Friday, February 26, 2010

Chocolate Einstein

The APS April Meeting wrapped up a few weeks ago in Washington DC, and the March meeting is just around the bend in Portaland. I love to travel, but these meetings are so all-consuming of my time that I don't get outside much. My memories of meetings past are associated more with the color of the carpet in the hotel than the local monuments.

That said, some hotels are more fun than others and the Marriot Wardman Park Hotel had this little gem that I will forever associate with April (February) Meeting 2010:

Chocolate Einstein!

Einstein is carved out of dark chocolate, and the floor he is sitting on is careved from white. The plackard on the statue didn't have an artists name. Neither did the plackard on the the chocolate tribute to the Iwo Jima Monument:

I called the hotel to find out where the statues came from and was transferred four times. Each new call went something like this:

Me: Hi! I have kind of an odd question. I'm trying to find out who made the Chocolate Einstein statue that you guys have.

Person: The what?

Me: Upstairs by the meeting rooms there is a statue of Einstein that's carved out of chocolate....Do you know what I'm talking about?

Person: I have no idea.

Me: Yeah, it's under glass...there's another one next to it of the Iwo Jima Memorial...it's chocolate...

Person: Uuuuuummmmm....Let me transfer you to mmnnph....(click. Hold music.)


Eventually I found out that the statue was made by someone in the Pastry Department at the Ritz Carlton in Washington DC (apparently hotels now have their own pastry departments?). The head pastry chef sounded slight less confused by my question - I suppose he gets asked about chocolate more frequently than the other folks I talked to. He didn't know who exactly had made it, but promised to let me know if he could find anything out. I'm not sure if I'll hear back from him or not.

In an internet search for "chocolate einstein statue" I found Chef Jacque who, besides making more traditional chocolate items, also carves statues out of chocolate and does paintings with cocoa. And he has a bust of Einstein! Although, his "Einstein" looks an awful lot like "The Sergeant."

Science. Art. Chocolate. Magnifique.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Interview with an Intelligent Lifeform: Jill Tarter, Director of SETI



There was clearly intelligent life at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, held February 18-22. In particular, I had the good fortune to sit down with Jill Tarter, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research and Director, Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. The mission of SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe, according to its website. SETI scientists, of which there are approximately 150, essentially listen and look for signals from space that would demonstrate there is intelligent life out there.

Remember the movie “Contact”? Jodie Foster’s character, the driven astronomer who first noticed the strange sounds coming from the VLA, is based on Jill Tarter. This intrepid scientist, whose undergraduate degree is in engineering physics, has what some may argue is the best and most difficult job in the world: trying to find evidence of an alien civilization. To date, says Tarter, we haven’t gotten a call or a text from ET, but that doesn’t stop her and her team from doing what they can to locate that needle in the proverbial haystack. The next star system is 25,000 light years away from us, so her operation may take awhile.

Tarter spends much of her time these days on the road raising money for SETI science and the new Allen Telescope Array, a series of high-powered antennas dedicated to the search and to other radio astronomy endeavors. “Because it will have the ability to study many areas on the sky at once, with more channels and for 24 hours a day, the Allen Telescope Array will permit an expansion of Project Phoenix's [the previous major search project] stellar reconnaissance to 100 thousand or even 1 million nearby stars,” according to press materials at http://www.seti.org/. The array is partially funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, but Tarter says $30 million is needed to fund the total construction, and several more million dollars are needed to pay for the research and the researchers each year.

This figure is comparatively small to other astronomy and physics research projects, but after all, “the number of people who are doing SETI in the world can fit in a telephone booth,” says Tarter.

But this number may get bigger. In 2009, Tarter won the TED Prize, an award, which along with $100K, comes with the ability of the winner to ask for a wish that will hopefully change the world. Tarter stated “I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” And in response, setiQuest (http://www.setiquest.org/), was founded, allowing regular folks to participate in the search for other beings and their technology.

Below is an excerpt from my exclusive interview with Tarter held in San Diego on February 20, 2010.

What is the best part of your work?

Telling the story. I become a bit of a chief cheerleader, maybe a little evangelical. SETI is one of those things that could change the world even if we don’t find a signal in my lifetime. It allows me to tell a story and involve people in the observing and give people a chance to see themselves as one species on a planet and perhaps trivialize the differences among humans.

What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?

The very, very frustrating confusion between SETI and UFO research. It is infinitely galling to find out in first person how lacking in skeptical thinking our population is. If someone tells you they have seen something from an ET, either me from a signal or someone who was abducted for a salacious medical experiment, why should you believe anything without being able to be shown the evidence? But evidence and reality is not what people want. They want stories.

What is the most intriguing question you have been asked about SETI and your work?

Maybe more frustrating then intriguing – Isn’t 50 years of searching telling us there’s no one there? Many people think we’ve been searching exhaustively for 50 years and don’t grasp the size of the cosmic haystack were trying to explore. Here’s an analogy – assume your question is not is there technology anywhere else, but are there fish in the ocean? [The 50-year-search for extraterrestrial life is like] scooping up a cup of ocean water and looking for fish. You might see fish. If don’t see fish, you are not inclined to say there are no fish.

[What technology has come out of SETI research?]

…With respect to finding signals in noise, some of our early work was transformed into a test for finding microcalcifications in digital mammograms. This came out of an approach to do random transforms.

What technology do you employ?

The development of very fast photon counters at optical wavelengths and arrays of these counters allow us to look for nanosecond-quick really bright pulses. The development of those detectors and affordability has opened up optical SETI in the last decade. Now, I’m really excited about the Allen telescope, the LNSD or Large number of small dishes. Cheaper, commodity manufacturing techniques [are being used] to make the dishes. There will be innovative feed and receiver systems. The economics of a telescope are determined by how much it costs to make your dishes and how much it costs to make your receivers. Where those curves cross is the sweet spot. Interferometers have made this package chaeaper. It is a nice confluence of technologies.

Plus we now have enough computer power to [analyze] a lot of data from a lot of different antennas. Since [Frank] Drake did the first radio search 50 years ago, we are 14 orders of magnitude more effective then frank’s original search. And it’s going to get better.

In the event that you detect a signal, you have a Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, endorsed by six international space organizations, as mentioned on the SETI website. The SETI Institute has a plan of action that resembles the Declaration of Principles. What are these?

This stems back to the International Academy of Astronautics, which has a standing SETI committee for 40 years. During the Cold War, this was the only time we could meet with our Soviet colleagues. It was an attempt to think through if a signal was detected. [It was informal.] We encouraged our Soviet colleagues to act responsibly and resist pressures they might be under. This was first attempt [to design a strategy of what we would do]. So what would we do? Number 1: Check it. Make sure its not a hoax. Number 2: Tell the world. We said we would not transmit a reply until we confirmed everything – a first attempt to take a high road. But every time Freeman Dyson is near, [he always says] “that’s wonderfully high minded, but as soon as you announce a signal has been found, anyone with a transmitter is going to say anything they want.” He chuckles and says there would be a great cacophony, and wouldn’t that be the greatest statement about 21st century Earth after all?

[Professor Paul Davies at Arizona State University has said that life in other places in the Universe, and even on Earth, may be unlike ours. The intelligent life you are looking for-] Could it be a kind that communicates differently?

SETI is a misnomer – we can’t find intelligence over interstellar distance. What we may be able to find is evidence of someone’s technology and if so we can infer intelligent technologists, but we have no idea what they’re like. We have no idea if [they or] the technology [are] even still around. When we think about the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence, we can say if it’s really a radio signal that is the technology we detect, then probably what has built that technology is not microscopic in scale. But there’s not a lot more that we can say. And the biology could be different and that’s one of the reasons for looking for extraterrestrial life…

Paul Davies was part of a National Academies study on “weird life” – is it possible that life operates on a different metabolic path, doesn’t use DNA, has a different biology, and [even] could be on Earth? [These questions] simply point out that we’re looking for life as we know it and we’re not likely to find life as we don’t know it unless we set out to look for it. How do you look for something you don’t know?

Is there anything else you want to share with physicists and physics aficionados?

As most physicists know it’s a big universe out there. [SETI] may be multigenerational project – we need [physicists] as a scientific community to help us in the future to make this very awkward argument for growing in size and complexity and cost on the basis on previous failure. That’s a hard sell. But we hope they will continue to hold us to the kinds of standards of any other scientific exploration, and if we conduct ourselves well, they will rally for us and get clever and help us. I’m sure there is physics we don’t understand and in the future that might imply new technology we could employ. We should be open enough to bring in the new technology. Physicists have faced this in the past. [For example, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a facility dedicated to the detection of cosmic gravitational waves and the measurement of these waves for scientific research, according to its website] needs to grow and had not detected gravitational waves…Physics has helped with this very awkward psychological [aspect of] funding – We may need to grow on the basis of failure and we could use their wisdom and their guidance and their support.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tumblr, Etsy Roundup

I sat down at my computer today with great intentions. I was looking for some piece of breaking science news or an awesome new gadget to share with you dear readers. Just really provide some great coverage and strong content.

About five minutes after that I got really, really side tracked looking at Tumblr and Etsy (where I found the image to the right). When I looked down at the clock and realized I'd been under for almost two hours, I feared that I had completely wasted my afternoon. I know everyone has days like that. How could you not with all the internet awesomeness out there? It's a very natural thing to do. It does not, however, justify you missing your 5pm deadline, and I was starting to panic. But then I realized - you guys are fellow science geeks! The afternoon was not a waste, but a geeky roundup! Oh, thank you, free form physics blog!

So if you aren't familiar, Tumblr is a website that hosts short-form blogs. By short form I mean they are geared less toward two page rants and more toward short paragraphs and just images with captions, so there are a lot of neat photography blogs and things like that.

(I apologize to those of you who are insulted that I would even suggest that you do not know what Tumblr is. I have been very surprised at how many people do not know what it is.)(I apologize to those of you who are insulted by my surprise that you do not know what Tumblr is.)

Anyway - Tumblr has a science section*!! A couple of my favorite blogs are we are science, it's full of stars, and Gravity. It's the Law. Another great one called fresh photons posts a real range of beautiful science images, from more "traditional" (looks like it came from a petri dish or a telescope), to very peculiar (sprung from the brain of a very creative science fan). Like this thing:



I cannot find out where this image came from or who made it, so if you know, please tell me!



Etsy is another addictive site with the added danger that you can buy things there. It's like a big craft fair where folks can sell home-made stuff or things they find, with a leaning toward hip vintage. I've found some great physics shirts there (and more here), science jewelry, more science jewelry, more science jewelry?, silk ties with equations on them, plus lots and lots and lots and of great prints. I also love the Greek symbols clock brought to you buy a seller with a Star Trek lilt.

Oddly, I've found a lot of physics stuff for babies, like these Nerdy Baby 1-2-3 cards (2 magnetic monopoles; 4 covalent bonds...). Nerdlings need their toys, too.

If you have favorites of your own, please share!

Enjoy the distractions and I'll have more news for you on Friday.


*Please note that we cannot testify for these blogs or what goes on them. Read at your own risk.




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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Science- The Gathering

The following is one of a few posts live from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting held in San Diego, February 18-22, 2010.



To my left was the ocean – dark and deep. It called to me, a mysterious enigma, with treasures and puzzles of flora, fauna and rock that still remain to be discovered and solved by who knows who.



Big deal.



To my right, was the San Diego Convention Center, site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting. The structure was stuffed to the gills with scientists.



Screw the sea, Jack. It’s the triple A-S that had my eye.



I know I shouldn’t malign the marine environment like that. What did a Sacoglossan sea slug ever do to me? And after all, there’s plenty of science in the sea.




But there’s no denying the energy that was in the air when thousands of scientists and science-loving comrades from as many as 50 countries gather in one place – it’s pure magic. And yet there’s nothing magicical about science itself. In his opening night address, AAAS President Peter Agre, 2003 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, stated that “Science is different from magic because it has a natural explanation.” Indubitably.


(Image courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Company's ABC Science)
There’s tons of fantastic scientific research that was featured at the meeting. Highlights included ground-breaking research findings associated with non-vaccine strategies for eradicating HIV, impacts of childhood poverty, lessons in human health obtained from dolphins with diabetes, green plug-in cars that power the grid, and oh yes, saving marine creatures and habitats.



On the physics front, there was a whole day devoted to the 50th anniversary of the laser (see http://www.laserfest.org/) – more on that to come soon. There were also talks on physics and art, the arrow of time, traffic, crowds and society, exobiology, neutrinos, the media’s take on that whole LHC vs. the end of the world thing, and how basic physics benefits society. And there was also the opportunity to meet University of Minnesota Physics Professor and Science Consultant to Watchman, Jim Kakalios, who discussed the physics of superheroes.



Incidentally, just last week, it was announced that a group of UC Boulder scientists have created the hottest temperature on Earth, and for that matter ever measured in the universe: 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit. Using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, at Brookhaven, the team smashed charged gold particles into each other and created quark-gluon plasma. In doing so, Physics Professors Jamie Nagle and Edward Kinney essentially recreated the conditions of the universe only a few microseconds after the Big Bang. Doomsday scenario, anyone?



But back to the meeting. As if the dolphins, nanotechnology and physics of art were not enough, in the same convention center at the very same time was the Pro Tour of Magic: The Gathering. It was hard to contain my excitement, and my hands quivered as I typed this, but I would lie to no man about such a serious subject. In what could be construed as a cosmic packing problem – just how many nerds can be bundled into a given space? – this World championship of Magic was happening literally down the hall from the science conference.



I had the good fortune of running into a Magic star in the center. Jan Reuss, who was flown in from Germany by the company that runs the Pro Tour, told me that he was one of about 400 Magic Olympians playing in this invitation-only affair, competing for a $40K grand prize, with a total of $250K to be awarded. I found him sitting on the floor playing a practice round with his buddy, and he was gracious enough to speak with me despite the fact that I interrupted his game. According to Reuss, he took 2nd place at the Pro Tour in 2008. Despite a plethora of Magic Wikipedia sites, I was unable to confirm this fact.



By the way, don’t ask me to explain how Magic works. I can’t. It bedevils me. I’d much rather discuss quark-gluon plasma and the dawn of the universe.



Naturally.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Chemical Velcro

General Motors, despite some set backs over the last two years, remains a very innovative company. The company published a paper in the February 2 issue of February 2 issue of the ACS Publications' journal Langmuir, announcing it's creation of a strong glue that will loosen up when heated, and can then be reattached. The glue could be used, for example, to attach cup holders in a car - the buyer could then heat up the glue, detach the cup holder, and move it based on his or her personal preference.


The company announced that the adhesive is about "10 times stickier than Velcro." I didn't have time to check on that stat, but it actually doesn't quite make sense to me. You can increase the "stickiness" of Velcro by increasing the number of hooks and loops per area (the up close photo of Velcro courtesy of Andreas Viklund). So there isn't really a standard "stickiness" of Velcro, but I'm guessing they are referring to common household Velcro, like what you might find on a pair of shoes. It is possible to pull the glue apart without heating it - I guess with 10x the oomph it takes to undo your Velcro shoes. (Pictured: $174 Gucci Velcro Shoes.)
It is important to note that the glue loses about 30% of it's stickiness after two reattachments, and it does need to be heated for it to stick, and then takes a few minutes to bond. That means it might be tricky for a do-it-yourself project, depending on your experience.
The glue could also be used to put computers together, which could make it easier to take them apart when they die. Apparently this is currently a problem for people who try to recycle computer parts, because many things are welded together.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Winter Olympics Science Notes: Ski Jumping

The physics and physiology of gliding toward gold.

The first gold medal of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics went to Switzerland's Simon Ammann, who won the normal hill ski jumping competition on Feb. 13 with a top jump of 108 meters -- nearly the length of an entire football field. Athletes in this sport stretch for every inch they can, attempting to find the optimum combination of technique, body size, weight and aerodynamics.

Sometimes they stretch too far -- damaging their bodies in the quest to become the perfect jumping machine.

Luca Oggiano, an aerospace engineer focusing on sports at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, explained that there are four major factors that enable jumpers to succeed: a stable position at take off, a high speed at the take off point, the position of the skis in the air (a V-formation is more efficient than parallel) and the shape of the body.

Ski jumpers use their bodies and skis to create an effect similar to an airplane wing -- the most successful fly the farthest.

"They are trying to play glider," said Louis Bloomfield, a physicist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who is interested in applying physics to everyday phenomena. "You push the air down, the air pushes back, pushes you upward."

Coaches and competitors have found that lighter athletes tend to fly farther, despite the disadvantage that they are slower when coming down the ramp. In recent years, athletes have became thinner, perhaps dangerously so. Some have struggled with anorexia. In response, the International Ski Federation instituted rules aimed at discouraging athletes from competing at low, potentially unhealthy weights.

Now, athletes with a body mass index below 20 must compete with shorter skis. BMI compares a person's height to their weight, so a jumper the height of 5-foot-8-inch Ammann can weigh no less than 132 pounds, boots and skis included, before incurring this penalty. Doctors generally consider adults over the age of 20 with BMI values below 18.5 to be underweight.

The International Ski Federation maintains tables that provide the maximum length of skis for those with lower BMIs. A 5-foot-8-inch tall competitor with a BMI of 19 (weighing 125 pounds) would be limited to skis measuring about 8 feet 1 inch long -- almost 3 inches shorter than someone with a BMI of at least 20.

"Cutting the skis is a good solution since the 'wings' of the jumper are reduced, leading to lower lift thus shorter jumps," said Oggiano. However, his wind tunnel tests showed that the ski length restrictions are not severe enough to overcome the benefits of being light.

After the Olympics, the minimum BMI for International competition will be changed to 20.5. Youth events will continue to base ski length only on an athlete's height.

Olympic ski jumpers will take flight in the qualifying rounds for the individual large hill competition on Friday, Feb. 19. With a longer ramp than the normal hill competition, jumpers gain more speed and soar even farther. The team large hill competition launches Monday, Feb. 22.

By Chris Gorski
Inside Science News Service

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Oscar Worthy Science And Engineering

Making movies look more like real life is no easy task for nominees of the Feb. 20 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Achievement awards.

When audiences watch a movie, they know that what they are seeing is an illusion -- and making the images appear as real as possible can be a major undertaking for any filmmaking team.

Creating those realistic-looking illusions is the job of the film's cast and crew. Making sure that colors look the same throughout a film, creating animated scenes that look real, and reproducing the same highlights and shadows as those created by natural light is only a sample of the accomplishments of the 15 scientists and engineers who will be honored during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Achievement awards hosted by actress Elizabeth Banks on Saturday, Feb. 20.

Keeps Colors Consistent

Best picture nominee "Avatar" would have lost its ability to immerse movie audiences in a fantastical world on Pandora if the Na'vi's trademark blue skin color had changed shades from scene to scene.

"Computer displays have a different color space compared to film; colors that I can see on a computer, I can't always reproduce on film and vice-versa," said Mark Wolforth, an electrical and biomedical engineer who specializes in imaging with FilmLight Limited. "Truelight is a color management system that keeps the colors the same so whether you are looking at a scene on film or you are looking at the same scene on a computer screen, the colors will look exactly the same."

Before the first scene of the film is even shot, the Truelight system is used to determine how the cameras and lights for the film will work together. The crew is told to make a film print using their normal camera and lighting settings.

"They make a film print and send it to us with their [camera and lighting] settings," said Wolforth. "By looking at the film print, we will give the crew specific instructions to make sure that their settings will give the same colors."

Makes The Animated World Look More Life-Like

The life-like scenes in the animated film "Up", which has also been nominated for best picture, captured the attention of children and adults alike. Creating a believable room without the use of a real stage or lights presented a substantial challenge to the scientists and engineers at PIXAR.

Point-based rendering is how each of the objects in an animated scene is mapped out. Each object is made up of a group of colored dots called a "point cloud" that shows the object’s position and color in a scene. This same technique is now being used for concepts called indirect illumination and ambient occlusion.

"Indirect illumination is when a surface that is illuminated by a light source reflects that light onto other surfaces," said Per Christensen, electrical engineer and computer scientist specializing in computer graphics at PIXAR animation studios. "One indirect illumination effect is known as 'color bleeding;' if you have a red carpet next to a white wall, some of the light shining on the red carpet will be reflected onto the white wall, giving it a pink hue."

On the other hand, ambient occlusion is related to shadows.

"Think of it as a super-soft shadow as on an overcast day with no direct sunshine," said Christensen. "Ambient occlusion also makes creases and wrinkles in surfaces more visible and darkens objects near other objects; this is an important effect to capture in order to add realism to computer-generated images."

Lighting Faces

Whether an actor in a scene is real or digital, capturing the way light shines the actor's face is crucial to a scene.

"There are lots of technologies to capture the shape and some get a texture map of the face, but, what you need and want -- is how to reflect light," said Paul Debevec, Associate Director of Graphics Research at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina del Ray, Calif. "You need to see how models change, how their face reflects the light, the color and shine of their skin, and you want to see where their skin buckles or creases when they smile."

LightStage captures a realistic computer model of the human face. The actor sits in an arc of 32- strobe lights that flash one right after the other while the images are recorded by high-speed video cameras resulting in hundreds of images of the face.

"We have been surprised to find that sometimes, our digital version of the actor was lit better and looked more realistic than the live footage for the actor, so the director chose to use our digital version for specific scenes," said Debevec.

While progress in science and engineering continues to revolutionize the way we live, do not forget that these advances also revolutionize the way we are entertained.

By Emilie Lorditch
Inside Science News Service

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Brushing Won't Help

Did you know that your bones, fingernails, and tooth enamel, all keep a record of the radiation that you are exposed to? So does your hair and some items of clothing, like buttons. Your teeth do better than your fingernails and hair (which grow and fall off) and aren't as difficult to get to as your bones. So, physicist Prabhakar Misra from Howard University, is trying to get a grant to take samples of tooth enamel so that eventually he could have a record of the population's radiation exposure to compare with cancer rates.

Now lets be clear - the photo on the right was created by shining a harmless, low-powered laser in an someones mouth. I used it as a joke - this person does not have radioactive teeth (he just loves lasers). And your teeth do NOT become radioactive when you are exposed to radiation. But they do hold a record of the amount of radiation you have been exposed to. Employees of companies and labs that use radioactive materials often wear dosimeters - devices for measuring the amount of radiation the wearer is exposed to. Your tooth enamel is like a natural dosimeter, acquiring minor changes to it's chemical structure when exposed to radiation. Note that your enamel holds an overall record of your radiation exposure - so you wouldn't be able to tell exactly when a large dose took place.

Radiation is almost everywhere and like most things, it's completely harmless in moderation. Only extremely large doses pose a problem. Bananas are one of the foods we eat that are particularly high in radiation, yet banana eaters are not more likely to get cancer. There are areas of the Northwestern United States that have unusually high radiation levels from natural material deposits in the ground. But once again, citizens of this area are still far, far below what would be considered a toxic level of radiation. In fact, there are areas of India with 3x the naturally occurring radiation who are still far below toxic levels.

Now, I did bring up cancer in the beginning, which is what most people are afraid of when they hear "radiation." And there should be more investigation into the rates of cancer among people with varying degrees of radiation exposure, but even when these studies have been done in the past, radiation is not a one way street to cancer. In low doses it's not that simple. Genetics and other environmental factors can change the effect that natural levels of radiation can have on a person, and once again, a banana eating Portlander could very well live his or her whole life as the picture of health. The message that most radiologists and radiation specialists want to get out (not to mention nuclear physicists), is that you must be exposed to tremendous amounts of radiation to have it be harmful.

Still, a study of the kind proposed by Misra would provide a tremendous amount of information and insight. He noted that a study in Japan using this system showed that medical workers, who had tremendous medical care and thus underwent more X-rays than the average person, were actually receiving the highest doses of radiation in the sample population. For the same reason, war veterans were being exposed to higher radiation levels. It might be interesting to find out which groups in the US are exposed to the most radiation and why. Misra only needs to take a small bit of tooth enamel from the patient to get their radiation history - so there's no damage to the patent's teeth.

Sadly, he can't seem to get funding for it. As to why, you'll have to ask Misra and the funding agencies he's applied to. He and his group are steadily improving the technology to measure the radiation amounts with greater precision, as well as ways to make the equipment more portable. Perhaps in a few years they'll find someone willing to invest.


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Fingers and Franks in the LN2

It’s a fairly easy equation: fingers + liquid nitrogen = screams + injury + scars. So whenever I did liquid nitrogen physics demos for little children, or silly adults with finger-death wishes, I would always begin my show with a warning – do not try this at home.



I thought it was simple enough. After performing close to a hundred physics outreach shows as a student and then later a staff member of the University of Arizona Physics Department and College of Science, I became pretty well-versed in how to articulate my concern for my audience’s well-being. I commenced my performances with a message and a manifestation of the power of the medium.

“You see this vat of bubbling liquid?” I’d ask with exaggeration and wide eyes. “It’s actually boiling! The air is sooooo hot compared to the nitrogen, which is --320 degrees Fahrenheit, that the nitrogen is actually turning from a liquid to a gas at this very moment. And the nitrogen is soooo cold that if you stick anything in it, like your finger, for example, it…could…shatter!” Excited oooohs and aaaaahs invariably followed, coaxed by moi as I attempted to create an air of the theatrical and mysterious.

But for the savvy folks in the audience, there was no mystery concerning what I was to do next. I held up my hand, and like any decent magician, rolled up my sleeve. Then I spun around and with my back to the audience, slipped on a plastic glove that had a half of a hot dog inside one of the finger compartments. When I turned back to the audience, I held up my hand again and displayed my “protective” glove, with the frankfurter inside wagging in the wind.

So here was the big moment – would Alaina actually dip her “finger” in the liquid nitrogen to demonstrate the power of physics? Of course the answer was always yes. I knew that any halfway respectable science aficionado must commit 100% in the name of educating the public. So with a big build-up, I ushered in the climax by sticking the cylindrical meat sausage into the fire, so to speak, and “pretending” it was actually one of my digits.

“Owww!” I screamed and cried, squirming and shaking, as the kids and adults ate up the performance with giggles, all the time knowing the magician’s secret. I usually gave it a good minute, and then removed my hand and with a flash, smashed my “finger” against the table. Gleeful shouts and applause would follow. Yipee – she shattered the frank, made it look like a finger, and gave the folks their money’s worth.

If all went well, I would move on to the next demo and maybe make some liquid nitrogen ice cream. But there have been a few shows where all did not go according to plan.

On more than one occasion, I actually would hurt myself. When I dipped my frank-laden finger into the dish of nitrogen, the liquid began to bubble even more than before, and I found myself in trouble. The cold fluid hit my unprotected skin, and though it looked like I was pretending to be in pain for the sake of the audience, I actually was suffering at the hand of science. I have the scars to prove it. They are on the knuckle of my middle finger on my right hand, at exactly the place where the hot dog bordered my body in the glove.

And there was also the time that I performed my demo in a small space with about 20 people, including five or so infants and toddlers. When I banged my hand against the desk, the tots were shocked by the sound and vision, and actually thought I had destroyed and severed my finger. Frankly, they freaked out. Above the horrified cries, I whipped out my hand and showed them that my finger was still there and no (extreme) harm had come to me, but it was too late. The image was in their heads and the damage was done. Thinking back, I am horrified myself – did I scare them away from physics forever?

By Alaina Levine

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Monday, February 15, 2010

APS "April" Meeting Round Up


Hey folks,
Washington DC is still recovering from the ceremonial snow burial it underwent last week, and already another storm is blowing in. When I was out last night, I saw dump trucks hauling snow out of the city because there's no room for it, and a number of cars that look like they will become petrified if their owners don't dig them out soon. I don't know if my bus will be able to leave tomorrow morning, but today I'm warm and cozy here at the APS "April" Meeting (being held this weekend which, do not panic, is not April). I'll probably have plenty of things to rant and rave about once we've wrapped up, but for now please enjoy some of the amazing coverage by the visiting journalists. So grab some hot coco and enjoy the science!

RHIC measures the hottest temperature EVER!
(Lots and lots of places are covering this. Exciting stuff!)

Mysterious Origin of Cosmic Rays Pinned Down (Space.com)

Powerful Collider Set to Smash Protons (LHC operating at 7 GeV) (Science News)

Just how often are you hit by a neutrino? And other great posts at symmetrybreaking.

Atom smasher shows volume of space in a twist (more neat news from RHIC). (New Scientist)

Dusty Mirrors on the Moon Obscure Tests of Relativity (New Scientist)


Photo: AP
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Friday, February 12, 2010

Curling Science

Success in this slick sport requires intense physical effort and concentration.



Since becoming an official Winter Olympic sport in 1996, the sport of curling has draws a surprisingly large TV audience for an event that features slick-shoed competitors sweeping brooms in front of stones sliding across the ice. But it's far more complex than just an icy version of shuffleboard.

Researchers are examining the sport in an effort to identify the techniques that improve an athlete's performance, asking questions similar to what most spectators likely ponder when watching the sport: "what does good look like in curling?"

That question is dear to John Bradley, an exercise physiologist who has worked with both the Irish and Scottish Institutes of Sport. He recently published a paper in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine explaining the science of curling.

Each member of a four-player team slides two stones per round, or "end." As each teammate sends a roughly 41 pound stone down the ice, two others sweep in front of the stone to heat and melt the ice, and another teammate gives directions to guide the sweeping.

The object of the game is to place one or more of your team's stones closest to the target, known as the "house." Sweeping helps the stone slide faster and farther. The direction the stone is spun as it is released, as well as the location of the sweeping, will influence the force of friction and therefore the amount that the stone curls.
Curling requires athletes to perform a set of unique activities.

"The big physical demand within curling is the sweeping," said Bradley. Although not every stone requires vigorous sweeping, and only two players per team sweep at any one time, the sport requires both intense physical output and intense concentration.
Vigorous bouts of sweeping can raise the heart rate to 170-200 beats per minute, and over the course of a long tournament fatigue can accumulate.

"You can imagine maybe playing a round of golf and maybe having to run up a steep hill every third hole and then still be able to play your game and keep your form," Bradley said.

But most golf tournaments last 3-4 days. Each curling team at the Winter Olympics will play nine matches in eight days, each lasting longer than two hours. Medal-round competitors will play two more. Training to avoid fatigue is one reason why physical conditioning is now a much bigger part of curling, noted Bradley.

That's not to suggest that curlers are fit enough to dominate extremely fatiguing sports such as water polo.

"Since most of the curlers in the world are in colder climates, you're not going to see bronzed, beach physiques curling very often," said Jonathan Reeser, a sports injury epidemiologist and the chair of the institutional review board at the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin.

Much of Reeser's research focuses on volleyball injuries, but when he moved to Wisconsin in 1997 he joined a curling club. He searched for medical research examining injuries in curling. Finding few studies on the topic, he launched his own effort.

He asked curlers at two major U.S. tournaments to fill out questionnaires about their injuries. It turned out that the results were fairly intuitive.

"In the study we documented that most people had problems with their knees and their back and their shoulders and their hips," said Reeser. "They are usually overuse injuries."

Reeser found that very few curlers, even at the nationally-competitive level, had developed injuries that stopped them from curling -- nothing like the torn ligaments or broken bones that keep athletes in other sports out of competition for months.

Maybe that is why if you Google "curling injuries" you'll learn less about the sport and more about the dangers of the hot metal objects used to curl hair.

Recent research plays a big part in helping curlers improve their technique. "It's beginning to allow us to tailor the game and tailor the conditioning of the curlers for the game," said Bradley. "Now there's a greater emphasis on the physical conditioning as well as the technical and tactical aspects of curling which are a real pivotal part of the sport."

That research used an instrumented curling brush. Known to researchers as a "sweep ergometer," it enabled them to track the effort used while sweeping and develop scientific answers to strategic questions.

Bradley's research showed that the speed of the stone suggested the best way to sweep. The most important factor is the temperature of the ice when the stone glides over it. When the stone is traveling faster it is more effective to sweep faster because it enables sweepers to cover the same spot of ice more than once and raise its temperature higher.

"And if the stone's traveling slower then you can begin to put more downward pressure into the ice because it's easier to cover the same area of ice more than once," said Bradley.

All this effort does not necessarily mean that the sport will soon be overrun by hulking athletes with football-player physiques.

"Physical conditioning is still only a part of curling," said Bradley. "It's a significant but not the most significant factor in curling. The tactical aspects of curling play are still very, very important."

"It's a simple sport to learn, but it's a very challenging sport to master," said Reeser. "Getting the stone to go where you want it to go with the proper weight and trajectory is maddeningly difficult."

By Chris Gorski
Inside Science News Service

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

How Much Snow did Washington DC REALLY Get?

You may have heard about the record-breaking snowfall in the Washington DC area this winter. The flaky white stuff has pounded the region all winter, in successive snow storms locally dubbed "The Snowpocalypse," "Snowmageddon," and the most recent "Snowverkill." These storms, on top of several smaller unnamed squalls, have dumped 55.6" total inches on the nation’s capital as of Thursday morning.

However how much is 55.6" of snow really?

Of course all this snow didn't come all at once, and represents a cumulative amount for the entire winter so far. But still, that's a lot of snow if you think about it. A whole lot.

Washington DC looks like a 10 x 10 mile square with a bite taken out of it. All together the city is 68.3 square miles. It's not too hard to figure out the total volume of snow dumped on the city so far.

55.6" depth of snow x 68.3 square miles roughly equals 8,820,000,000 cubic feet of snow, or 249,000,000 cubic meters. If you were to build a giant cube of snow that big it would be 2,066 feet, or 629 meters on each side. That's almost two fifths of a mile or two thirds of a kilometer per side. That's the volume of about 238 Empire State Buildings. That's a lot of snow.

If you took that snow cube and placed it on the national mall, that cube would be 3.72 times taller than the Washington Monument! It would be the tallest building in city, it would be the tallest building in almost any city. Only the world's tallest building the Burj Khalifa would be slightly higher. It would stretch the entire length of the reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, with 37 feet to spare.

How much would all that weigh? That's a little trickier, because snow doesn't have a uniform density. A cubic foot of really light fluffy snow is going to weigh a lot less than the really wet soggy snow, so in order to calculate this we’re going to have to estimate how much liquid water went into making all of this snow.

There's a rough rule of thumb that says ten inches of snow generates about one inch of rain. Researching this at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, I found that ten inches of snow can contain anywhere from 0.1 inches to 4 inches of rainfall.

Their Q & A on the site says "The majority of U.S. snows fall with a water-to-snow ratio of between 0.04 and 0.10." This gives us a range to work with, that ten inches of snow can yield between 0.4 and 1 inch of rain. This means that the season's snowfall would have generated between 2.26" and 5.56" of rain. Plug these depths into the area of the city and you get the possible volumes of rainwater.

2.26" x 68.3 sq mi = about 359,000,000 cubic feet, or 10,600,000 cubic meters of water.

5.56" x 68.3 sq mi = about 882,000,000 cubic feet or 25,000,000 cubic meters of water.

That's enough to fill between 4,000 and 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

One cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 pounds. So:

359,000,000 cubic feet x 62.4 = 22,400,000,000 pounds or 10,200,000,000 kg

882,000,000 cubic feet x 62.4 = 55,000,000,000 pounds 25,000,000,000 kg

That's between 10,000,000 and 24,600,000 tons or 10,200,000 and 25,000,000 metric tons!

That's the weight of between 99 and 243 Nimitz class aircraft carriers!

Thought of another way, all the water that has fallen on Washington DC this winter is equal to the average amount of water that goes over Niagara Falls in 90 to 220 seconds.

That's a lot of snow if I do say so myself.


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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Going Boldly Where No Hat Has Gone Before..."


So where do I get one of these?

In other physics (?) news - did you hear Steven Chu on NPR's "Wait, wait, don't tell me..."? He played a game called "Not My Job," wherein a person of one profession (like physicist) is asked questions about a totally different one (in this case, the Washington Generals). That guy is the best.

Alright, here's something - Niels Bohr back in the news. I'm a big fan of Bohr. They guy is a renowned physicist, but really he was a Renaissance man. He wasn't just interested in physics, he was interested in life. He laid some pretty intense philosophical ground work in relation to quantum physics, together with Werner Heisenberg and Einstein. And from all the stories I've heard of him, he was just an all around curious and creative guy. Easily one of my top ten people I'd like to meet.

Back in his heyday, Bohr speculated that the time it takes to a person to react is shorter than the time it takes to consciously act. A great case to illustrate this (or perhaps it was this case that generated the speculation) was gunfights.

Bohr believed that if two cowboys were about having a gun duel, the guy who drew his gun first (made a conscious choice to do it) would draw slower than the man who drew his gun as a reaction to the first guy's draw. The second guy would be drawing almost unconsciously - or without going through the mental process of deciding to draw his gun, and Bohr believed that would give him an advantage.

So Bohr, ever the physicist, held experiments to prove his theory! He used fake guns, obviously, but the results were what he expected. The second person to draw - the person reacting, not acting - was faster!

BUT a new study shows that the person reacting might not WIN the gunfight. The reaction time advantage is a few milliseconds, which is not enough time to beat few hundred millisecond lead that the first man has over the second. The only time this wouldn't be true is if the second man were already significantly faster than the first. Furthermore, in more complicated tests of reaction versus action, the person who reacts makes errors more often than the person who consciously acts.

So Bohr's results were not totally wrong. But they do tell us that besides being a physicist and a philosopher, Bohr was quite the gunslinger.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Physicists (and Physics Aficionados) are Human Too

Physicists are playful people. They like a good joke and a rib, although some may not admit it. When I worked for the University of Arizona Physics Department, some of the loudest laughter in the building could be found coming from professors’ offices. An academic might be sharing a humorous account of a data mistake or a lab goof with his or her post doc or grad student (“and this is where I wrote > instead of <, thus condemning us all to a world without gravity!”) and a big belly chortle could be heard from down the hall.

Rarely did I hear any physics professors screaming, although like all humans, they probably did. I myself occasionally yelled while in my office and sometimes it got so loud people banged on the door to find out if I was in peril or having a nervous breakdown. One time in particular, I was typing a cold email to a scientist who I knew could be a very important contact for me and the department. But I was having writer’s block and I couldn’t find the words to pen even what seemed to be the simplest of intro letters.

Now before I go on, I know what you’re thinking – Alaina had writer’s block? What? How could that be? I know it’s quite astounding to conceptualize, but I too, dear readers am human, and sometimes encounter this devilish drag. Sitting there vacant of words, I decided to abandon my efforts for the time being and come back to it later. But unfortunately, instead of saving the email as a draft, I accidentally clicked “send” and suddenly my half-finished email, that precariously ended in the middle of a word, was hurtling through time and space to a person whom I had never met and on whom I wanted to make the most excellent of first impressions.

So naturally, I did what any human, adult, professional would do. I banged my desk as hard as I could with both fists and screamed at the top of my lungs a beastly word that rhymes with the layman’s term for a creature in the Genus Anas. The next thing I knew I heard someone knocking at my door, calling out to see if I was ok. “Just fine!” I countered, with a jolly and fake laugh, and then turned back to my computer grumbling like a child to myself, contemplating how I was going to get out of this mess.

I decided to take the path of least resistance and use my mistake to my advantage. Instead of retreating to the Van De Graaff Accelerator Lab in the basement (which would have absorbed all the curses I could have shouted), I telephoned the scientist directly. His assistant answered and of course asked who I was. I told her my name and affiliation and explained with a genuine giggle that I was the person who had just accidentally emailed her boss a half-written letter, and I wanted to apologize for my error. Surprisingly, she put me right through to the scholar, who, upon hearing my explanation, expressed humor at this most human of gaffes. We hit it off right away and he was able to help me with my query. After we finished our call, I dashed off a hand-written (and completed) thank you note, referencing our strange way of making each other’s acquaintance. We stayed in touch and he turned out to be a very helpful contact.

This was not to be the last of my blunders. No, friends, there were many more times I would screech, punch my desk or the walls, curse, and then laugh about it all. And there would be many times I would witness physics professors behaving in similar ways. But what’s earth shattering about that? Physicists are human too, after all.


By Alaina Levine
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Monday, February 08, 2010

And they're off!

Space shuttle Endeavor lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:14 a.m. this morning. Clouds had delayed the launch the day before, and while the sky was still dark, the control room took advantage of a hole in the clouds to set Endeavor on its way. Great NASA footage of the event:



Endeavor is the 130th space shuttle flight, and is also one of the last; at least for the current space shuttle program. Only four manned shuttle flights are scheduled to take place after Endeavor.

After the shuttle Columbia exploded on reentry in 2003, NASA and the review panels set up to investigate the incidence made the decision that fixing the exact problem that caused the Columbia disaster wasn't enough. It was time for a new fleet of space shuttles, and the old ones would be retired in 2010.

Besides building new shuttles, NASA is, at the moment, struggling to define what the tasks and goals of its manned space flight program should be. Should we go to the moon? To Mars? Somewhere further? What would each task accomplish in the long and short term?

The situation is complicated by, of course, how much money NASA can expect in coming years and what politicians have to say about where they should invest their resources. Obama's recent budget proposal calls (mostly) for the cancellation of the Constellation program, which would have sent astronauts back to the moon by 2020. However, simply getting astronauts back on the moon just for the sake of going might not really serve any great scientific purpose.

So there's a lot of mayhem around NASA right now - and the launch of Endeavor is a breath of fresh air. It refocuses the national eye on what NASA really does. On the awesomeness of manned space flight.

Plus, Endeavor has a really amazing mission. The shuttle will deliver the last piece of the international space station - the Node 3, a.k.a. Tranquility, and almost a.k.a. "Colbert".


In 2009 NASA held an online contest to help find a name for Node 3. NASA had their suggestions, including "Tranquility" and "Serenity", as well as a write-in category. As a joke, Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert suggested that his viewers go take the poll and write in his name. Unexpected by NASA, and perhaps even the host himself, the write-ins to name Node 3 "Colbert" swept the contest, earning over 230,000 votes. It even beat the runner up ("Serenity") by 40,000 votes.

NASA chose to go with one of the names they suggested: "Tranquility," in memory of the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 in the sea of tranquility, 40 years ago. But they did name a treadmill stationed on Node3 C.O.L.B.E.R.T., which stands for "Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill."

Enjoy your time in orbit, Endeavor. And come home safe.


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Friday, February 05, 2010

Chicken Head Tracking

Chicken head what?

Youtube aficionados may have already seen this video. Once the giggles die down, consider the mechanism that makes this possible! (The chicken makes a loud noise at the end, which thoroughly frightened my coworkers. Just a warning if you're not wearing headphones.)



Hummingbirds are also good at keeping their heads very still while they flap their wings furiously:



The purpose of this, for the chicken, is to keep the her wits about her - i.e. make sure she knows which way is up, and where potential threats are in relation to her. To do it, the chicken has to have sensory information flooding into her brain, telling her how her body is moving.

The technique - which you could generally call "tracking" but is also pretty much the same thing as "dead reckoning" (or is it ded reckoning?) - is utilized by aircraft and some car navigation systems. (I love it when "high tech" turns up in Nature.) The chicken's body communicates its movements so well with her head, that she can almost instantaneously compensate for her movement of the lower body, and keep her head stationary in relation to her environment. To do this, her body has to have some fixed point, some center, and determine how far her bum has moved away it, then move her head an equal but opposite distance from it. Once again this requires very rapid communication, and then action, on the part of her body.

This is also an interesting lesson in relativity. Her head is definitely not moving in relation to the background; we can clearly see that it remains at the same coordinates. But in relation to her own body, her head is moving. When her body is dropped down low, her neck stretches out, moving her head further away from her heart. When her body is lifted up, her neck shrinks down, moving her head closer to her heart. Her head moves an equal distance, but in the opposite direction, to the rest of her. She is compensating for the motion of her body, in order to keep the orientation of her head and her environment the same.

You also see bull riders trying to do this - keep your head steady while your lower body moves. (Not that I'm advocating this sport or the music in this video):

There are devices that can do this for moving vehicles, for use when GPS systems can't get a signal from the parent satellite. These Inertial Measurement Units utilize dead reckoning to determine the vehicle's location based on a fixed point. Based on the last location point gathered from the satellite, the car can keep track of how far you've gone (how fast and how long), and how you've turned the steering wheel, to figure out where you should be.

While such a device might seem pretty unsophisticated in a car navigation system ("It figured out that we took two right turns? Big deal.), it can be much more important in aircraft. With the open sky as your highway, it would be easy think you were heading in a straight line, but find out too late that you were one degree off and were now many miles from your target. Kind of like when you're putting up a shelf and decide not to use a level, then realize it's lopsided a little too late.

That's not to say that IMUs are perfect, or better than GPS systems. In fact, even very advanced ones suffer from the fact that minor miscalculations can end up in very large mistakes (so your plane still might end up hundreds of miles from your destination). Their biggest advantage is that they can be analog, or don't rely on satellites service to operate. And chickens hate it when they can't get service.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Is the Ozone Keeping Out Cosmic Rays?

A paper that appeared recently on arXiv.org (a site where people can post physics papers that have not been reviewed or edited by any journals) and the Technology Review blog, says that the volume of cosmic rays that reach particle detectors on Earth matches up with temperature fluctuations in the ozone layer. Is there a direct correlation?

Well - lets back up.

The researcher who put the paper on the arXiv is with the IceCube experiment, which is a neutrino detector buried under the ice in Antarctica. IceCube is looking for neutrinos - subatomic particles that barely interact with regular matter. But occasionally, very very occasionally, they do interact. So scientists have built VERY sensitive detectors to catch those rare few.

Those neutrino detectors are so sensitive that they can't help but catch all the other particles coming at them (particles that do interact with regular matter). Namely, cosmic rays (which are mostly mesons) come hurtling through space (they are believed to be the remnants of supernova explosions) and reach our atmosphere, where they may either pass through the atmosphere and reach the ground, or collide with atomic nuclei in the air. If they collide, they produce a huge shower of particles called muons. Some of these muons can travel through the ice and create static in the detectors, making it difficult to pick out those nuggets of neutrino gold.

So, neutrino experiments try to put up shields between their sensitive detectors and the parade of disruptive particles coming from the skies. The Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search, MINOS, buried itself in an old mine in Minnesota. (They have a pretty great visitors tour if you ever get to visit. You get to ride a rickety, open, mine elevator down 2,341 feet.) IceCube put itself under a layer of ice. The layers of Earth and ice help to block out cosmic rays and muons, making room for neutrino detection. But many of those pesky particles still get through, and the scientists at MINOS and IceCube are constantly working to better understand cosmic rays so they can filtered the noise out of their data.

For quite some time, scientists at MINOS recognized that there seemed to be seasonal fluctuations in the rate of muons striking the detector. No one had done a real study of it, but it seemed clear that during the colder months, muon rates goes up, and in the warmer months it goes down. Recently, a graduate student with MINOS did his PhD work on this subject, and showed that the suspicions were correct. Cosmic rays have more collisions with air particles, and produce more muons, when it's cold.

Cosmic rays come barrelling toward the Earth at energies higher than the most powerful particle accelerators on Earth. When the air up there is colder, it becomes dense, and the air molecules get bunched together. The cosmic rays then have a higher chance of hitting a nucleus and creating a shower of muons. And vice versa - when the air gets hot, it expands and the particles spread out, making room for cosmic rays to pass through. (Thanks physics!). So more muons hit the underground detectors in the winter.

But here's the issue with the paper from IceCube: the cosmic rays that come pummeling through our atmosphere will collide with any nucleus. Hydrogen, helium, oxygen, nitrogen - they have no preference. The "ozone layer" is a portion of the stratosphere that is defined by it's chemistry - it has high levels of ozone, or 3 oxygen atoms bound together. So it doesn't quite make sense that an area defined by chemistry would have an effect on the cosmic ray rates, which are not affected by chemistry. (The ozone does absorb a great deal of ultraviolet light - perhaps this is related?)

The IceCube researcher who posted the paper compared IceCube's data showing seasonal fluctuations in the volume of cosmic rays, with atmospheric data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, reporting the temperature of the ozone. She found that the two seemed to match up. I have no idea if you could say the same thing about other portions of the atmosphere. This could be something big, or it could end up being an example of how correlation does not equal causation. This was not an in depth analysis like the one that the MINOS graduate student did, so we'll have to wait for that. I'm guessing the researcher will do a more in depth analysis as some point, but for now what we should be looking for is another reason why the cosmic ray rate might be affected by this particular portion of the atmosphere. And that, I will leave to the professionals.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Study Physics - It's the Whole Enchilada

If you're gonna study something, you might as well study physics. At least that's what I used to tell my students when I taught at the University of Arizona. Physics is the heart of all, physics is the whole enchilada, physics is totality, physics is everything, physics is existence. Every morsel of our lives, every fabric of our being, every bit and piece of all that stuff that we see and don't see is driven by, exists because, and perhaps most importantly is a manifestation of physics. My God (pun totally and shamelessly intended): when you put it that way, why isn't everyone studying physics in school?

Oh yeah - it's hard stuff. Or at least that's what people sitting next to me on airplanes tell me. That is when they even know what the word "physics" means and to what it refers. I think most average Joes might have some idea that physics has to do with gravity, "particles" (whatever those are), levers, pulleys and fulcrums (whatever those are), light, time travel, space travel, Star Trek, and nuclear bombs.


But as physics aficionados know, and I count myself as one, physics is the whole schmear. Of course, since physics is everything, when you get right down to it, everyone is a physics aficionado whether they know it, and can spell it, or not. After all, football is physics, dance is physics, art is physics, The Simpsons is physics, and one could even make the argument that love is physics (what with the body's chemical reactions to an object of attraction and the brain's neurons firing, etc.).

And now for the truth - I myself don't have a degree in physics - Shocker! My degree is in math. I started off well-intended, trudging from the fields of New Jersey to the cacti of Arizona to become none other than a theoretical astrophysicist, dually prepared with an arsenal of physics jokes and Star Trek t-shirts. And as I started my studies as a then 17-year-old (we're talking back in the Mesozoic Era), I got a NASA Space Grant and commenced cosmology research with a world-famous astrophysicist at the University of Arizona, who curiously enough, had recently migrated from Princeton to Tucson just as I had.

But as I studied physics and astronomy that precarious freshman year, I realized that I enjoyed the language of physics more than the physics itself. Seduced by the Dark Side, I became a mathematics major.

But lo! I just could not stay out of the physics department. The attraction was too great (groan). And just like Michael Corleone said in the seminal cinematic gem "The Godfather III", "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," I too was sucked back though the worm hole to the world of physics by unseen forces and aromatic nerds.

So, I continued doing my physics research. I joined the Society of Physics Students and worked my way up to President. I performed physics outreach programs for kids. When I graduated, I found my first job as the department's Communications Director and I did PR for physics.

Slowly, relatively of course, I gained the thrill of seeing/feeling/knowing physics in action, be it in a laboratory, an accelerator, or anytime I used any of my senses. Physics is fascinating and as an old woman, I developed a more thorough appreciation of its true beauty, majesty and totality. It would appear that for me, wisdom came with age and experience.

Today, over a decade later, my career has been molded, guided, and carved by physics in every sense of the word. My profession consists of writing about physics and physicists for APS News and other publications, speaking about physics careers and physicists at conferences and universities, and advising physicists about professional development-related issues. I also do comedy, much of which revolves around physics humor. My greatest and most helpful mentors of yesteryear and today are physicists. I collect physicists' autographs.

Of course I also write and speak about other areas of science and math, but as Ernest Rutherford most accurately put it, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." I have no regrets about getting my degree in mathematics, as it prepared me well for my work. But for all the little children who read this blog, know this - since physics is everything and everywhere, even in alternate universes and other dimensions (although physics there might not be the same as our physics), having a background in the subject can only open doors for you. Studying physics enables you to learn other subjects with greater ease, and analyze and solve problems from other disciplines with more simplicity. Quite clearly, learning physics makes you smarter and more skillful in many other arenas, be it business, science, or other creative pursuits.

So the next time someone on an airplane shutters in horror at the thought of anyone studying such a hard subject, or looks at your resume and questions why you decided to study "psychics" in school, just flash a surreptitious smile, and know that you have the key to all that exists. And there is nothing more apposite than physics to use as launch pad for a career and a life.

By Alaina G. Levine

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Monday, February 01, 2010

I love a baseball post!

My computational physics professor in college was a baseball fanatic, and insisted on pushing that obsession onto his students. So for most of the semester we wrote algorithms that would map the path of a baseball pitch, based on variables like the angle of release, the speed and the spin of the ball. We demonstrated that very small changes in any of these variables can drastically change where the ball ends up.

That was some years ago, and these days I couldn't program my way out of a paper bag, but I find it interesting that my professor was not the only scientist trying to break down the game of baseball. Studies on the physics and science of baseball pop up all the time, and a new one out from Brown University actually found it helpful to temporarily suspend the laws of physics to get the answer they were looking for.

Take this new study that...wow, HANG ON. Can I just point you to the picture of the owl in 3D glasses? Also the photoshopped picture of the owl participating in a scientific experiment? These images are from a totally different study in the Journal of Vision, but they were a little too amazing not to share. The paper that goes with these images was very dense - I think it drew some parallels between how humans and owls see in stereo. I must admit my subscription to the journal of vision ran out when I never got one to begin with, but they have an amazing looking table of contents.

Back to physics! A paper published in the December 14 edition of JoV presents a very creative way of testing theories about how baseball players manage to catch fly balls. There are a few theories floating around about how this is achieved, and the researchers tried to rule out the idea that baseball players catch balls by predicting their physical trajectory. So either through experience or intrinsic physics knowledge, players recognize the path of a falling object subject to Earth's gravity.

But this theory seems to have been invalidated by the new study. They put ball players in a virtual system where fly balls can totally disobey the rules of physics - and the players still seemed to have about the same luck catching them.

Rather than predicting the path of the ball, the players move in such a way that the ball appears not to move relative to them. If the ball is moving fast, they need to back up. If it's moving slow, they need to move forward. This seems to go along with a study done earlier in 2009 which showed that players who tried to pick the spot where a fly ball would land, but who had to remain stationary, could not pick the drop spot quite as well as if they were able to move. The ability to align one's movement with the movement of the ball apparently makes a big difference.
The success of this theory relies on the idea that the key to catching a fly ball is to keep your eye on it. However, as many online sources point out, there are a handful of famous baseball players who could somehow catch fly balls without looking at them - that is, they could make great catches over the shoulder, without being able to see exactly where the ball was. While this happens to many players, it happens consistently with only a few. Perhaps they have a particularly strong innate ability to judge the motion of the ball.

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