scientists ditched human digits altogether and developed something far simpler but just as effective.


Creating robotic replicas of human hands is troublesome. It's difficult to get the tension right to grip an object without crushing it. Computers can be strained when controlling multiple joints with umpteen degrees of motion. Instead of trying to replicate our dexterous little fingers, scientists at the University of Chicago and Cornell University opted for another approach, creating a robotic gripper.

The team developed what they called a "universal jamming gripper" ou…

Social Media and Science Combine to Explain Cats' Drinking Behavior

Two scientists at MIT used YouTube videos to help supplement their research on how cats' tongues extract water or milk from a bowl. The videos helped prove their formula describing the unique way felines draw liquids into their mouths.



Roman Stocker first got the idea to study how cats drink from watching his own cat, Cutta Cutta, sup breakfast a three years ago. Lapping at 1 meter (or four sips) per second, a cat's tongue is working too fast for humans to see individual sips. To slow it down, Stocker and his colleagues did what any good scientist would do - they whipped out their high-speed camera and got some close-up footage of Cutta Cutta's tongue in action to analyze in the lab.

They observed that a cat's tongue changes into the shape of a capitol 'J' when it is about to touch the surface of a liquid. The tip of the tongue is flattened and draws the liquid up into a column shape, formed by inertia. The cat's jaw closes over the liquid just before gravit…

Solving Two Mysteries at Once

The portions of universe that we can see appear to consist almost entirely matter, rather than an equal balance of matter and antimatter. At the same time, most of the universe seems to be made of something we can't see at all - dark matter. These two facts are among the outstanding puzzles in physics. A new paper proposes that they may actually be two aspects of the same mystery.

Ever since Einstein penned his famous equation, E=mc^2, physicists have known that it's easy to make matter out of nothing but pure energy, provided that you end up with an equal balance of the normal matter and antimatter. Matter, of course, is the stuff you, I, everything around us, and everything we can see in the universe appears to be made of. Antimatter is like matter's Bizarro World twin. An antimatter proton (antiproton), for example, is the opposite of a proton in every way except mass, which means that if one ever runs into a proton, the two will instantly annihilate in a burst of energ…

A Milky-Way Shaped Bubble Wand of Death*

The Milky Way: It's just a giant bubble wand, blowing colossal gamma-ray bubbles that extend tens of thousands of light-years from the center of our galaxy.

Scientistswho have been examining images of the Milky Way taken by NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope announced yesterday that they've discovered two high-energy balloon-like structures protruding from the top and the bottom of the Milky Way's core.


The radiation-emitting orbs extend a total of 50,000 light-years above and below the center of the galaxy. Traveling the length of just one of the spheres would be the equivalent of traveling to the Moon and back about 6.1 trillion times.

Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, where the bubbles were discovered, said they don't yet understand the nature of the spheres, nor how old they are or how they were created.

The astronomers processed data taken by the telescope to filter out a gamma-ray fog that permeates the Milky Wa…

Virtually Project Yourself In 3D

Materials science breakthrough leads to a new type of holographic display.



In 1977, Star Wars introduced popular culture to holographic projections with Princess Leia's famous distress message to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Since then, countless science fiction films have recycled the idea by having characters project themselves via hologram. Now, a team of physicists at the University of Arizona has taken a step towards making it a reality.

The physicists claim that their holographic 3-D display can refresh color images every two seconds and say it's the closest thing to a real time holographic projection ever created.

“What we have come up with is a new technique to do three dimensional telepresence, which means that we can take objects from one location and show them in another location in 3-D,” said Nasser Peyghambarian, director of the National Science Foundation's Center for Integrated Access Networks.

Peyghambarian said that a movie like Avatar creates a 3-D image with just two di…

X-Ray Vision: It's Not Just for Superman

Thanks to today's Google Doodle, we're reminded that Nov. 8 is the 115th anniversary of the discovery of the X-ray! If you do a Google search for "X-ray," it will turn up the usual suspects: A mock X-ray photo of Homer Simpson's head, a handful of articles and websites detailing the use of X-rays in medicine, and even art, like the image above taken by photographer Nick Veasy. What isn't as prominent and what some might forget is the role x-ray photography has played in our understanding of the Universe.


Visible light, the wavelengths of light that human eyes can see, make up only a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our eyes enable us to see the sun and, at night, stars and planets - all emitters of visible light. The universe, though, isn't concerned with what we're designed to see. It emits light (anything on the EM spectrum is a form of light) at all sorts of wavelengths. Developing the technology to see and interpret it gives us a…

Be very, very quiet; I'm Hunting Radioative Rabbits

A radioactive rabbit that was on the loose this week in the Hanford former nuclear reactor site in Washington state prompted state Department of Health workers to hunt for contaminated rabbit droppings in the area.

The radioactive rabbit was among several bunnies captured over the last few days (a scene which calls to mind an iconic moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) at the site near Richland, Wash. The hopping critters were rounded up for testing after contaminated rabbit droppings were found last week. Only one rabbit tested positive for radiation contamination.

State department of health workers used hand-held radiation-detecting instruments to look for contaminated droppings. After capturing the afflicted rabbit, the amount of tainted droppings they found decreased, leading them to believe only one rabbit was affected. None of the droppings, so far, have been found in areas accessible to the public.

Washington Closure Hanford, the group responsible for cleaning up the form…

Less Fiction, More Science - Too Bad

Maybe Scientists don't make the best science fiction advisers after all.



Call me a purist. Call me an old fogie. Call me anything you want, but don't call classic science fiction "Roddenberrian nonsense." For some inexplicable reason, that's what Battle Star Galactica producer Ronald Moore thinks of classic Star Trek. It also finally makes it clear to me why I HATED Star Trek Voyager, which Moore also wrote for.

Compared with Star Trek (classic and Next Generation), Voyager seemed to me to be a bunch of psychobabble, which would have worked much better as part of a daytime soap opera rather than a spin-off from one of history's ground breaking SF television shows. In keeping with his anti-Roddenberry approach, Moore has hired NASA scientist Kevin Grazier to make sure that all of the science on a forthcoming Battle Star Galactica series is in line with contemporary knowledge. (Grazier is also author of a book explaining exactly why the science of BSG is so lame …

Particle Accelerators in Earth's Atmosphere

Our atmosphere is very active electrically, evidenced by lightning forming during thunderstorms. Though we can't see it, another short-lived and equally as interesting atmospheric phenomenon occurs alongside lightning in thunderstorms, and this one can create gamma rays, the most energetic type of electromagnetic radiation.

In 1994, scientists first discovered that gamma rays, typically created by cosmic events in space, were also being created in thunderstorms. The events causing the gamma rays were called terrestrial gamma ray flashes (TGFs) and unlike lightning, they last only a few milliseconds (if that).

Scientists have thought since then that the Earth-based gamma rays are created in conjunction with a burst of cosmic rays entering our atmosphere. The incoming rays strip electrons off of molecules. When the electrons are combined with a lightning strike, an electric field is created, and an "avalanche" of stray particles form into a narrow beam projected out toward…

'R2' Robot Ready for Launch

Space shuttle Discovery is on launchpad 39A, ready and waiting for tomorrow afternoon's launch. Inside the cargo bay a 7th astronaut is also waiting, already strapped in, and ready to make spaceflight history. After tomorrow's launch, Robonaut 2 - 'R2' for short - will be the first-ever humanoid robot in space.

R2 was designed as a prototype and not originally scheduled to go up into space but when he was revealed in February (I'll reference R2 as a 'he' since I've never seen a woman quite so burly as he), NASA was so impressed that they made room for him on the second to last shuttle flight. Though he'll be restricted to staying inside the International Space Station (ISS) for now, R2 had to be hastily redesigned to withstand the harsh environment of space and also modified to meet requirements for those living aboard the ISS.


R2's processors were upgraded to increase his tolerance for radiation - a persistent threat to any human or machine ope…

Packing in Your Morning Joe

What's the best way to pack rice, coffee beans, or other granular materials? It's an important question for companies selling grain products or people in a rush to buy coffee, nuts or raisins who want to pack as much into a bag as quickly as they can.

In the past, scientists typically only worried about two things when packing granular materials in a container: The number of grains and the volume of the container. However, new theories arose saying the amount of stress in the system ought to also be considered.

Imagine you have a large can half full of coffee beans and you tap it very gently. After each tap, you will see the beans bounce very little before settling back into place. In this case, the beans fall from a short height and the stress they place on one another (or how much they press against each other) after the fall is said to be small. If, however, you give the can a good thump, the beans will bounce much higher and fall much farther allowing you to pack them tig…