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Showing posts from January, 2011

Launch Your Own High-Altitude Experiment

Are you in high school? Ever wanted to launch something on a weather balloon? (Little brothers are not acceptable payloads...) Then lucky you! NASA is hosting it's second annual Balloonsat High Altitude Flight contest.

The space agency is inviting students in the 9th through 12th grades to create experiments to be tested at high altitudes on the verge of space -- up to 100,000 feet.

Experiments can test anything, like a cell phone's range to plant growth in the stratosphere.

I asked around the office to get some ideas of what people might like to see tested in one of these experiments:

My favorite idea: Put a roll of ultra-sensitive film (like ISO 1600, 3200 or 6400) in a light-proof container and send it up in the balloon. See if the film will capture gamma rays (and possibly X-Rays) hitting it. Since cosmic gamma rays are blocked by Earth's atmosphere, they're not as often seen at Earth's surface. At altitude, however, there should be enough to be captured on …

Van Der Waals Wildcats Away!

By Alaina G. Levine

I make it no secret that my alma mater and former employer is the University of Arizona (UA). I spent many years there amongst the strange attractors in the Physics and other science and engineering departments, soaking up as much fascinating why-the-world-works-the-way-it-does knowledge as possible.

I still have quite an affinity for the Wildcats who roam the halls of the Physics and Atmospheric Science Building, mostly with their heads down as they contemplate problems associated with GUTs, AGN, ATLAS, and many other acronyms. For some, I always wondered why they didn’t bump into walls, given that their eyes were always transfixed to the floor instead of objects ahead.

This week I learned that a team of UA physicists had published interesting revelations relating to another acronym, VDW, aka the van-der-Waals force. The scholars discovered a novel method to calculate how individual atoms interact with various surfaces, which is dictated by this fabulous force. The p…

Know when to say when on the Golden Gate Bridge

By Alaina G. Levine
Next year is the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. So it was fitting that while in San Francisco this week I took a look at this modern marvel, but more importantly, learned a little about the physics associated with keeping it intact.

My guide was Paul Doherty, Senior Scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I recently wrote about Paul and his museum-working comrades for APS News, so it was an especially sweet coup to not only visit him in his native habitat, but also get a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the most famous science museums in the world.

The Exploratorium is located a stone’s throw from the bridge and its staff have developed a number of very interesting exhibits relating to its dynamics over the years.

I learned that they have a telescope at Fort Mason, which is about 2 miles east of the museum, which is pointed at the center of the Bridge. The telescope allows one to see the height of the center of the Bridge as a function of tempera…

Science, Innovation and the Economy

During last night's State of the Union Address, science and science education got a shout out. Actually, they got a lot of shout outs, some pretty big ones too. The President said that "The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation," and "[w]e need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

A lot of the first part of his speech, President Obama extolled the importance that science and research has on society and the economy. He called for more science funding and to "prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math." Scientific discoveries lead to new technologies which spur new industries and jobs. Unfortunately there's kind of a catch, it's hard to tell ahead of time what discoveries and technologies will change the world.

To paraphrase Niels Bohr, predictions are hard, especially ab…

I SPIE a Hot Guy

By Alaina G. Levine

Lenses, lasers and mirrors. Everyone knows that these everyday items form the basis of one of the most interesting and complicated “scingineering” arenas of modern times: Photonics. Photonics is the science and technology of photons, so pretty much every modern day electronic device has some photonic innovation associated with it.

At Photonics West this week in San Francisco, possibly the largest conference devoted to this subject, I “discovered” that there is much more to photonics than lasers and mirrors. There’s holography. There’s biomedical sensors. And there’s hot guys.

Hot guys? At a physics conference? Heck yeah! Loads of them.

While sashaying through the ginormous exhibit hall, I SPIEd a fascinating series of images on the flat-paneled display perched on the artificial wall of a booth. The exhibit belonged to Xenics Infrared Solutions. This 10-year-old Belgium company was showing off its infrared cameras which, quite obviously when pointed toward a normal huma…

Oh Hubble, Where Art Thou?

So on Friday NASA announced that they're holding a press conference on Wednesday January 26th about…something. As with most press conference announcements NASA's keeping the details pretty closely guarded. The hints they’ve dropped are that it's a discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope and that "[a]stronomers have pushed the Hubble Space Telescope to its limits and have seen further back in time than ever before." Beyond that, it’s a mystery for now. So, in true journalistic from, I will now engage in wild and unfounded speculation as to what could possibly be announced on Wednesday, complete with the odds they're taking in Vegas.

1 in 3: Just what the announcement said, that the Hubble has looked farther back into the past than ever before. Light travels fast, but it still takes time to travel from its source to an observer. Space is so big that it can take a long time, an estimated 100,000 years to travel from one side of our galaxy to the other. So the far…

Flight of the Concorde

I don't know if all you PhysicsBuzz readers at home know this, but today's the 35th anniversary of the first flight of the Concorde.

No, not the world famous folk duo from New Zealand; the fleet of supersonic commercial airplanes that crisscrossed the globe for 27 years. On January 21, 1976, the first paying passengers took a trip on a jet that could travel faster than the speed of sound from London England to Bahrain. These planes were fast, traveling twice the speed of sound. A flight from New York to Paris would only take a Concorde about three and a half hours, a far cry from the typical eight hours it takes most jets. However there was a downside; the sonic booms that come with faster than sound travel.

Because of these booms, the Concorde originally had trouble coming to the United States. At first Congress banned them because of worries over sonic booms, and then once the national ban was lifted, individual airports like JFK in New York barred the sleek planes from landi…

Weak Force Stronger than Thought

The force that governs some of the reactions that keep our sun shining is not quite as weak as scientists had previously thought. As a consequence, our estimation of how energetic the sun actually is just went up by a tiny amount.

The evidence for this weak nuclear force comes from the decay of muons, essentially heavier cousins of the electron, one of the building blocks of atoms.

Just as biologists sometimes study the tiniest and most ephemeral of organisms such as fruit flies, which live for barely a day, to learn things about human disease, so physicists often study the properties of particles that last a fraction of a second to learn about the universe.

The muon lives only about 2 millionths of a second -- 2 microseconds -- far from the realm of human sensation but long enough for scientists to make detailed measurements. The state of digital electronics is so advanced that measurements far shorter than this, even down to trillionths of a second or less, can easily be made.

Watching …

Airborne telescope gives astronomers a new angle on Orion

A new image taken by NASA's airborne telescope gives astronomers another look at the star centered in Orion's sword.

[The image on the right, released last week, is a mosaic of mid-infrared images of the Orion Nebula region taken by SOFIA. The image at the left is a visible light image of the same region taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; the center image is a near-infrared look from the European Southern Observatory. Photo credit: (left) NASA, ESA, HST, AURA, STScI, O'Dell & Wong; (middle) ESO, McCaughrean et al.; (right) NASA, DLR, SOFIA, USRA, DSI, FORCAST Team.]

Astronomers already have visible and near-infrared images of the Orion Nebula - the area in the middle of the sword "hanging" from the belt in the constellation Orion. Now, they have a new look at the region: Mid-infrared. The mid-infrared images show details that are undetectable in the near-infrared and visible images.

The new image is significant because some mid-infrared wavelengths, like th…

Stephen Hawking Mad Lib

Stephen Hawking is generally considered to be one of the greatest physicists of our time. He is often compared to great historical physicists like Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton, though he denies he belongs in such a prestigious group.


To complete the Hawking Mad Lib below, first, print out a copy of this post by going to File -> Print in your browser menu. (Or copy and paste the contents into a Word document and print from there.) 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. Unit of Time, Plural _______________
3. First Name _______________
4. Adjective _______________
5. Verb _______________
6. Plural Noun _______________
7. Adjective _______________
8. Adjective _______________
9. Plural Noun _______________
10. Verb _______________
11. Adjective _______________
12. Noun _______________
13. …

From the American Astronomical Society Meeting: Mind Your Bulge

By Alaina G.Levine

There is no way one could be lost in space at the 217th American Astronomical Society (AAS) Meeting this week, held in Seattle, WA. Although thousands of people attended, there was still plenty of opportunity to cull through the particulates and learn about the hottest cosmological discoveries on Earth.

Among the exciting announcements and talks:

--The discovery of the smallest planet known outside our solar system, Kepler-10b, was confirmed by NASA. The rocky exo-planet was found by the Kepler spacecraft and orbits the star known as Kepler-10, the first star identified “that could potentially harbor a small transiting planet”. The planet is 1.4 times the size of our blue marble, but is not in the so-called “habitable zone” of its star – in fact its orbit, which is .84 days, puts Kepler 10-b more than 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun, so there ain’t going to be any green martians (or should I say keplerians?) on that rock, unless perhaps they eat …

Cockroach Inspires Robotic Hand To Get A Grip

Researchers are working to improve the grip of robotic hands through design inspiration taken from cockroach legs.

No one thinks twice about picking up a cup of coffee, but this task has vexed robots for three decades. A new type of mechanical hand developed by researchers at Harvard and Yale promises to solve this problem.

In a makeover inspired by cockroach legs, the engineers chose not to make their robotic hand smarter, but to redesign its form to suit a dumb robot.

"People have been trying to build robotic hands for 20 or 30 years, but those hands have rarely been able to perform dexterous tasks," explained Robert D. Howe, who heads Harvard's BioRobotics Laboratory. Howe worked with Aaron Dollar, a former graduate student and now an assistant professor of engineering at Yale, to develop the new hand.

In the real world, Howe explained, both robots and humans have trouble estimating the relationship between their hand and the object they want to grasp. Humans compensate …

Gabrielle Giffords

We at PhysicsBuzz and Physics Central were very saddened to hear about the recent shooting in Arizona which took the lives of six people and injured another fourteen people including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, wife of space shuttle commander Mark E. Kelly. We wish Rep. Giffords and the others injured a full recovery and our thoughts go out to the families and friends of all the victims of this tragedy.

No Pi for You

Apparently, March 14 isn't very important after all.



It's a new political season on Capitol Hill, only a few miles down the road from the American Physical Society headquarters. Our nearness to the political machinery in this country doesn't usually affect us much here. But the enthusiasm of the incoming 112th Congressional class has touched us just a bit this time around.

It seems that the newly installed Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has decided that the Congress wastes too much time on commemorative bills, like the ones congratulating little league teams for winning their playoffs, or bills establishing national potato week. Now that sounds fine to me - I'd rather our lawmakers make laws than produce useless bills.

But when I first heard about the change on NPR, reporter Andrea Seabrook specifically called outNational Pi Day (March 14, or 3.14) as being an example of time-wasting legislation. It's hard to imagine that it's any better than any other sill…

Show us your Möbius strip!

Ever heard of Vi Hart, the Mathemusician? She's got a pretty fascinating YouTube channel and a interesting blog about - you guessed it - music and math.


One of her most recent videos, below, shows you how to draw a Möbius strip. These are fascinating little guys! Since I watched the video, I've been drawing them - well trying to draw them - everywhere! One of my most successful is above. I want to see your Möbius strip drawings and creations too! Scroll down for more...



A Möbius strip is a surface with only one edge and one side though at first glance it looks like it has two of each. If an ant were crawling on the strip, it would eventually walk the length of the strip, both "top" and "bottom" without ever leaving the strip.

To see what I'm talking about, take a strip of paper about 8 inches long and an inch wide. Imagine the back side of the paper is gray and the front is white. Tape the two ends of the strip together as though you were making a loop …

Icicle Physics

Look out your window at the icicles beginning to grow on the edges of roofs and car bumpers, and you might think that all icicles are shaped the same -- long, straight and pointy.

But Canadian scientists have found that subtle differences in wind and water can produce icicles with strange shapes. Using an indoor icicle-making machine, the researchers have challenged a mathematical theory claiming that all icicles tend to grow towards the idealized cone-like shape they have in cartoons.

View Icicle Formation Videos

"The ideal icicle, the mathematically-minimum icicle, is elegant and beautiful," said icicle grower Stephen Morris, a physicist at the University of Toronto. "But the reality has turned out to be much more complicated."

An icicle grows because it is wet. As water runs down the surface of an icicle in a thin film, some freezes in the cold air, and the rest drips off the tip -- which isn't actually pointy but, under a magnifying glass, concave like an upsid…

Greetings to the Sun

Zadar, Croatia, is home to one of the most unique and beautiful displays of art in harmony with science and nature in the world. Two light and sound installations fueled by the elements attract visitors from around the world to this sensory-enticing spot on the Adriatic Sea.


Zadar is a Mediterranean city whose history stretches back almost 3,000 years. Visitors to the old city can tour an intact 9th century church and sit to enjoy ice cream among Roman ruins that date back to the city's early days.

What draws tourists and locals alike to the northwestern-most point on the old city's peninsula isn't hundreds or thousands of years old, though. It isn't even decades old. It's two art installations completed only a few years ago.

The first is the Morske Orgulje, or Sea Organ, which plays music using waves coming from the sea. The 230 foot (70 meter) long organ was built to replace the end of a bland concrete wall built during post-World War II reconstruction.

Thirty-five …

Topsy and the War of the Currents

Thomas Edison is known to many as the heroic American inventor who created the light bulb. But what isn't covered so well in grade school is Edison's propaganda battle with inventor Nikola Tesla over what type of electricity would eventually power our homes and offices - direct or alternating current.

Telsa was an inventor of Serbian heritage born in Croatia. After studying electrical engineering, he went to the United States to work for Edison's company. Edison hired Tesla to work on his direct current (DC) power system, then the standard electrical system in the U.S., offering him a bonus if he was able to improve the generator.

While Tesla did improve Edison's DC generator, he also tried to convince Edison to ditch it in favor of his own invention: An alternating current (AC) power generator. Alternating current, Tesla knew, was more efficient than DC current, able to be transferred over large distances when DC power could only go a few miles.

Edison didn't want …

iPhones in space! A father-son duo's video of Earth from above

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.Using little more than a take-out container, an iPhone and an HD video camera, Luke Geissbuhler and his seven-year-old son, Max, made the science fair project of a lifetime.

The Geissbuhlers tucked the electronics (along with some hand warmers to keep them from freezing) into a Styrofoam vessel and launched it into space using a weather balloon. The 102-minute journey was recorded by the video camera and tracked via a GPS signal emitted by the iPhone.

The Geissbuhlers spent months doing research and testing their craft before an ideal launch day in August presented itself. With the weather just right, the father-son duo, along with some friends, drove to Newburgh, N.Y., where they launched their balloon.

The balloon rose at a rate of 25 feet per second. As it ascended the decrease in atmospheric pressure around the balloon caused it to expand.

Weather balloons released by the National Weather Service start out at an inflated diameter of…