Thursday, March 31, 2011

IOP's Video Take on the Sights & Sounds at the APS March Meeting

A multimedia crew from the Institute of Physics was at the March Meeting in Dallas, capturing some of the sights and sounds of the week devoted to physics. Here's the first in a series of videos filmed at the meeting:

[This video "Noted and quoted: on the record at the APS March Meeting" comes from the Institute of Physics' website.]

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Learning Physics Through Molten Chocolate Cake

Imagine learning about the physics of heat transfer by baking your own molten chocolate cake in an abandoned chemistry laboratory. That's what students at Harvard University did last year in a course devoted to teaching science through cooking. One of the course's instructors gave an overview of the program at the 2011 APS March Meeting.

[This lecture, called "Heat, Temperature and Chocolate," is the fifth in the series available on YouTube.]

Several hundred people packed the room for the "Science of Cooking: Motivating the Study of Freshman Physics" talk given by Harvard's David Weitz.

In the course, students (who sometimes had no science background) learned about science through cooking in an unused Harvard chemistry lab that was turned into a "food lab." There, plates and cutting boards replaced petri dishes and test tubes.

Students baked molten chocolate cake during one lecture to get a better understanding of heat transfer. The students used equations for heat transfer for the diffusion of heat to calculate how long the cakes needed to be baked, filling in variables like volume of the batter, heat of the oven (initial temperature) and the desired temperature. They were also able to use this equation to calculate how long a Thanksgiving turkey should bake and then verify their results on the turkey's packaging.

"Showing an equation like that to non-science freshmen physicists - they got it, they understood it because we did the experiment," Weitz said.

World-class chefs, including a white House pastry chef, presented a lecture each week, usually focusing on one ingredient or kitchen technique to teach a scientific concept.

"'s a wonderful material," Weitz said of one of the many ingredients used. The students also learned about elasticity through steak and about viscosity through olive oil.

Though he didn't get into quantum or even Newtonian mechanics, Weiss said, he did form an entire course around soft-matter physics - the science of liquids, gels, granular materials (think salt) and more, something he said has been his dream.

"The students really learned how to do science," Weitz said, by doing lab experiments based on cooking. And, from their reaction, they really seemed to enjoy it.

"I think the fact that you can eat the lab is really cool," one student said of the course in a video interview played during Weitz's talk.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

News and Photos from the 2011 APS March Meeting

Nobel Laureate Konstantin Novoselov speaks during a press conference at the 2011 APS March Meeting. Novoselov, who in 2010 won a Nobel Prize for his work on graphene, spoke to a capacity crowd Wednesday night at the Dallas Convention Center.

As the 2011 annual APS March Meeting comes to a close in Dallas, here's a look back at some of the sights from the meeting as well as links to a few talks that made news over the last week:

Curry powder molecule 'is cheap sensor for explosives' by BBC News.

Diamond could store quantum information from Science News.

'Small modular reactors' hold sway in US nuclear future by BBC News.

Silicene: It could be the new graphene from Science News.

Most superheroes get science right, physics professor says at opening of Dallas science conference from The Dallas Morning News.

An audience member in a cowboy hat listens to the lecture about "The Science of Barbecue (Texas Style)" on Tuesday morning at the 2011 APS March Meeting.

Several attendees take advantage of the shade outside the Dallas Convention Center at the 2011 APS March Meeting.

Thousands of speakers and attendees took over the Dallas Convention Center from March 21-25 for the 2011 annual APS March Meeting.

Several 2011 APS March Meeting attendees check out the schedule of events in one of the presentation rooms at the Dallas Convention Center.
A large crowd dominates the center of the Dallas Convention Center where a long line of 2011 APS March Meeting attendees waits for their turn to order at Starbucks.
From left, Wyatt Graham, Joe Gran, Chris Miller and Peter Greene, all from the University of California Davis, enjoy an evening out on the town in Dallas early in the week during the 2011 APS March Meeting.
One meeting attendee takes a nap in the Dallas sunshine mid-week during the 2011 APS March Meeting.

Speakers and attendees take a break between sessions at the 2011 APS March Meeting.

A view of the Dallas morning skyline from the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where several satellite events took place.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The High Water Mark of American Science

By Quantum and Flash Modin

In the 1980s the Department of Energy started to design what would have been the biggest science experiment in the world, the Superconducting Super Collider. Waxahachie, Texas was all set to host a particle accelerator that would have dwarfed Switzerland's Large Hadron Collider, today's reigning champ. Construction began in 1991, then was abruptly canceled in 1993.

The SSC was designed to collide protons and anti-protons at energies of 40 TeV, today the LHC can only ever hope to reach 14 TeV. The LHC has tunnels 17 miles in circumference; the SSC would have been more than 54 miles.

Congress pulled the plug in 1993 for a couple reasons. The projected budget swelled from about $4.4 billion to $12 billion. Political support for the project had always been shaky, and it essentially came down to whether Congress wanted to fund the International Space Station, or the SSC. The ISS won out.

Today the old SSC site sits rusting away. No one wants to buy the derelict buildings, so they are slowly rotting into the Texas prairie. Workers had drilled over 14 miles of tunnels underground.

During a lull in this year’s March Meeting in Dallas, we set off to explore the dilapidated facility. Here’s what we found…

Driving up to the facility we could see the remains of the complex from the road. The site we explored was mostly where technicians would manufacture the magnets and assemble beamlines.

Photo from its heyday.

And today.

The first building we looked at was once used to house gigantic dewars holding liquid nitrogen to keep the superconducting magnets cold.

Today all of the equipment has been removed, leaving only deep pits behind.

At one end of the building was a long room that was once used to test the long beam lines.

Today, not much is left.

Outside we were able to climb and get a higher vantage point.

Derelict equipment was all over the place.

The old interior of the Magnet Development Laboratory where technicians coiled superconducting niobium wires to make powerful magnets.

Once again, very little remains.

Huge augers and drilling machines bore miles of tunnels underground.

These old access points have long been filled in.

Here is where our journey to the depths of the lab came to an end. Inside the last building we explored, giant old fans generators now lay idle that once would have been used to circulate air along the tunnels provide backup power in the event of a blackout.

We weren't able to make our way into the tunnels, but they're largely filled in now. Six inches of water lay at the bottom of one staircase leading down to what looks like an old circuit breaker room. The underground sections of the complex are beneath the water table. If water level was this high this close to the surface, the tunnels that were far deeper underground are almost certainly filled with water.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Khan Academy -- Virtual Cliffs Notes for Math & Physics (& More!)

Have you ever been stumped by the nuances of your physics, statistics or calculus books? Maybe having a better understanding of some of the basics that never quite sunk in would help.

[Joshua A. Dijksman gave a talk earlier this week about the Khan Academy at the 2011 APS March Meeting.]

Earlier in the week, Joshua A. Dijksman gave a talk about the Khan Academy -- a website that offers a "free world-class education for anyone anywhere," according to the site. The Academy's most prominent feature is its video library consisting of over 2,100 educational videos.

Like a sort of online collection of Cliffs Notes for hard-to-grasp subjects, the video library includes videos that are about 10 minutes long each covering about 40 subjects including physics, developmental math, calculus, statistics, differential equations and many more. During each video, a narrator simultaneously explains concepts while drawing pictures or equations on a computer sketch pad.

The videos
are educational, so they can be difficult to swallow, but if you've ever had a tough time getting a concept down pat, they just might do the trick. It's worth a try. Here's a sample video on fluids:

[A sample educational video from the Khan Academy.]

In addition to the video library, the website offers math practice exercises that can be done online by students who can keep track of their own progress. Teachers can monitor the students' progress online as well.

According to Dijksman's presentation blurb, the Academy's goal is "to allow educators to improve their teaching, but above all to bring simple, rewarding and enjoyable education to the minds of many young students."
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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Robotic Re-creation of Philip K. Dick

David Hanson is a part-time engineer, part-time artist and full-time lover of artificial intelligence. He, along with his robot reincarnation of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, made the rounds today at the APS March Meeting in Dallas.

["Phil," Hanson's robotic re-creation of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick propped up in the last row, startled passers-by with his human looks and his brain of wires.]

Hanson said he chose to make an analogue of Dick because, in his writings, Dick portrayed robots that came to life and thought they were human.

[Audience members turn to get a look at Phil, Hanson's robot that was propped up in the last row, who blended in with the rest of the crowd. On the screen at the front of the room is a photo of the original Phil who was accidentally left in an airplane overhead and lost forever, Hanson said.]

[Phil, Hanson's android that was propped up in the last row, appears to watch his creator's presentation during a morning session at the 2011 APS March Meeting.]

Creating Phil's skin was a challenge for Hanson.

"We found that solid rubber material just didn't have the same physics as facial soft tissue because facial soft tissue is mostly liquid." Hanson explained that when you touch your face, the liquid molecules in your skin rearrange themselves to move out of the way. When you touch rubber, it simply compresses. To make the robot's skin more realistic, Hanson created a new fluid-filled porous material he calls "frubber." The material helps the robot's expressions to be more accurate and realistic.

[In addition to Phil, Hanson has also created an Einstein robot.]

Though at a glance the robot didn't appear to have very soft skin, in fact, Phil's skin was alarmingly realistic. Think of a slightly-moist angel food cake or a cross between a memory-foam bed and a sponge. Phil made an appearance in the press room in the afternoon. Several journalists took turns squeaking and shrieking after delicately touching Phil's surprisingly human-like facial skin.

[One journalist takes a close-up of Phil on his smart phone.]

Hanson hopes that by 2020, robots will be at the same intelligence level as humans, able to do the same daily tasks that we do like cracking jokes and paying bills. To help spur on progress and meet his goal, Hanson created the Apollo Mind Initiative to promote collaboration between robot makers.

[Phil looked every bit like a human, until you saw the back of his head.]

If Hanson's dream comes true and robots are rivaling humans ten years from now, it's anyone's guess whether they remain peaceful co-inhabitants or whether they bring on the dreaded robot revolution. Which might it be? Perhaps Philip K. Dick can provide some insight...

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Opening Day at the APS March Meeting

Today is day one of the annual APS March Meeting, held this year in Dallas, Texas. Here are some sights and sounds from the first day of the meeting.

[Just after breakfast, meeting attendees checked in at the pre-registered booths.]

[APS' Mike Lucibella leads speaks about "How to Talk Science to Homer Simpson" during one of the first sessions of the day.]

[Meeting attendees take advantage of large window ledges and free wi-fi at the Dallas Convention Center.]

[A look from above in one of the convention centers open gathering areas.]

[Some attendees gather in the afternoon Dallas sunshine between sessions.]

[APS' Becky Thompson talks about comic books at the APS outreach booth.]

[Speaker Walt deHeer from the Georgia Institute of Technology is interviewed by journalists from the Institute of Physics for]

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Professor Splash Sets a New World Record

Yesterday, in Norway, U.S. professional stunt diver Darren Taylor, a.k.a. Professor Splash, broke his own Guinness world record when he dove 36 ft (about 11 meters) into a shallow children's pool filled with only 12 inches (about 30.5 cm) of water.

In the video, you can see that Professor Splash does, basically, a belly flop into the pool. Though it looks painful, it's essential to his surviving the feat.

Doing a belly flop helped to distribute the pressure of the impact more equally across his body so that no one area received an extreme amount of pressure.The same thing happens when an airbag deploys during a car crash. The airbag makes contact with a large part of your body and helps to distribute the pressure more equally. Had the professor done a cannon ball, the pressure of the water would have acted on a much smaller area and packed a more targeted punch, just like a seatbelt restrains you along one line across your chest during a sudden stop. While a seatbelt helps keep you in place during a quick stomp on the brakes, it works in conjunction with the airbag to prevent injury during a collision.

Though 12 inches of water is not much, it was also critical to cushioning the impact of Professor Splash's flop. The water helped distribute the force of the impact over a longer distance, breaking his fall rather than stopping him immediately like an impact on concrete would. In addition to the 12 inches of water, the professor also had some padding beneath the wading pool to provide extra cushion. You can see the padding bowing a bit when he lands in the pool.

Though it's an impressive stunt, it's also deadly. So don't try this one at home!

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

2011 March Meeting Videos & Images

The 2011 APS March Meeting, an annual meeting held every - you guessed it - March, starts next Monday in Dallas! Almost 7,000 speakers will give talks on everything from statistical and non-linear physics to fluids to biological physics to physics in education and more.

Check out some of the prettiest pictures and most exciting videos to be featured in talks at the upcoming meeting in the Virtual Press Room Image Gallery & Video Gallery.

Here are a few samples from the galleries:

Syrup Falling on Waffles
This computer simulation shows how a thick fluid behaves when falling on a moving conveyor belt. It also simulates the extremely complicated movement of hair and shows how a gooey fluid would behave when draped over objects, like syrup being poured on waffles.

Swimming Diode
A diode is an object that conducts electric current in only one direction. Powering a diode with an alternating current (AC) electric field causes the diode in this video to pump water over its surface, propelling it back and forth on the water surface. Modifying the AC field causes the diode to change direction.

Atomic Transistors
This microscopic image of the surface of gallium arsenide (GaAs) shows how the arrangement of atoms on the GaAs surface affects its electric field. The image illustrates the manipulation of individual atoms to allow for very precise tuning of the characteristics of GaAs-based transistors.

Four Qubits on One Chip
This computer chip includes four superconducting qubits that comprise a quantum mechanical version of a computer microprocessor. Quantum computers, once created, are expected to be able to solve various problems that are far too difficult to be handled by conventional computers.

First Superconducting Magnet
The world’s first superconducting magnet, consisting of a wire coil made of lead, was manufactured in the Leiden (The Netherlands) Physics Laboratory in 1912. Superconductivity had been discovered the year before, in 1911, by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in mercury cooled to -269 degrees Celsius. This year marks the centennial of the discovery of superconductors.

Visit the 2011 image gallery and video gallery to see more videos and images from this year's March Meeting!
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