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Happy Birthday, Steven Chu!

Happy birthday, Steven Chu!

Today is the U.S. Secretary of Energy's 63rd birthday. Here are some fun facts about President Obama's go-to Energy guru:

- Chu won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, sharing it with two other physicists, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips. The trio won for their creation of a method to cool and trap atoms using laser light.

- Before becoming Energy Secretary, Chu was the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working on alternative energy and renewable energy technologies. He was also a professor of physics at the University of California.

- As a teenager, Chu taught himself how to pole vault using bamboo poles he got from a local carpet store.

- He's the first person to be appointed to the Cabinet after having won a Nobel Prize. Others have gone on from working as Cabinet members to win Nobel Prizes, but Chu was the first to win the award before working as a presidential adviser.

- Chu is an advocate for alternative ene…

Electromagnetic Energy Could Save Lives by Detonating IEDs

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), otherwise known as roadside bombs, are hard to detect and are responsible for many of the casualties in both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars as well as hundreds of thousands of deaths or serious injuries of both military and civilians each year. Detonating them remotely could save many lives. A team of doctoral students in Switzerland is using electromagnetic energy to do just that.

[Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Carl Harris inspects the remaining high explosive material from a disrupted improvised explosive device (IED) during a training exercise May 2005 in Bahrain. IEDs are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths or serious injuries of both military and civilians each year. Photo & caption by Aaron Ansarov, U.S. Navy.]
Félix Vega and Nicolas Mora, PhD students at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Electromagnetic Compatibility Laboratory, developed a device that uses the energy from electromagnetic impulses to …

The Hunt For Earth's Missing Carbon

An international team of scientists begins a ten year survey of the 'most important element'



Deep beneath the surface of the Earth, a vast and unseen community of strange, microscopic lifeforms quietly subsists on the heat rising from our planet's interior.

In its total mass, this life might rival all that walks, crawls, stands, swims and soars above it, but scientists don't know for sure. Life has already been found in the deepest layer of Earth's crust, nearly one mile down, but scientists expect to find life thriving even deeper. Studying mysteries like this one is a task for the Deep Carbon Observatory, a new project that will search out not just life but everything carbon-related that lies beneath our feet.

“Twenty years ago, the idea that there was a deep underground biosphere would have been laughed at,” said Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and leader of the Deep Carb…

At AAAS: Biologists Channeling Astronomers?

Biologists are channeling astronomers to help them look at the brain?
[Stylized photo of the AAAS Annual Meeting registration area at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.]Looking at tofu: That's how Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medial Institute (HHMI) in Ashburn, Va. described a close-up view of an eye. Trying to see deep tissue in an eye or even in a brain, he said, is like trying to see "a field of stars hidden behind a cloud." It's hard.

But one technique, used by every major telescope on Earth, according to Betzig, could help doctors and biologists see deep tissues in the brain. It's called adaptive optics and it's what astronomers use to bring their cosmic snapshots into focus.

Betzig spoke in an early-morning session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting today at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

When looking at stars and other celestial beasts, the vision of Earth-based …

Fermi Problem Thursday: When in Rome?

I know it isn't Friday, but I have this Fermi problem that has been bugging me for the last 8 months. I thought that maybe if I wrote it down here I would at least feel better and maybe even get an answer.

This past summer I was lucky enough to spend a week touring around Italy. Of course the first place I stopped was Rome. One of the neatest things about this city is that the modern is wonderfully mixed in with the old. 2000+ years of human history in 496.3 square miles. After getting off the train and meeting up with Agent Utah, we decided our first stop was some gelato. As we were walking I believe I said something along the lines of "Yeah, I just really want to sit and drink wine and eat gela... Holy !*@$ that's the Colosseum!" We did go one to find both great food and great gelato.

On our way home (after spending a good 45 minutes having some wine outside of the Pantheon before we realized what it was) we tripped across the Trevi Fountain. The saying goe…

Best Physics Toys

I love toys, especially ones with a physics connection. Unfortunately, most toys that are advertised as science/physics toys seem to me to be disappointing. The best physics toys, in my opinion, are the ones that teach you a bit about physics without being all teachy about it.



Riding a bike, for example, is really a lesson in applied physics. You may or may not ever try to understand what's going on from a physicist's point of view, but anyone who has learned to ride has probably completed a few tough lessons in the physics school of hard knocks.

Time Magazine today published a list of the 100 greatest toys since 1923. I'm not sure what their criteria were, 'cause I skipped straight to the full list. But many of the toys seem like great ways to learn a bit about physics.

My favorite physics toy - the boomerang - is notably absent. But I can tell you, hours of practice learning to throw and catch one of those things taught me a lot about gyroscopic motion, which came in ve…

Did they "dial down" Watson?

Well, Watson strutted his stuff last night, and he started out pretty strong. But as the questions got tougher, he showed some of his weaknesses with the nuances of the English language. Or did he? I have a colleague who thinks they "turned down" Watson's capabilities halfway through. What do you think? How will Watson behave tonight?


[Watson on PBS, pre-Jeopardy! showdown.]

Until then, here are the answers, or questions, rather, to yesterday's physics Jeopardy! clues of yore. Did you get them all right?

Jeopardy! Round:
($100)
A sound's repetition by reflection. What is AN ECHO?
($200)
Detection of gamma rays was 1 of the uses for this 1947 instant picture taker. What is A POLAROID-LAND CAMERA?
($300)
After length, width & depth, the 4th dimension.
($400) What is TIME?
Negative particle that orbits an atom's nucleus.
($500) What is AN ELECTRON?
Shattering sound that accompanies breaking the sound barrier. What is A SONIC BOOM?

Double Jeopardy! Round:
($200)
What we cal…

Physics and Jeopardy!

Tonight is the first of three nights of epic Jeopardy! competition. Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence computer, who has spent the last seven years training for this week, will take on Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a charity AI-human intelligence show-down.

[The anti-Watson? An early IBM portable PC.]

According to Slate, "Science" is among the top ten categories used in Jeopardy! over roughly the last 10 years. Thanks to the online Jeopardy! fan clue archive - J! Archive - here's a list of some of the physics-relation questions Jeopardy! guests have encountered over the last decade. Think you can get them all right? How about Watson? The answers will be posted tomorrow.

These physics questions come from the following Jeopardy! categories: Ancient Science, Astronomy, Inventions, Physical Science, Physics, Science, Scientific Theories, The Solar System, and Water.

Jeopardy! Round:
($100)
A sound's repetition by reflection.
($200)
Detection of gamma ra…

Tesla v. Edison Mad Lib

Happy Birthday, Thomas Edison!


Thomas Edison, developer of many modern devices like the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the electric light bulb, was born 164 years ago today, on Feb. 11, 1847. The American inventor holds over a thousand U.S. patents and his legacy is found everywhere, like in the New Jersey town named for him. Though he's often praised in American history, Edison is also surrounded with a darker history -- his relationship with inventor Nikola Tesla.

Those who frequent Physics Buzz have seen posts, like this one, referencing the tension between the two inventors. A history of the skirmish was also the subject of one of APS' Physics Quest comic books -- Nikola Tesla and the Electric Fair -- which got me to thinking: What if Edison and Tesla actually had a throw-down? Who would win?

To find out, I decided to craft a Tesla v. Edison hypothetical battle Mad Lib:

To complete the Tesla v. Edison Mad Lib below, first, print out a copy of this post by going to…

A Step Closer to the New Kg

The guys and gals at the International Bureau of Weights and Measure (BIPM)* have a problem: Their kilogram is shrinking.

Well, it may be shrinking. It might also be growing. Either way, it appears to be changing. The problem is the world's only exact definition of a kilogram is a cylinder (made of platinum-iridium) that's under lock and key at the BIPM. It lives in a carefully-managed environment and has only been exposed to the world three times since its creation in 1889.

Copies of the original kilogram cylinder were made, and when the original was measured against a copy in 1989, the mass of the original was 50 micrograms less than the copy -- a difference about equal to the size of a grain of sand.
[Photo caption: Master Optician Achim Leistner at the Australian Centre for Precision Optics holds a 1-kg silicon crystal sphere.]

Though it's a small difference, it could have big implications for scientists who rely on precision and accuracy. Luckily, a group of scienti…

Betrayed by Heat: The SR-71 Blackbird

A couple of friends and I went to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the National Air & Space Museum near Dulles Airport, a few weeks ago. The museum is home to over 160 aircraft, almost as many spacecraft and missiles, and several thousand smaller aviation-related artifacts. What is perhaps most exciting object on display, though, is the one that greets visitors as they first enter the museum -- the SR-71 Blackbird.

[The view you're greeted with upon entering Udvar-Hazy.]

The three of us were particularly struck with the Blackbird. It's not surprising since the plane is the museum's centerpiece, with the pearly white Enterprise peering over its shoulder from the next room.

[A view from behind shows the Blackbird's Delta-wing shape common to many supersonic airplanes.]
The Blackbird was developed by Lockheed Martin's division for secretive projects called Skunk Works. It was designed to replace another stealth aircraft developed by Lockheed Martin's Sku…

What the Heck is a Parsec?

"You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon?...She's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs...She's fast enough for you old man."-Han Solo, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope



What do you do when you want to measure the distance of a nearby star and there are no computers, no spacecraft and no power plants to generate electricity? Well, what Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel did in 1838 was use trigonometry and the parallax effect to calculate the distance of a star based on the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

The Earth averages a distance (radius) of 92,955,807.27 miles or 149,597,870.7 km from the Sun. That distance - the length from the Earth's center to the Sun's center - is known as an "astronomical unit" or AU. One AU is one trip from the center of the Earth to the center of the Sun.

Astronomers took (and still take) advantage of this distance to help them measure how far away stars are from the Earth. To measure the distance, as…

LEDs the True Super Bowl XLV Halftime Stars

If you're a Packers fan, then last night was "a good night" for you. Regardless of what team you pulled for, if you're a fan of LEDs, then last night was definitely a good night -- no matter how you felt about the halftime singing.



The Black Eyed Peas, Slash and Usher all performed during the Super Bowl XLV (45, for you non-Romans) halftime show. The real halftime stars weren't the mega-musicians though, but instead the LED-clad backup dancers.

The dancers wore pale suits with what look like LED ribbons running vertically down their costumes. The lights alternated between green, white and red. It looks like they were controlled by switches on a utility belt worn by the dancers. In the last few seconds of the video, you can see two block-head dancers manipulating the controls to make their suits flash in different colors.

The dancers formed DDR-style arrows on the field and assembled as giant red hearts during the Black Eyed Peas song "Where is the Love?"

Mark Kelly, STS-134 and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

[The crew of STS-134 with commander Mark Kelly in the bottom Center. Photo credit: NASA.]

The announcement came from NASA today that Mark Kelly will indeed be commander of the last scheduled Space Shuttle mission, STS-134.There was some doubt about whether or not Kelly would be able to continue training for NASA's final shuttle mission after his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and critically injured during the 2011 Tucson Shootings on Jan. 8.

Kelly has been on leave from the rigorous pre-launch training schedule for the last few weeks to take care of his wife.

"I am looking forward to rejoining my STS-134 crew members and finishing our training for the mission," Kelly said in the NASA press release. "We have been preparing for more than 18 months, and we will be ready to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station and complete the other objectives of the flight. I appreciate the confidence that my NASA manageme…

Muddled Mix The Corniest Way To Plug Leaky Oil Well

Adding cornstarch to mud leads to improved 'top kill' alternative.

[A Coast Guard rescue helicopter and crew capture images of the fire aboard the offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon as fire boat crews search for survivors and battle the blazing remnants of the oil rig on April 21, 2010. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. Photo Credit: US Coast Guard, ISNS]
Call it better drilling through chemistry.

The uncontrollable flood of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster clearly illustrated that knowing how to stop the flow of oil when something goes wrong is an important part of the oil extraction business.

New research shows that one of the leading methods for "killing" an undersea petroleum leak can be greatly improved not by altering heavy machinery, but by the use of a simple chemical ingredient: cornstarch.

Chefs use cornstarch to thicken s…

Punxsutawney Phil and Atmospheric Lore

Punxsutawney Phil: The immortal prophet of spring's annual arrival. Though I question Phil's meteorological expertise, I can't help hoping he is right. He didn't see his shadow this morning, and according to legend, that means we'll have an early spring. Though I can't explain the shadow thing, I'll take it.


So, Phil didn't see his shadow. That must mean it was overcast in Punxsutawney, Pa., this morning. To me that says more nasty winter weather is due - now. In fact, it was cloudy and cold in Punxsutawney this morning. So, I ask, how do those weather conditions foretell of an early spring? It seems to me like if it were bright and sunny, and Phil saw his shadow, that would be an indication that spring is on its way. No one can explain to me how the weather on this day has anything to do with the weather over the next few weeks. But traditions are traditions. And some aren't so bad.

Weather folklore has been around since Biblical times, and likely l…

The Physics of Top Gun -- Just Don't Borrow the Video

"You've lost that lovin' feelin'*, whoa that lovin' feelin'. You've lost that lovin' feelin', now it's gone, gone, gone, whoa..." Apparently China's state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), lost that lovin' feeling last week when it allegedly lifted part of the 1986 movie "Top Gun" for a military promotional video that aired nation-wide in China.


Oops.

Thanks the wonders of the Internet, it wasn't long before someone noticed the similarities between the CCTV video and the 1980s flick. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) put out the video above, comparing the original movie footage and the Chinese military training video. CCTV, according to the WSJ, hasn't yet made any comments about the coincidence.

But who can blame the Chinese? According to the Top Gun Wikipedia page, the number of men who joined the Navy with hopes of becoming Naval Aviators increased by 500 percent after the movie premiered.

I remember first…